A TIME FOR FAREWELLS,  New York, June 2009



There were tears and sighs, cheers and cries, but above all, there was love flowing to and from the stage as Nina said farewell to her New York audience on June 27, 2009.

The legions of New York fans were joined by an army of those who had flown in from many parts of the world to witness and be part of the occasion. This former New Yorker and her better half flew in from Shanghai where we currently reside. We joined up with longtime friends and acquaintances---loyal Nina followers including those previously met in Tokyo, Moscow, Houston, Washington, D.C., Jacob’s Pillow and best of all, Tbilisi.

Tickets for the momentous evening had long ago been sold out---we got ours through a New York stalwart who bought two subscriptions for the season just to be assured of being able to order June 27 tickets ahead of the box office opening.

Arriving a couple of days before THE DAY, we took a short nap after about 17 hours in the air---excluding an overnight stopover at Narita. Then we rushed off to our favorite sushi restaurant---Sushi Yasuda---where we had a date with Nina and other loyalists. (This may seem extreme to others, but it was the only time Nina could spare from rehearsals and other engagements.) Hugs and kisses and dinner went in a blur as we exchanged news of each other. Some waiters, obviously recognizing our guest, hovered wide-eyed around our table.

The next afternoon, we were rewarded by an invitation to a rehearsal. In the dreary bowels of the Metropolitan Opera, we kept close to the walls of the rehearsal studio, trying not to get in the way while being able to observe everything and everybody.

During warm-ups, we eavesdropped on “shoptalk” between Nina and Angel Corella, her partner for the final “Swan,” which consisted of exchanging bits about their respective companies. (Angel recently established his own ballet troupe in Spain.) Nina mentioned that she needed boys, but had a surfeit of girls. Angel stated that he had some boys to spare, and needed girls.

Rehearsal is always very serious and no-nonsense, with Irina Kolpakova on hand to supervise the details. Nina and Angel have danced together quite a lot before, and they have good rapport, so there were minimum adjustments to be made. (If I have not mentioned it before, it is really thrilling to see Nina jump and turn so close up---the energy and total mastery of motion is exhilarating!)

Other ABT dancers started drifting in during the session, including Maxim Beloserkovsky, who jokingly chided Nina for going overtime into his rehearsal schedule. Near the end, a “stranger” in sneakers, shorts and a hoodie sweater came in. Under this disguise was Marcelo Gomes, who was playing Rothbart for the Nina finale. After whispered discussions, it became obvious that he had come to suggest a little surprise addition to the Black Act. The three principals consulted with Kolpakova, who obviously gave her consent. The trio rehearsed their surprise, which was to take place at the end of the pas de deux.

Swan Lake, June 27, 2009

Dinner with other balletomane friends in the atrium cafe of the newly renovated Alice Tully Hall was a pleasant “amuse bouche” for what was fated to be a wonderful and complex banquet of sensations to follow. The summer light was filtered through the glass wall enclosing the space, an inspired addition to the amenities of Lincoln Center.

Crossing the plaza to get to the Met, we ran into Nina’s husband Gregory, who had apparently arrived just in time to catch the performance. (His new, arduous duties at the Foreign Ministry of Georgia are keeping him busy 24/7 these days.) With no second thoughts, I ran up to him to give him a hug and a kiss, not noticing that he was in front of cameras----presumably for Georgian TV. So, I probably had my 15 seconds of fame----at least in Georgia.

The auditorium was packed and it was impossible not to bump into fellow ballet lovers from way back. There was a palpable feeling of anticipation and an undercurrent of regret---we knew that it would be a fantastic evening---but also the end of an era in ballet, and in our lives.

And so, the performance itself: If you want clearheaded assessment of it, find the review of Tobi Tobias or go to the State Ballet of Georgia’s website and click on the “Arabesque” issue with the “A Farewell to ABT” cover. Ms. Tobias is one of the best ballet critics around, and she gives a clear, knowledgeable impression of the dancing, as well as a good sense of the occasion. As for this writer, I am incapable of writing anything but dreamlike descriptions of fugitive moments.

Nina’s entrance in the second act is always magical, but this evening, it was heart-gripping. I think I stopped breathing for a while, hoping to stop time and hold the moment forever. I can remember the sculpted poses, the subtle flutterings of toes, the exquisite articulation of arms and fingers. Everything was in measured proportions---nothing was exaggerated for effect, but nothing was slighted—each step was given its proper weight and place.

At intermission, the house buzzed like a thousand happy beehives. More friends came up to huddle; all of us congratulated ourselves for managing to be there. Those few dissenters or skeptics (they do exist, poor benighted creatures) managed to stay quiet and keep from being murdered on the spot.

All were in a fever by the time the Black Act started. Odile has always been one of Nina’s best roles, and she retains her freshness and joyous seductiveness, her dynamic phrasing and technical aplomb intact. Then, at the end of the pas de deux, the surprise: Rothbart lifts Odile above his head then throws her into Siegfried’s’s arms, where she ends up in a fishdive! The house went wild!!!

The ovations at the end seemed to go on and on---flowers rained on the stage---Nina and Angel caught some on the fly, leading to more cheering and applause. There was an explosion of white confetti to dress the stage. As I remember it, each Swan in the corps de ballet, one after another lovingly presented Nina with a white rose, which she graciously accepted. Fellow ABT principals filed onto the stage to pay homage. Further floral tributes came, but the conductor, Ormsby Wilkins, offered Nina his baton; she proceeded to conduct the orchestra from the stage. Another moment of note: Nina making a deep “reverence” (curtsey) to Irina Kolpakova, the former Kirov prima ballerina who has been her coach at ABT for many years.

An extra treat for the audience was the appearance of Nina’s daughter, Heleniko, who was allowed a couple of bows before Mommy shooed her off the stage. (She is becoming a really accomplished and irresistible participant during curtain calls.)

A few more notable curtain call moments:

Nina bourrée-ing across the stage, her back to the audience and arms rippling as swan wings---an alternate exit she and other ballerinas have thrilled audiences to in the White Act of Swan Lake; a repeat of the “lift and throw” surprise ending of the Black Act.

When the house lights finally went up and the applause died down, we tearfully filed out of the auditorium, most of us in a daze---joy and sadness confusing our senses. On the stairs, I met a friend who asked, “Is Nina really 46?” I said, “Yes, hard to believe, isn’t it?”

The Party, the Farewell

For a lucky few, the evening had not yet ended. There was a gala party for Nina’s best supporters (read well-heeled---the gala price was $1,500 a head) held at the Grand Tier foyer of the Met. We were able to attend by special invitation from the honoree.

To celebrate the ballerina, there was Georgian music and Georgian food. Nina’s father, brothers and a sister-in-law were present. Dressed in daring and exquisite fashion by one of her favorite designers, Vivienne Westwood, Nina swept in barely yet elegantly covered from neck to foot in metallic lace.

There were speeches, of course, some ending in tear-filled voices, but as a whole, it was festive. Around midnight, emotions, adrenaline and jetlag were making combat in my system---with jetlag winning, so we took our leave---but not yet finally.

That took place the next day, when we exchanged final hugs and kisses just before Nina, Gregory, Heleniko and entourage left their hotel for the airport.

New York native and legendary folk singer Pete Seeger popularized some verses from the bible when he used the words from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 to write the song “Turn, Turn, Turn.” It begins, “To everything, there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.”

Bitter as it is to admit, we have entered a time for farewells. Nina herself realizes that as the body ages, it will become more and more difficult to sustain the level of excellence she demands of herself and to which her audience is accustomed. Spiritually, she is still growing as an artist, deepening her interpretations of her roles. Time, however, is an implacable master and all living beings are subject to his rules.

Nina has not yet retired---but the clock is ticking. Let us take advantage of each precious performance that she may yet generously bestow on us.