Ruth Lawrence Doering, a dancer who performed with the New York City Ballet on its opening night, in 1948, watched a 40-foot projection of a modern-day ballerina, dancing in slow motion in a white tutu.
“Look at this, the technique hasn’t changed,” Doering said, imitating on-screen dancer Unity Phelan as she raised her arms upward. “But have we always done it like this? Questionable.”
Doering was among the oldest of more than 300 current and former City Ballet dancers at the David H. Koch Theater Monday evening who gathered to celebrate the founding of the company 75 years ago by Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine and the patron and writer. Lincoln Kirstein. (Doering hesitated when asked to share his age, saying, “When I’m 100, I’ll say it everyone.“)
Among the guests inside the theater, on the marble promenade, were former stars like Suzanne Farrell, Patricia McBride, Allegra Kent and Darci Kistler — ballerinas considered Balanchine’s muses — and dancers who are no longer not even born in the same century as Balanchine, who died in 1983.
Edward Villella, 86, one of the country’s most famous male ballet stars, whose career at City Ballet began under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and ended under President Jimmy Carter, held his courtyard as young dancers approached him.
“He’s been one of my greatest heroes since I could even look at photos,” exclaimed Edwaard Liang, a former company member and now artistic director of BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio.
There were also the leaders who succeeded Balanchine. Peter Martins, the ballet master who retired in 2018 under a cloud of misconduct allegations, was warmly welcomed by many of his former dancers. Jonathan Stafford, the company’s current artistic director, and Wendy Whelan, its associate artistic director, who tracked down many of the participants on the Internet to extend an invitation, were the hosts of the party.
What they all seemed to share was a respect for Balanchine – or Mr. B, as his dancers called him – and a commitment to carrying on his legacy, even if they didn’t always agree on the best ways to do it.
Even though he’s no longer there, “he’s still a force,” said Farrell, 78, who joined the company in the early 1960s, originating some of the company’s most vaunted roles. history of American ballet, notably in the “Diamonds” section of Balanchine’s “Jewels”. ,” which is scheduled to open the company’s fall season on Tuesday. “Her company and her choreography are always an indicator of where I think ballet wants to go.”
City Ballet is celebrating this milestone as it emerges from a period of tumult. First, the company was rocked by Martins’ retirement amid accusations of sexual harassment and physical and verbal abuse. (He denied the allegations, and an investigation did not corroborate them.) This, along with a nude photo-sharing scandal involving several male dancers, became an early test of the #MeToo movement. Then the global pandemic robbed the company of more than a year of performances, while a national reassessment of diversity and racial equity in the arts thrust the mostly white company into the spotlight.
Under new leadership, City Ballet returned to the stage with a strengthened commitment to diversifying its ranks, overhauling what Stafford described as a “fear-based work ethic” and striving to attract more audiences. young by hiring pop culture figures – Solange Knowles contributed a score. – in the creation of new works.
Silas Farley, a former company member turned dance instructor, described the effort to balance the old work and the new as a compromise between “reverence and revelation.”
“The collective memory, the embodied archives of this whole company are in the bodies of these people who are here,” Farley said, observing the party as the dancers sipped wine and chose hors d’oeuvres from trays. including some of Balanchine’s favorite recipes. , like miniature meatballs. (Most of the recipes came from “The Ballet Cook Book,” by Tanaquil Le Clercq, a City Ballet dancer who was the choreographer’s fourth and final wife.)
City Ballet’s collective memory contains quite a few conflicts, and on Monday, some former (or current) adversaries crossed paths – or avoided each other altogether.
At the bar, Farrell greeted Martins, who had fired her from the company in 1993 after her retirement from performing.
And Amar Ramasar, a former principal fired for his involvement in the photo-sharing scandal and then reinstated after a union challenge, squeezed into a crowd dotted with dancers upset by his return. Ramasar, who left the company on his own terms, had arrived from North Carolina, where his new job includes coaching work for Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. He was with Alexa Maxwell, who had been a corps dancer and Ramasar’s girlfriend when he shared explicit photos of her with other male dancers; she is now a soloist and his fiancée.
“I feel like everyone wants a fresh start,” Maxwell said of the company’s tumultuous years. “Everyone wants to go back to work and dance. »
Amid the kisses and hugs, there were dancers like Ashley Bouder, who strove to challenge traditions ingrained in a male-dominated world of ballet leadership, including intense pressures on female dancers to that they are very thin. And there were women of an older generation, like Doering, who laughingly recalled being told they were “too fat” to be ballerinas.
There were dancers and administrators eager to diversify the repertoire, and others who doubted whether the future held anything better for them than their founding choreographer.
“To try find another Balanchine,” Villella ventured.
Yet among the company’s current members, there was a sense of enchantment for the past.
Gasping over an ornate lace costume worn by McBride in Balanchine’s “Imperial Ballet,” Isabella LaFreniere, a newly promoted principal dancer, said, “I wish our tutus still looked like that!”