At City Ballet's 75th birthday bash, a mingling of old and new
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At City Ballet's 75th birthday bash, a mingling of old and new
Wendy Whelan, the New York City Ballet’s associate artistic director, with guests at the David H. Koch Theater in New York on Monday, Sept. 18, 2023. Stars like Suzanne Farrell and Edward Villella celebrated alongside dancers of today, many born years after the death of George Balanchine, the company’s revered founder. (Lanna Apisukh/The New York Times)

by Julia Jacobs

NEW YORK, NY.- Ruth Lawrence Doering, a dancer who performed with New York City Ballet on its opening night, in 1948, peered up at a 40-foot projection of a modern-day ballerina, dancing in slow motion in a white tutu.

“Look at that, the technique hasn’t changed,” said Doering, mimicking the dancer onscreen, Unity Phelan, as she floated her arms upward. “But did we always do it like that? Questionable.”

Doering was among the oldest of more than 300 current and former City Ballet dancers at the David H. Koch Theater on Monday night who had gathered to celebrate the company’s founding 75 years ago by Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine and arts patron and writer Lincoln Kirstein. (Doering demurred when asked to share her age, declaring, “When I’m 100, I’ll tell everyone.”)

Among the guests inside the theater, on the marbled promenade, were former stars like Suzanne Farrell, Patricia McBride, Allegra Kent and Darci Kistler — ballerinas considered to have been Balanchine’s muses — and dancers who were not even born in the same century as Balanchine, who died in 1983.

Edward Villella, 86, one of the country’s most celebrated male ballet stars, whose City Ballet career started during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower and ended in Jimmy Carter’s, held court as younger dancers approached him.

“He’s been one of my biggest heroes since I could even look at pictures,” gushed Edwaard Liang, a former company member who is now artistic director of BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio.

Also there were the leaders who succeeded Balanchine. Peter Martins, the ballet master in chief who retired in 2018 under a cloud of misconduct allegations, was received warmly 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 attendees on the internet to extend an invitation, were the party’s hosts.

What they all seemed to share was a reverence for Balanchine — or Mr. B, as his dancers called him — and a commitment to continue his legacy, though they have not always agreed on the best ways to do so.

Though he is gone, “he still is a force,” said Farrell, 78, who joined the company in the early 1960s, originating some of the most vaunted roles in American ballet history, including in the “Diamonds” section of Balanchine’s “Jewels,” which is set to open the company’s fall season Tuesday. “His company and his choreography are still a yardstick for where I believe ballet wants to go.”

City Ballet celebrates 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.) That, along with a nude-photo-sharing scandal involving several male dancers, became an early test of the #MeToo movement. Then, the pandemic robbed the company of more than a year of performances, while a national reassessment of diversity and racial equity in the arts put the majority-white company under a harsh spotlight.

Under new leadership, City Ballet returned to the stage with a strengthened commitment to diversifying its ranks, overhauling what Stafford has described as a “fear-based work ethic” and working to attract younger audiences by engaging pop culture figures — Solange Knowles contributed a score — in creating new work.

Silas Farley, a former company member who is now a dance educator, described the effort to balance old work and new as a give and take between “reverence and revelation.”

“The collective memory, the embodied archive, of this whole company is in the bodies of these people who are here,” Farley said, surveying the party as dancers sipped wine and picked hors d’oeuvres off trays that included 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 has contained a fair bit of strife, and on Monday, some former (or current) adversaries crossed paths — or avoided each other entirely.

Over by the bar, Farrell greeted Martins, who had dismissed her from the company in 1993 after her retirement from the stage.

And Amar Ramasar, a former principal who was fired for his involvement in the photo-sharing scandal, then reinstated after a challenge from the union, wove through a crowd dotted with dancers who had been upset by his return. Ramasar, who left the company on his own terms, had flown in from North Carolina, where his new job includes coaching works by 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 get back to work and to dance.”

Amid the cheek-kissing and the embracing, there were dancers like Ashley Bouder, who has worked to challenge the ingrained traditions in a male-dominated world of ballet leadership, including intense pressures on female dancers to be rail thin. And there were women of an older generation, like Doering, who recalled with a laugh being told that they were “too fat” to be ballerinas.

There were dancers and administrators who were eager to diversify the repertory, and those who doubted that the future held anything better than their founding choreographer.

“Try to find another Balanchine,” Villella dared.

Still, among current company members there was a sense of enchantment with the past.

Gasping at a lacy, adorned costume worn by McBride in Balanchine’s “Ballet Imperial,” Isabella LaFreniere, a newly promoted principal dancer, said: “I wish our tutus still looked like that!”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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