Is art a welcome respite during times of extreme upheaval, or a trivial enterprise when monumental events are occurring around us? That was the question lurking on the minds of attendees at the School of American Ballet’s (SAB) Monday night March 9, 2020 gala at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center.
This annual Winter Ball is one of the premier events of the year, and there was a palpable apprehension amongst the crowd, many of whom had flown in from Texas to join chairs Sally Shreeves and Phoebe Tudor, and London – none of whom were wearing masks or gloves. While over 350 guests paid $1,500 a ticket, there were at least 80 no-shows due to the environment of fear created by what is now becoming a pandemic.
As I stood in the lobby of one of the most revered cultural institutions in the world, I had an instant flashback to 2015 when this gala was with Peter Martins at the helm of the School, David Koch one of the honored guests, and Chelsea Clinton smiling broadly at the thought of her mother’s imminent presidential run.
Much has transpired since then – as the #MeToo movement has obliterated the career of the inimitable Peter Martins, David Koch has succumbed to prostate cancer, and Hillary Clinton has become a footnote in political history — even if she does have a documentary on Hulu.
The days of a statuesque Martins waltzing through the halls of Lincoln Center or dancing with the young SAB students after this dinner are gone. Thankfully, there were some surviving attendees, including Jean Shafiroff in a sweeping Oscar gown that was nothing short of heavenly – with her hair pulled back, and her leather gloves prominent the “Gone with the Wind” effect was complete.
Jill Kargman in Chanel, Liz Peek in a black-and-white flowered gown along with TK Wonder in a dramatic Alice and Olivia getup raised the fashion quotient along with hundreds of other perfectly clad ladies. The elegance of the night was undeniable and so was the uneven temperament of edgy guests.
However, no matter the surrounding environment, the importance of the 1,000 students ages 6-18 who receive financial aid from the funds garnered at this event is indisputable. Consequently, it was a bit disappointing when current SAB Artistic Director Jonathan Stafford announced that only $975,000 had been raised. At 8 PM guests headed to the second-floor hall for dinner and dancing in a room replete with topiaries designed by Ron Wendt Planners.
The evening began with emcee and actress Julianna Margulies recounting her mother and sister’s extraordinary experience as students of SAB. SAB was founded 86 years ago by giants George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein and continues to be the preeminent ballet school in the US. Margulies said her 85-year-old mother had decided not to attend due to the danger of the virus in the elderly population. She recalled the faculty members of SAB leaving an indelible impression on her mother due to their dedication and expertise.
A short film depicting the teachers in action was less exciting than expected. These teachers are masters of their art form, and that was hardly represented. The vegetarian dinner of branzino and artichoke is a new and welcomed trend of omitting meat from gala dinners, especially when executed to perfection as it was this evening.
The highlight of the night was the young dancers who regaled the crowd with an 11-minute performance that was lively and heartfelt. Choreographed by former alumnus Gilbert Bolden III, the enthusiastic youngsters displayed a refreshing naivete. That is what this art form is all about. The trend of man-on-man partnering was used to full effect. However, it was the sheer exuberance of the group that was the most enchanting.
At 9:45 PM, the DJ started spinning relaxed tunes as the dancers took to the stage – they later described the evening’s performance as both exhilarating and nerve-wracking.
A sentiment I could not agree with more.