THE DANCE: MET OPERA GALA

By ANNA KISSELGOFF  MAY 14, 1984

The New York Times Archive – Time Machine

MOST people will tell you a centennial comes along only every hundred years. But if you’re the Metropolitan Opera, you celebrate your hundredth birthday twice.

Lillian Gish in the 80's 6

And last night as a followup to October’s big centennial anniversary gala for itself with, naturally, opera singers, the Metropolitan Opera staged an equally stellar gala with some of the biggest names in international dance. Entitled ”Celebration!,” the gala performance commemorating 100 years of performing arts at the Metropolitan Opera reminded us that the Metropolitan had never been exclusively in the singing business.

True – there were singers like Yves Montand, John Denver, Lionel Richie and even Placido Domingo, a pop star if there ever was one, to recall that popular entertainers as well as dancers had not only appeared but also been presented or toured by the Metropolitan.

But the truth is that most people had paid up to $1,000 to see possibly the very last performance that the Cuban ballerina Alicia Alonso might give as Giselle, albeit in truncated form. And they had been rightly attracted by the idea of seeing Dame Margot Fonteyn, the radiant Sleeping Beauty of 1949, still radiant when awakened this time from a briefer nap onstage by her Pygmalion, Sir Frederick Ashton. If you thought Alexandra Danilova and Frederic Franklin would make a cameo appearance to recall their exciting seasons as stars in the same old house with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, you were right.

Alexandra Danilova - Fredric Franklin
Alexandra Danilova – Fredric Franklin

But perhaps you didn’t expect Lillian Gish to fulfill a lifelong fantasy and find herself in a ballet of sorts, pretending to be asleep in a chair, as a young man in a rose-petal costume whirled around her.

If the impression is coming across that a good percentage of those onstage were hardly at the age when dancers are at their peak, it would not be incorrect. In addition to those ages 60 through 80 or thereabouts, a notable few who still managed to go through their paces were in their mid- 40’s and their mid-50’s.

As wonderful as it is to welcome back the dancers one loved most, it is just as realistic to say that this was not a gala that faithfully represented the state of dance as it is today in its completeness.

Nonetheless, it was a gala that carried on in the true Metropolitan Opera tradition. It was thanks to Otto Kahn, the Metropolitan Opera’s chairman, that Anna Pavlova made her debut in the United States at the opera house in 1910. Typically, she appeared onstage just before midnight after a four-act opera.

Anna Pavlova 1912
Anna Pavlova 1912

Those who thought they could begin nibbling at a reasonable hour on the lobster, asparagus and chocolate truffles to which a top-price ticket entitled them, found that the gala lasted four hours. In the end, they managed, despite a soaking rain, to enter the white party tent, 150 by 200 feet, outside on the Lincoln Center Plaza just before midnight.

Atmosphere, however, was what counted most. As Kenneth Schermerhorn, who is also the American Ballet Theater’s chief conductor, raised his baton in the pit at the start of the evening, Isadora Duncan’s own Metropolitan debut flitted across the mind. Invited to dance Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony at the opera house in 1908 by the famous conductor Walter Damrosch, Duncan had this to say in her memoirs:

Isadora Duncan
Isadora Duncan – Grande Marche

”When I looked down from the stage and saw the great brow of Damrosch bent over the score, I felt that my dance really resembled the birth of Athena, springing full-armed from the head of Zeus.”

One wonders what Yoko Morishita, the Japanese ballerina, was thinking of when she saw Mr. Schermerhorn’s brow – probably if it’s Sunday, it must be New York. She had flown in the same day from Tokyo to dance with Ballet Theater’s Fernando Bujones in the ”Corsaire” pas de deux.

Maniya, Makarova, Morishita and other Giselles in Manila
Maniya, Makarova, Morishita and other Giselles in Manila

As it happened, Mr. Bujones and Miss Morishita, along with Natalia Makarova in another pas de deux, provided the only dancing that could be compared to greatness. Miss Morishita is a thorough professional and perfection is in her every move. As for Mr. Bujones, he is simply one of the finest dancers in the world and he delivered the goods, excitingly and eloquently, that the audience had been waiting for all evening. This was dancing.

There was also nostalgia and sentiment. There were two moving moments. When Alicia Alonso and her Cuban partner, Jorge Esquivel, danced an adaptation of the pas de deux from Act II of ”Giselle,” there were some in the audience who felt history had come full circle. Miss Alonso danced her first Giselle in 1943, at the Metropolitan with Ballet Theater. She had always wanted to dance her last Giselle, a role with which she has been identified for 40 years, in New York.

Alicia Alonso, Jorge Esquivel en Carmen
Alicia Alonso, Jorge Esquivel en Carmen

The fact that she is partially blind and just past age 60 is well known. New Yorkers have not seen her for more than five years, and if one did not expect her to be fully the same, it was not surprising that the essence of the role is still with her. If anything she seemed more like a 19th-century lithograph than ever, and as usual her fabulous entrechats brought down the house.

A similar moment occurred when Miss Makarova, who is rumored to be retiring from classical roles, danced the adagio from Act II of ”Swan Lake.” For this occasion, she brought out of retirement Ivan Nagy, her former partner at Ballet Theater. Granted, Mr. Nagy retired in the 1970’s in his 30’s, but it was good to see him back, as considerate as ever with a ballerina whose crystalline dancing was lyrical in every move. Her onstage musicians, incidentally, were Itzhak Perlman and Lynn Harrell.

Natalia Makarova as Juliet
Natalia Makarova as Juliet

The evening opened with Dvorak’s Carnival Overture by the opera orchestra, followed by the Martha Graham Dance Company in ”Diversion of Angels,” Lynn Seymour wonderfully militant and tragic in Sir Frederick’s ”Five Brahms Waltzes in the Manner of Isadora Duncan” and Miss Gish with the high-leaping Patrick Dupond of the Paris Opera Ballet in ”Le Spectre de la Rose.”

PARIS BALLET CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION Lillian Gish and Patrick Dupond of the Paris Ballet - Le Spectre de la Rose Sunday afternoon, at the New York Metropolitan May 14 1984

Jean-Charles Gil of France’s Roland Petit Company held the stage strongly in a quirky solo by Mr. Petit to music, believe it or not, by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Jerome Robbins came onstage to present a bouquet to Alexandra Danilova. The Royal Danish Ballet sent Lis Jeppesen and Arne Villumsen for the balcony pas de deux from Sir Frederick’s ”Romeo and Juliet.” Marcia Haydee, Richard Cragun, Antoinette Sibley, David Wall, Karen Kain, Rudolf Nureyev, Erik Bruhn, Carla Fracci, Tamasaburo Bando, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, jiving with Mr. Richie and his musicians to ”All Night Long” rounded out a superstar cast.

Alexandra Danilova - The Making of Markova
Alexandra Danilova – The Making of Markova

Produced by Jane Hermann, the Metropolitan’s director of presentations, and staged by Donald Saddler, it was an evening that stressed the past more than the present. Like dance, it had its treasured ephemeral moments – notably Sir Frederick handing Dame Margot four roses, one by one, in a gloss upon the Rose Adagio in ”The Sleeping Beauty” before they tripped off in a sequence known, after its creator, as the Fred Step.

Fantasy merged into reality, however, when the those who came in black-tie (many did not) made their way toward the dinner tent. ”I thought it was great,” said Lee A. Iacocca, chairman of the Chrysler Corporation. ”I enjoyed it all. I don’t get to do these things too often. Lionel Richie livened things up. It was a great thrill to be here.”

Former Gov. Hugh Carey thought the evening was ”the usual great New York display of talent,” and Barbara Walters ventured that the gala was ”beautiful but long,” and ”wonderful nostalgic commentary for those of us who could remember, but it’s a little long for those of us who have to go to work the next day.”

Legend of stage and screen, Lillian Gish, appears with Patrick Dupond and fulfills a lifelong dream at the Metropolitan Opera Gala, celebrating 100 years of performing arts at the Met. In her introduction, Miss Gish recalls a performance of “Le Spectre de la Rose” with Vaslav Nijinksy that she had attended with her sister Dorothy and Charlie Chaplin over 65 years before.

Vaslav Nijinsky in the ballet Le spectre de la rose as performed at the Royal Opera House in 1911
Vaslav Nijinsky in the ballet Le spectre de la rose as performed at the Royal Opera House in 1911

Taped on May 13, 1984. ” ‘Le Spectre de la Rose’ is a ballet of the Ballets Russes based on a poem by Théophile Gautier. The music, by Carl Maria von Weber, was taken from his short piece Invitation to the Dance. Choreography was by Michel Fokine and set and costume design by Léon Bakst. It premiered on April 19, 1911 by the Ballets Russes in the Théâtre de Monte Carlo.

The story is about a debutante who falls asleep after her first ball. She dreams that she is dancing with the rose that she had been holding in her hand. Her dream ends when the rose escapes through the window. The dancers at the original performance were Vaslav Nijinsky as the Rose and Tamara Karsavina as the Girl.”

Lillian Gish Patrick Dupont

Back to Lillian Gish Home page