- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2005

If the past is prologue, the 60-year-old Washington Ballet has a more than a shining future. Past and present mingled at the institution’s anniversary gala Tuesday at the Kennedy Center, with several generations of dancers celebrating traditions set by Mary Day, who founded the region’s premier ballet school six decades ago.

Miss Day, well into her 90s, could not be present, but the audience in the Eisenhower Theater was amply reminded of her contributions to the world of dance. First, Artistic Director Septime Webre recalled how the school and its affiliated company evolved from its beginnings in the late 1940s to its current international standing and expanded outreach programs in local public schools.

To prove his point, he “improvised” a zany bit of choreography by calling dozens of suitably dressed young student ballerinas onstage to prove how “dancing expresses feelings and emotions in ways words cannot” with takes on getting up in the morning, eating cereal, feeding a cat and brushing one’s teeth.

Words lost out somewhat, too, when gala co-chairwoman Sheri Rosenfeld made her entrance partnered in a fetching salsa routine. (The former professional dancer was slightly breathless in her opening remarks.) No explanation was needed, either, for the corps de ballet’s exquisite show of talent in selected excepts from its current repertoire, including Mr. Webre’s new version of “The Nutcracker” and “Romeo and Juliet,” the latter at the Kennedy Center through Sunday.

An articulate and expressive Mikhail Baryshnikov, recipient of the Mary Day Award for Lifetime Contribution to the Arts, spoke for many when he hailed Miss Day as “one of the grandes dames of dance education.”

The master dancer, actor and entrepreneur, whose Baryshnikov Arts Center will open this fall in New York, then delivered an impassioned appeal for arts education, calling it “as important, if not more important, than most of the current preoccupations of our politicians.

“Yes, we are mighty strong, but let’s be sure our young people know enough about music, dance, theater and poetry to understand how the power of art can guide them in their life,” he said.

Washington Ballet School alumna Chelsea Clinton, the evening’s honorary patron, called herself “representative of thousands of students who have passed through Miss Day’s studios,” even though she wasn’t “as blessed as Amanda McKerrow,” a former company member who is a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre. Miss Clinton noted that her exposure to dance was “not only an aesthetic and athletic outlet, but an emotional one, as well,” giving her the discipline to pursue dreams elsewhere.

The performance had a magic all its own, right up to the moment when 1,000 silver and purple balloons cascaded down over the heads of 200 company members and student dancers whooping it up onstage for the finale. “Only a complete cynic couldn’t smile at that,” the very pleased Mr. Webre said later.

Guests included many former dance students in Washington and elsewhere, among them Rep. Jane Harman, who said before the post-performance dinner-dance in the Atrium that though she “wasn’t terribly good at it,” the experience taught her “breathing and how to stand.”

Ballet officials were protective of the sometimes prickly Mr. Baryshnikov, who seemed affable enough — especially if admirers didn’t expect too much in the way of prolonged conversation. Onlookers held their breath when Rima al-Sabah, wife of the Kuwaiti ambassador, exclaimed that she was “heartbroken” to discover he wouldn’t be dancing that night, but Mr. Baryshnikov, who turned 57 in January, just laughed.

The occasion offered every one of the 500 formally clad diners a chance to exhibit his or her own dance magic as the ear-splitting Free Spirit orchestra and singers shook the room with retro rock and disco rhythms.

“Everyone was so excited about the performance, you could see the euphoria on their faces and, later, feel it on the dance floor as they were boogieing down and having fun,” said ballet President Kay Kendall, who reported that the event raised about $200,000 for operating expenses.

News that the company had been forced to call off its first foreign trip in five years because of a dispute with dancers union representatives over per diem meal expenses nonetheless dampened a few spirits.

“I’m heartbroken the dancers won’t have the experience of performing in such prestigious and magical venues,” Mrs. Kendall said of the canceled July Italian tour.

A few patrons and trustees were upset that company members had insisted on $150 a day for food, especially because breakfast was already included with the hotel. (The ballet’s last offer was $55 a day.)

“The dancers cut off their noses to spite their faces,” one disgruntled supporter said. “Now, instead of having a fabulous trip and adding prestigious engagements to their resumes, they’re going to sit home and collect unemployment.”

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