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Opening night galas at the great ballet companies like New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater usually feature speeches, several pas de deux and an excerpt from a new ballet. After you’ve attended a few, checking out the chic audience of well-heeled donors (who pay between $1,500 and $2,500 for the show and dinner) is almost as much fun as watching the pretty, albeit insubstantial, sampler on stage. But last night American Ballet Theater at the Metropolitan Opera House pulled out all the stops to introduce its upcoming 8 week season. Yes, they offered a few too many pas de deux, still it is always dazzling to see elegant, high-flying Angel Corella in the “La Corsaire” pas de trois, and ravishing Diana Vishneva even in an excerpt from the lushly romantic “Romeo and Juliet.”

 Even greater pleasures were to be had. In a coup for American Ballet Theater, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama acted as Honorary Chairs of the Gala. Though only the First Lady attended – after a day in which she also spoke at the opening of a part of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art – her presence was more than enough to have the whole theater buzzing.  And not without justification. Elegant and at ease, she spoke of the importance of the arts, saying they define who we are as a people, and urging their support. It was a short, simple speech (link to New York Times story below) that said everything, most importantly indicating where she and her husband’s passions lie. For everyone who hopes this administration will be more supportive of the arts, this couldn’t have been a better sign.

 The dance highlight of the evening should have been the piece d’occasion, “Waltz Masquerade,” set to music by Adam Khachaturian and created by the golden boy of ballet Alexei Ratmansky, the company’s new choreographer in residence, for the beautiful Nina Ananiashvili, who retires this season.  He has Ananiashvili flying here and there across the stage, glamorous in a red dress and dramatic cloak, while four men stand at attention holding elaborate candelabra. Eventually, they put them down and rush to please her, all to no avail. Though slightly amusing – the four men were principals not corps members – it had no substance, even as a vehicle for her glorious talents.

 The most touching moments of the night occurred in the “Preghiera” from Balanchine’s “Mozartiana,” set to Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 4m, Op 61. Solemn and delicate, the dance expresses a simple tenderness and spirituality rare in the entire ballet repertory. Though principal dancer Veronika Part seemed only to be imitating those emotions, the beauty of the piece was not lost. For the first time, members of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School performed in the Metropolitan Opera House stage, which must be like kids making their debuts at Carnegie Hall. Dancing to a nicely- designed, exuberant work by Raymond Lukens, to music by Luigi Boccherini, they showed they were well up to the occasion. A great success for the only five year old dance school, associated with ABT.

 Another “Piece d’Occasion,” the famed jazz pianist Herbie Hancock performing an original piece, with principals Jose Manuel Carreno and Stella Abrera, appeared  unfinished, a trifle best quickly forgotten. But such miscalculations only made  the thrills of the finale of Balanchine’s masterpiece “Theme and Variations,” set to the music of Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky, all the more exciting. Framed by pillars, crystal chandeliers hanging overhead, the amazing 26 dancers fully conveyed the dance’s great sweep and depth of invention. Seeing the extraordinary quality of these dancers – particularly Danil Simkin in the lead – makes one thankful that no matter what the circumstances, artists will give their hearts and souls over to their art.  That’s what we will always connect with.


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George Balanchine
Herbie Hancock


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