Saratoga Springs

New York City Ballet returns to SPAC Wednesday with dance, insights, stories

Jonathan Stafford teaching company class, New York City Ballet, on Sept. 17, 2019. (Photo: Erin Baiano)

Jonathan Stafford teaching company class, New York City Ballet, on Sept. 17, 2019. (Photo: Erin Baiano)

At last, the New York City Ballet is back at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

Opening night is Wednesday with a new time of 7:30 p.m.

“It’s incredible” said Jonathan Stafford, the artistic director of the company. “It’s our first live performance before a seated audience. We’ve always had such a good relationship with SPAC. It’s part of our DNA. And it’s my 23rd season. To keep my streak intact, I came up last year to visit. It’s a special place and it’s a fitting way to begin our season.”

Stafford became an apprentice with the company in 1998, joined the corps de ballet the next year and then rose through the ranks to become a principal dancer in 2007, performing an extensive repertory of featured roles in numerous ballets. After retiring in 2014, he became one of the company’s ballet masters and in February 2019 was named artistic director, with Wendy Whelan — one of the most acclaimed dancers of her generation — named as associate artistic director.

But this season is like no other season because of the pandemic and social protocols. Although the company’s dancers are fully vaccinated and negotiations are still being held with all the other unions who support the company, such as the musicians union, to mandate everyone be vaccinated, the company decided to bring only 15 dancers to SPAC and two pianists, Alan Moverman and Nancy McDill.

“We chose those dancers who had not been involved in the smaller projects we’d done during the year,” Stafford said.

These included several outdoor video projects that were done in and around New York City, a film that was made for the Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, a film for the company’s spring gala with Sofia Coppola and a few dancers who are also talented videographers who did some outdoor projects for SPAC.

“It’s a way to spread the wealth around. After SPAC, another 16 dancers will go to Jackson Hole and then to Vail,” he said.

Being able to dance to a live audience will be a thrill let alone with each other. Last spring, the company’s studio had to shut down, which put a crimp in the dancers’ daily schedule to take class. Initially classes were held over Zoom. Then the studio was opened and one dancer at a time was allowed to work out. This eventually became eight dancers at a time, but they had to work only with the same eight dancers out of more than 60 dancers in the company. These restricted pods went on for several weeks, Stafford said. When all the dancers were vaccinated — a company mandate — they could work as a full class.

“We had our first rehearsal for the SPAC season June 29,” he said.

New format

This year, too, the season will be only four days so there will be a new format, the first time they’ve ever tried it at SPAC. Two of the dancers who will be retiring this coming season — Maria Kowroski and Gonzalo Garcia — will act as hosts on alternate days. They will talk about the dances audiences will see, give their insights and back stories.

Thus, on July 14, 15, and 17, Kowroski hosts “Short Stories” about dances that have a theme such as a fairy tale as in “Swan Lake” or “The Sleeping Beauty.” On July 15, 16, and 17, Gonzalo will host “All Balanchine” from some of the 400 pieces Balanchine choreographed. The presentations will last no more than 75 minutes with no intermission. The other dances include: “Apollo,” “The Four Temperments,” “Agon,” “Jewels,” “Who Cares,” “Firebird,” “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Western Symphony,” “Fancy Free,” and “The Concert.”

This lecture/demo/educational element is something the company has often done in New York City and one that the company thought would work well locally.

“It’s a way to connect with the audience on a deeper level … a kind of silver lining,” Stafford said. “We have an embarrassment of riches to pick and talk about, to show the talent of our dancers. So we chose those with a theme for the Balanchine or those that have a narrative story.”

The dancers will perform in various configurations from pas de deux to a group of up to 10 dancers. Some dancers will be working with a new partner, and some will make their debut in the role.

“It will be a strong offering … exciting,” he said.

The only thing Stafford is a bit concerned about is the weather.

“I hope it’s not too hot. Up to the 90s we’re fine, but if it gets to the mid-90s, it’s hard on the dancers,” he said.

Prior to the season, SPAC will be hosting a fundraiser, “A Midsummer Night’s Supper,” at which five of the company’s principal dancers and special guest, legendary dancer Edward Villella will appear. The menu, which will be prepared by local chef Kim Klopstock of Lily and the Rose catering, will feature recipes by Balanchine, his wife Tanaquil Le Clercq, and other dance luminaries, and include wines and cocktails. Meryl Rosofsky, vice-chair of the George Balanchine Foundation, NYCB photographer Paul Kolnik and author Jeanne Fuchs will share stories about food, ballet and Saratoga. The event will be held at 7 p.m. on both Monday, July 12, and Tuesday, July 13. Contact Heather Varney for ticket information at [email protected]

Social protocols for the company’s season have changed. Masks will no longer be required for the amphitheater except for those who have not been vaccinated and no proof of vaccinations will be required. The lawn is open to general admission and will not require pods but pods will be set in the amphitheater.

New York City Ballet

WHEN: July 14, 15, 16, 17 – 7:30 p.m.; July 15, 17 – 2:00 p.m.
WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center
HOW MUCH: $40 – $105 (single tickets); $30, lawn
MORE INFO:; 518-584-9330

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