Around 8 p.m. on Wednesday night at the New York City Ballet's spring gala at Lincoln Center, an older fellow in a leather jacket accessorized with a severe combover settled into a center orchestra seat he hadn’t occupied during the first act. Binoculars in his lap (a clear indication that he was knowingly in the wrong section), he glanced to his left, realizing he had plopped down next to Diane Sawyer. The man rose a few inches in his posture, beamed at the ABC journalist (she, though diplomatic, was less enthused), and continued to enjoy his now star-studded spot.
“That takes chutzpah,” I remarked to my seatmate, as we both gawked.
“That’s New York,” he shrugged.
A more elegant display of New York chutzpah was celebrated at the ballet that night. The program included Jerome Robbins’ "Rain" (performed in honor of board chairman Jay Fishman), Alexei Ratmansky’s "Concerto DSCH" and the world premiere of "Mothership" from French choreographer Nicolas Blanc. And for the finale? "American Rhapsody" from the celebrated Christopher Wheeldon, set to George Gershwin’s iconic "Rhapsody in Blue."
It marked a homecoming of sorts for Wheeldon and one of the piece’s dancers Robbie Fairchild, as both men are fresh off a bold Broadway run of "An American in Paris" (which Wheeldon choreographed and in which Fairchild starred). As Peter Martins, NYCB’s ballet master in chief, noted at the start of the dinner that followed, Wheeldon was “the prodigal son returned.”
“I feel like I’m back in my day job. And Broadway is my moonlighting,” said Wheeldon, who jumped at the chance to continue his work with Gershwin by tackling "Rhapsody in Blue." “It was intimidating doing this because it’s maybe the most famous piece in American classical music. It’s such a joyous piece and I wanted to express that… [but] my next ballet will not be Gershwin!”
Fairchild, for his part, missed one key aspect of the theatrical world.
“It felt weird to be doing the opening of [the ballet] having not had previews. It’s something I got so used to in the past year. Being thrown back into the New York City Ballet, it’s such a vibrant energetic life force that you just get swept back into and it feels exhilarating. You feel so alive and never know how it’s going to go,” he enthused, noting yet another crucial distinction between the Great White Way and Lincoln Center. “I was in tights and ballet shoes, so that definitely felt different.”
Others were experiencing less of a return to familiarity than a rare treat.
“I don’t get to the ballet nearly as much as I would like to. I just love the opportunity to escape the world,” said actress Blythe Danner, explaining she almost didn’t make it given her heavy work schedule: she stars in season two of Bravo’s "Odd Mom Ou"t as the mother of Jill Kargman’s character Jill Weber. How did she land the gig? “I was so pushy! I saw her on the street and she was a friend of my daughter’s [Gwyneth Paltrow]--they went to Spence together. And I said, ‘I love your show and I want to be on it.’ And she said, ‘Really?’”
It doesn’t get more New York than that.