For New York City balletomanes, last night marked a return to normalcy. After several canceled seasons, a city that had been sorely missing its ballet got it back. Though throughout the pandemic, digital streams of the artform were plentiful, absolutely nothing can come close to the thrill and majesty of witnessing a live ballet performance.
Though the fall season of New York City Ballet kicked off last week, this past Thursday night marked its annual Fall Fashion Gala—an event drummed up by Sarah Jessica Parker. Ten years ago, the glamorous ballet patron had the thought to pair choreographers with designers—from Valentino to Virgil Abloh—to brew fashion magic for the stage. (After all, there’s a precedent for this type of collaboration famously set by Chanel.) The designers on the roster last night were Christopher John Rogers and Esteban Cortázar and both whipped up creations alongside the NYCB’s director of costumes Marc Happel. “I think if you notice, the costumes for ballet can be very simple—that’s partly my job, that the costumes are not going to overpower the ballet. It is about the choreography, first,” explained Happen in a delightful film that was screened to guests in the audience at Lincoln Center at last night’s event. “Except, at the fall fashion gala.” His words rang true; last night was all about the clothes.
Designers were in the house; yes, Christopher John Rogers and Esteban Cortázar but also Kerby Jean-Raymond, Laura Kim, Cynthia Rowley, Zac Posen, and Prabal Gurung. (The latter two had previously participated in the annual event). But there was also fashion on the bodies of everyone in attendance. Kelsey Lu dazzled in a striped CJR, gala co-chair Diane Kruger wore a delightful Jason Wu number, Gurung wore a jacket of his own design, and dancer Unity Phelan wore pink Carolina Herrera. Though she wasn’t dancing on the night, principal ballerina Tiler Peck wore a gossamer pink Valentino dress, as did Lili Buffet—”It’s one of the most favorite things I’ve worn,” she gushed.
Kicking off the evening was Deborah Roberts, who was first to welcome the audience. “I want to pass along a personal message from the woman who really conceived of this idea, Sarah Jessica Parker. She’s not able to be with us tonight, unfortunately, because of her busy shooting schedule. I’ve seen the trailers around town—she’s a busy lady! This is the first Fall Gala that she’s missed and she wanted me to send her sincere apologies and her very best wishes for a beautiful night.”
First on the program was Jerome Robbins’s wonderful “Glass Pieces,” with music by Philip Glass. Dancers Maria Kowroski and Amar Ramasar dazzled in the piece that Robbins injected with an energy of a Metropolis with balletic equivalents to missed connections and happenstance encounters. Next came the world premiere of “Suspended Animation,” which was choreographed by Sidra Bell. As Happel had declared, fashion was at the forefront, especially in this piece with costumes by Christopher John Rogers. The designer seemed to borrow colors from a pack of highlighters and splashed them onto tulle-puffed costumes that dancers shed as the performance progressed. What did the designer want us to remember most about his costumes? “Teletubbies,” he remarked cheekily. “That the shapes were inspired by Teletubbies.”
Next on the program was “sky to hold,” a dance choreographed by Andrea Miller with costumes by Esteban Cortázar. Nodding to Cortázar’s Colombian roots, Miller enlisted Colombian Canadian musician Lido Pimienta to provide the vocals, which were performed live. The interdisciplinary work that resulted reverberated a kind rhythm in the hallowed theater that it rarely experiences. Cortázar’s costumes were diaphanous and featured only the subtlest of saturated colors. After the final bows, the crowd showered applause on the entire cast and crew, especially for the adorable Pimienta, who playfully reveled in the reaction.
Next, guests took their seats at an open-air gala dinner set within Lincoln Center Plaza beneath string lings. Patrons in black tie, now with their mask permissibly off, caught up and enjoyed the gussied up company of one another. At dinner, Megan Fairchild, who danced wonderfully in “Suspended Animation,” spoke of what it meant to be back in the saddle. Dancing without an opening showcase, she explained, as she and her company members had done throughout the company’s in-person hiatus was trying. “I wasn’t expecting it, but last week, the tears were pouring out of me on opening night,” she said. “It just felt so good to be dancing again.”
At dinner, the audience heard from the company’s artistic director, Jonathan Stafford, and associate artistic director, Wendy Whelan. The latter pointed out just what a significant night the evening was. Bell’s contribution to the program marked New York City Ballet’s first-ever commission from a woman of color and Pimienta’s performance also signified the first female composer of color to create a piece at City Ballet.
And in keeping the direction of the company’s focus firmly on the future, earlier in the night, Sarah Jessica Parker’s remarks, as delivered by Roberts, gave everyone something to anticipate. The year 2022 will serve as the 10th anniversary of the Fall Fashion Gala, and for it, she hopes for a blowout celebration—cheers to that.