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Monday, March 11, 2013

Dance Double Feature

Straight to the Barre Dept.: Once upon a time, dance was a vital component of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. The amphitheater was built so that the stage would replicate that of the NY State Theater, home of the New York City Ballet, and, beginning in 1966, the company spent three weeks each summer in residence there. That, of course, was before the current crew of pecksniffs and poltroons took over the running of SPAC, and dance there has declined to an embarrassing degree. Here’s a pair of pieces I wrote in 1985, two years after the death of George Balanchine. Patricia McBride is now associate artistic director of Charlotte’s North Carolina Dance Theatre; Sean Lavery recently retired from NYCB and the School of American Ballet.


Patricia McBride with Edward Villella
EVEN BEFORE WORK BEGAN on the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Patricia McBride had danced in the area. “Edward Villella and I performed up at Skidmore College when they were making plans for the center,” she says. “I got to see what was on paper, and it all seemed pretty fantastic. But not as fantastic as seeing it actually get built!”

When the New York City Ballet arrived for SPAC’s first season in 1966, McBride recalls, she danced in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the piece that will open this year’s season – SPAC’s 20th.

“I’ve seen such growth about the place,” McBride told me in a recent interview. “In more ways than one. I remember the first year there, the trees at the entrance had just been planted, and they were tiny little babies. At the same time, the audiences weren’t as large as they are now: that’s a huge place by New York City standards, with something like 5,000 seats in the amphitheater, and I remember times when it wasn’t even half full.

“Now the audience fills the amphitheater and the lawn, and I’ve noticed that audiences know a lot more about the company and about ballet – it’s not at all as elitist as it once was,” McBride says.

Dancing at SPAC did present some problems at first. “We were there before the sides were built in the amphitheater,” McBride recalls, “and I remember a performance of Harlequinade during which the rain was blowing in on the audience so much that the performance was canceled after the first act.

“There was another summer that was unusually cold, and there was no heating backstage. So Mr. Balanchine purchased blankets for all of the dancers, beautiful green blankets on which he had all of the dancers’ names sewn. In keeping with the Saratoga spirit, he invented all horse-related  names for us: mine was ‘McBride Pat.’ Mr. B. had a great time making up those names. I have to tell you that the annual trip to Saratoga was one of his favorite times of the year.”

Like many a summer resident, McBride bought a house in the area, which she and her husband maintained for several years. “We sold it a while back because it got to be too much to care for,” she explains, “especially as we were using it only for three or four weeks every summer. This year we’ll rent a place, and I’m going to bring my two children with me, too. It’s wonderful for all of us to be able to spend time among the trees and in the fresh air.

“Of course, when you’re a dancer, as long as you’re performing, you’re not really on vacation,” McBride offers. “The three weeks at SPAC are a working time for the company, but the environment does make the work so much more enjoyable.”

Will she be dancing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when it opens the new season at SPAC? “I hope so,” says McBride. “It’s my favorite ballet, and Divertissement is number two But I won’t know what I’ll be dancing in Saratoga until just before I get there; we never know what we’re in until about a week before it happens.”

Metroland Magazine, 16 May 1985


FOLLOWING REHEARSAL, Sean Lavery spent the day playing badminton and, in anticipation of the evening performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he took a nap. Opening night for the New York City Ballet at SPAC took place the day before and he and Heather Watts had danced the beautiful “Divertissement” in Midsummer’s second act; the two would repeat it in a couple of hours. It would seem like the best kind of working vacation you could have, but, admits Lavery, for a dancer, the accent is on work.

Sean Lavery. Photo by Kyle Froman.
“This summer’s a little easier on me,” he says. “Last year we brought the hardest ballets and it seemed like I was onstage every night.”

Lavery has been getting a lot of exposure and attention lately, the result of the tremendous skill and accomplishment he brings to his art. His work with the New York City Ballet earlier this year, at their regular-season home in Lincoln Center, prompted more than one critic to name him the best male dancer at work in this country today.

His enthusiasm for ballet is obvious in everything he says. It’s a career he chose to follow when he was ten, growing up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. He was inspired by a ballet performance at a local high school and began studies with a local teacher, Marcia Dale Weary, who also taught some of his fellow NYCB dancers.

There were sacrifices: Lavery says that he’s finally living his childhood now, for instance. And school was a problem. “When I was studying ballet I was the only boy in my class – I was certainly the only boy in my school, for that matter – who was doing that. It was rough. I think today it’s much more accepted; people aren’t as ignorant of it. But kids are kind of mean anyway, especially 13-year-olds, who you just want to ship off somewhere until they get a grip on life.” He laughs as he reminisces about adolescence. “My parents told me, ‘Look, if you really want to dance, you’re going to have to put up with a lot of garbage. I did. I got into fights. There were those days I came walking home with a bloody nose, and other kids were walking home with a bloody nose from me. It was a struggle.”

His parents were very supportive throughout his training, thanks in part to a family interest in theater. “My father does community theater. He just finished acting in a play in Pennsylvania, and he also directs plays. My aunts are also in plays, and my oldest sister and my brother-in-law do community theater too, so there’s quite a bit of ham in the blood.” Nevertheless, Lavery kept his own aspirations a secret from friends. “I hid it for so long, and then one day a girl who came over to play found ballet shoes in my bedroom and the secret was out.”

SPAC audiences will see Lavery in several different ballets for the remainder of the NYCB season here. During Friday’s Gala, he will dance the Saratoga premiere of Balanchine’s Gounod Symphony; he is also slated to appear in performances of Eight Lines (another Saratoga premiere), Square Dance and the newly refurbished Firebird. “This Firebird is great,” he says. “They put back the old section that Mr. B. did for Maria Talchieff. He’s done a few versions over the years, but there’s been very little record of them. This revival was done with the help of Violette  Verdy and Francisco Moncion, and a film that Violette made of herself dancing it.”

Jerome Robbins acted as overall supervisor of this project, which Balanchine first presented in 1949 and changed over the years, mostly to accommodate the various dancers who have performed the title role. According to notes in the NYCB program, the ballet was first conceived by Diaghilev and Stravinsky as a visual and musical accompaniment to paintings by Chagall; accordingly, the scenery and costumes in this revival are more faithful to the Chagall originals.

Eight Lines had its world premiere last winter; Jerome Robbins choreographed it to music by Steve Reich who, with fellow minimalist composer Philip Glass, has been receiving a lot of ballet-world attention lately. The latter is represented in the NYCB repertory with Glass Pieces, another Robbins work. Says Lavery, “We in the company have this feeling that these are important new composers, like Stravinsky in 1910.” He stresses the importance of continuing to break new ground in the Balanchine tradition. “It’s a real challenge, carrying on. But we’re going in new directions and it’s challenging work. The new music can be very hard. The Steve Reich piece was more difficult than the Glass, for instance, because even though they’re both minimalist composers, the Reich is even more repetitious. There are fewer places for us to recognize key changes, so you count wildly and if you get off it’s more difficult to get back. The Reich was hard to put together.”

A loudspeaker in the green room announces the half-hour before Midsummer is slated to begin, and Lavery starts for the dressing rooms. Writing in The New Yorker, Arlene Croce described him as “tall, strong, angelically correct, he is perhaps the finest example of the pure danseur-noble type to have been produced by American schooling in a generation.” But he’s much more modest than you’d expect one so highly lauded to be, and is quick to pay tribute to his teachers and fellow dancers. Lavery also makes no secret of the hard work that was necessary to get him where he is. “Right now it’s like all the work is finally paying off,” he laughs. “It’s like somebody finally said, ‘All right – here!’” He gestures a deft, lithe payoff; even that little gesture shows the essence of his skill.

Metroland Magazine, 11 July 1985

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