SARATOGA SPRINGS — In the summer of 1965, New York City Ballet headlined a top-tier tour of Europe with stops in Athens, Venice, London and Paris.
So when the dancers got word that their 1966 summer season would be in a small city in upstate New York, it was a letdown. That is, until they arrived in Saratoga Springs as the curtain raiser for the brand new Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
Robert Maiorano, then a soloist with the company, remembers it well.
“The setup was beautiful,” he recalled of the opening performance at SPAC. “And to dance ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ outdoors, it just felt wonderful. The breeze going through your hair, the fresh air, the stream next to the theater — it felt right. It felt like dance the way it should be.”
Better yet, said Maiorano, the dancers knew that SPAC was theirs. This open amphitheater, designed by the company’s founding visionary George Balanchine with an eye for sightlines, an ear for acoustics and a stage to match theirs at Lincoln Center, was going to be their summer home from now on. Every July, they could expect to dance in Saratoga for four weeks.
“It was the woods, but it was our woods,” said the soloist.
That first encounter, when Saratoga audiences met New York City Ballet, took place on July 8, 1966. For that inaugural program, Balanchine wisely chose his rendering of Shakespeare’s comedy, full of woodland fairies and fireflies.
Maiorano called the ballet “fitting” for the occasion. But he also remembers the audiences — unsophisticated by New York’s standards — but gracious, welcoming and always appreciative.
Fierce fan base
Now, at the approach of the company’s 50th anniversary season at SPAC, the audience’s appreciation has developed into devotion. When there was a threat of ejecting the company from SPAC for financial reasons in 2004, the community rallied behind the ballet so fiercely that it forced the resignation of SPAC’s president and executive director, Herb Chesbrough, and his entire board.
Many of these same feisty fans watch the company night after night during its now-shortened stay of one or two weeks. And despite the abbreviated residency and the spike in ticket prices under current management, audiences still swoon for a night at the ballet.
For the company members, they thrive in the audience adoration, which is obvious at every curtain call. That’s when the crowds, especially the nightly gaggle of young dance students, roar full-throated, whooping approvals.
As one of the company members put it, “The audience make the dancers feel like rock stars.”
Miranda Weese, a New York City Ballet principal who danced with the company from 1991 to 2007, said relationship between the dancers and the SPAC audiences was always special. Community members host parties and barbecues for the company.
She particularly enjoyed seeing the lawn’s flickering candles from the many families who come back to see the company year after year. She was also surprised to be recognized on the street and by the throngs of young dancers who gather each night at the stage door seeking autographs.
“It was nice to have that connection with the audience,” said Weese.
Maiorano agreed. But in the 1960s, a season in Saratoga was a tougher sell. Dancers and musicians paraded down Broadway to draw attention to the season. They also made special appearances at the Saratoga Race Course, posing with racehorses for photographers. Often, tickets were given away. Maiorano recalls tickets priced as low as $3. The first season, prime seats sold for $18.
Today, SPAC audiences don’t need a parade to see the dancers. They are everywhere — Uncommon Grounds in the morning, Victoria Pool in the afternoon and bars and restaurants at night. They also teach master classes at the handful of ballet intensives in the city.
But where ballet fans really love to see the dancers is on stage, where they, along with the versatile and superb New York City Ballet orchestra, consistently deliver world-class performances.
The artistic highlights, spanning half a century, are too many to name. But here are a few:
• SPAC hosted two world premieres by Balanchine, “Coppelia” in 1974 and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” in 1975. That was during the height of the ballet boom, which Mikhail Baryshnikov further fueled when he defected in 1978 and ran into the artistic embrace of Balanchine and New York City Ballet. His first American performance was at SPAC.
The summer venue went more then 35 years without another world premiere.
• Justin Peck, the latest choreographic whiz to be drawn from City Ballet’s ranks, returned SPAC to the spotlight when he chose the amphitheater to be the venue for the world premiere of his “Creases.” Two seasons later, Peck was named resident choreographer of the company while at SPAC.
• Saratoga was also the scene for Peter Martins when he was told that he would succeed the venerable Balanchine as its ballet master-in-chief. That bit of news was delivered at Sperry’s restaurant in downtown Saratoga Springs, also in 1978.
Since Balanchine’s death in 1983, Martins, who has admitted to not being smitten with the company’s country home at first, is now as committed to the summer venue as Balanchine was. And no matter what the future holds, SPAC will always be the house that Balanchine built. And Maiorano believes, it will remain a place where Balanchine’s artistry will continue to thrive.
“It was unfortunate that the season has been cut,” he said. “But I still see a future at SPAC.”
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