Sunday, April 29, 2007

You knew the minute you arrived at the National Building Museum that the Washington Ballet’s Nocha Latina Gala was going to be a lot of fun. Starting off with a Mexican mariachi band at the door, Friday’s festivities continued inside, where ebullient guests were soon salsa stepping after sipping mojitos, daiquiris, cuba libres and other rum concoctions.

Patrons (at $500 a pop) dressed for the occasion. Kay Heller (wife of Washington Ballet board member Rod Heller) wore a big red rose behind one ear and her grandmother’s gorgeous hand-embroidered silk shawl from Havana. Ellen Noghes, the blonde American wife of the new ambassador of Monaco, chose black with a playful feather skirt; Arturo Brillembourg, celebrating a birthday, looked just right in a white wool suit (tropical weight, to be sure); Claudia Zucker chose a red, orange and hot pink Christian Lacroix ensemble and Debbie Sigmund looked “really good” in her lipstick red, strapless hour-glass silk with a ruffle trail, perfect for a tango.

And tango would have been just right for honorary diplomatic patron Jose Octavio “Pilo” Bordon, the live-wire Argentine ambassador (wife Monica was home for a wedding). “I love to dance,” he said during a quick pause from floor duty. “We may not be one of the biggest or richest countries, but we know how to live, how to have fun.”

Tiger print-clad Kay Kendall, the Ballet’s immediate past president and current interim executive director, loved Jack Lucky’s tropical baby palm centerpieces and Occasion’s clever menu (shrimp and mango parfait, tenderloin en vino dulce and passion fruit tart). “Everything transported you into the Latin world,” she said. “The live music is just like in the city squares, where something’s always happening.”

The Ballet’s galas are successful, Ms. Kendall noted, because, “We attract people who want to have a good time and dance all night. That’s a great recipe.”

During pre-dinner cocktails,the Armenian-Russian sister acrobatic act of Tatevik and Anait Seyranyan impressed even the company members. “Kenny got them [from the family’s Ringling Bros. circus],” gala chairwoman Shirley Feld, spry and elegant at 91, said of her son, Kenneth Feld.

The biggest surprise of the night: Ballet artistic director Septime Webre opening the cameo performances with fellow Cuban Laura Urgelles and coached by company member Luis Rolando Torres-Ortiz. “My second performance in 14 years,” Mr. Webre said, catching his breath, “I think I’ve reached my target heart rate.” Other performances included “Juanita y Alicia,” first performed in Cuba during the Ballet’s triumphant 2000 Havana tour.

The sold-out gala raised $400,000 to benefit the Ballet’s outreach programs: DanceDC, EXCEL! Scholarships and THEARC in Anacostia, which touch the lives of more than 10,000 young District residents each year at an annual cost of almost $1.4 million.

Also seen during cocktails, dinner or on the dance floor were the ambassadors of Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Monaco and Singapore; Rep. Jane Harman and husband Sidney Harman, new company Chairman Bill Harwood and wife Ruth, David and Katherine Bradley, Robert and Mary Haft, Nini Ferguson, Ludy and Joseph Green, Coco Bensahel, Conrad and Ludmila Cafritz, Deborah Gore Dean and Richard Pawlik, Brad and Denise Alexander, Robert Higdon, Marsha Ralls, John Firestone, Raul Fernandez, Gahl Burt, Dawn and Frank Saul, Davis and Lynda Camalier, Dorothy and Bill McSweeny, and other members of the Feld clan, including Alana, Bonnie, Juliette, Kenny and Nicole.

“You always know that you’re coming to a party when you come to the Ballet’s galas,” said long-time supporter Pat Skantze, echoing other guests, “I wish more Washington black-tie nights were this much fun.”

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