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Celebrating the Past, Facing the Future of the New York City Ballet at SPAC

Celebrating the Past, Facing the Future of the New York City Ballet at SPAC
The Garland Dance performed by area children on opening night of the New York City Ballet at SPAC
Thomas Dimopoulos

July 10 2013

Peter Martins sat in an easy chair inside of the Gold Room at the Hall of Springs. Across the great lawn of the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, patrons secured their traditional spots and awaited the staging of the opening night performance by the New York City Ballet.

Martins talked about the athleticism of the dancer and how the ballet has changed in the 30 years since he hung up his dance shoes.  "They are better trained and more intense," said the ballet master of the company, a title he has worn since the 1980s as eventual successor to George Balanchine.  "If Mr. B. was to look down, he'd say: What happened? Where did they all come from," he said.  "It's evolution."

On Thursday, Martins' name will be engraved upon a star dedicated at SPAC's Walk of Fame, for his stewardship of "the greatest ballet company in the world," said SPAC President Marcia White.

Pre-performance talk between Jay Rogoff, of Skidmore College, and Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins

There was a disturbing evolution of a different kind that hung in the warm summer air on opening night in the crowd comprised of local business owners, former city mayors, and long-time ballet patrons.  The glee of the company's return was tempered by a sadness that there may not be many more nights like this in the future. As the summer racing season has grown progressively longer, appearances by the NYCB have been the mirror opposite. The two are not related, but it is a point worth mentioning as an indication that not everything is spiraling in a counter-direction. Patrons will tell you that the ballet is the reason that SPAC was even built, and how community efforts have been initiated to ensure the return of the premier company with its roster of 100 dancers, and which was founded 65 years ago.

Despite their best efforts, the ballet company's three-week summer residency was shortened to two weeks in 2009. This year, the troupe will perform seven shows in only five days, and will return for a similar stretch in 2014.  After that, it's anybody's guess.

SPAC President Marcia White on the big stage on opening night of the New York City Ballet

Organizers cite declining attendance and the resulting financial losses as reasons for the truncated season. Most telling is an apparent shift from what once was commonly considered as the company's summer home, to a simple footnote as part of the NYCB tour alongside venues in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Washington, D.C., and the cities of Tokyo and Osaka, in Japan.

"We love Saratoga," said Martins from atop the stage, greeted by warm applause moments before the curtain was raised to celebrate the company's return to Saratoga for the 48th season. "We just want to come back, and come back, and come back..." he said, his voice trailing off as the sound of music poured out from the orchestra pit and the curtain was raised to open the season.  In the audience, many nodded their heads in hopeful agreement. Then they aimed their binoculars at the stage and for the next few hours, forgot all the melancholy of this world or anything else that may have mattered.

The New York City Ballet will stage seven performances in five days at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, through Saturday. The National Ballet of Canada performs at the venue July 16-18, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet July 24-25, and the MOMIX Botanical troupe of dancer-illusionists perform Aug. 1.

In his weekly column, Thomas Dimopoulos takes us down the back streets of Saratoga to bring us the city's best stories.

You can e-mail Thomas, and you can follow him on twitter: @thomdimopoulos



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