Dance enthusiasts rejoiced Tuesday at New York City Ballet’s opening night of its fall season at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater. The evening marked NYCB’s first live, full-company production after an 18-month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A milestone that many hope indicates the city’s cultural scene, one of the slowest sectors to rebound, is on its way back.
Around 2,500 people — including mothers and daughters, tourists and spouses — flocked to Lincoln Center for the sold-out evening. For many, it was their first opportunity to see a live show and dress up since early last year. Before heading inside the theater, patrons snapped photos in front of the square’s iconic fountain. Ticket-holders wore sequins and feathered dresses. Patterned pocket squares peeked out from suit jackets. Some donned stilettos and clutched teeny, bejeweled pocketbooks.
“I’ve been back at work in the office since last summer,” said Larissa King, 42, a New York designer who was attending her first indoor performance with her husband Sean since the pandemic began. “I could go to work and risk my life, but I couldn’t see beautiful art and all these wonderful things. It’s so missed.”
New York City Ballet, like most of the city at that time, shuttered its doors last March due to the pandemic, with the company’s last performance in the theater on March 1, 2020. For the next year and a half, the institution turned primarily to online platforms, where it presented virtual offerings that included, among previously captured works, a new ballet by Kyle Abraham and a stylish dance film directed by Sofia Coppola.
On opening night, however, New York City Ballet chose to honor the historic moment with some of its most defining ballets. The program featured Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain Pas de Deux” and founder George Balanchine’s “Serenade” and “Symphony in C,” which includes more than 50 dancers in its closing sequence. Through Oct. 17, audiences have a chance to see the company in classic Balanchine fare, recent favorites, and two world premieres by Andrea Miller and Sidra Bell, the first Black woman to create an original work for the 73-year-old troupe.
Georgiana Dinowitz, 26, and her mother Cindy, 61, commuted from Rockaways, Queens, for the company’s triumphant return. It wasn’t a particular dancer or ballet that attracted them to opening night. Rather, it was to experience part of the city’s cultural history firsthand. The younger Dinowitz described being back in Koch Theater’s grand interior as “such a thrill.”
New York City Ballet is not alone in ushering in ambitious live seasons again. The neighboring Metropolitan Opera opens its first in-person performances since the shutdown on Sept. 27. On the heels of New York City Ballet’s fall season, American Ballet Theatre will debut its own on Oct. 20, also at the Koch Theater.
The homecomings of iconic performing arts institutions also signal the return of long-missed traditions, most notably New York City Ballet’s “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.” The annual show draws a crowd of ardent fans and in 2019, generated $15 million in ticket sales, according to the organization.
If New York City Ballet’s opening night is of any indication, people are eager to sit in theaters again and will come in droves, even if it requires a bit of red tape. Before curtain call, patrons patiently lined the perimeter of the Koch Theater to show their proof of vaccination prior to gaining entry. Once inside, they were required to wear masks.
Fans aren’t the only ones that think the precautions are worth it.
“Tonight felt like New York City Ballet was just exploding at the seams,” principal dancer Sara Mearns said in an email. “None of us knew how we were going to be onstage. I think we all returned as slightly different people, but in the end, it was the best feeling in the world to be out there with each other, and with the audience.”
Having the chance to watch technical powerhouses, like Mearns and his favorite dancer Tiler Peck, is what drew Adrian Suncar, 35, back. Before the pandemic, the New Yorker saw 50 performances per year. He noted that while New York City Ballet’s artists are among the best, that doesn’t mean they’re infallible. But that’s what makes seeing dancers live exciting, he said, for those transcendent moments when one witnesses “something great.”
Top Image: Sterling Hyltin and Company in George Balanchine’s Serenade. Photo by Erin Baiano.