Dance Honoree The 37th Annual Kennedy Center Honors
Washington, Kennedy Center Opera House
7 December 2014
Each year since 1978, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has celebrated five extraordinary individuals (or groups) for their lifetime achievements and contributions to American culture. The Kennedy Center Honors is the most prestigious accolade this country bestows upon performing artists; and the ceremonies and celebrations for the honorees, which usually take place the first weekend of December, are among the most spectacular cultural events in Washington.
The recipients of the 37th Kennedy Center Honors are singer Al Green, actor and filmmaker Tom Hanks, ballerina Patricia McBride, singer-songwriter Sting and comedienne Lily Tomlin. They received their awards – rainbow-colored garlands of ribbons with three brass plates, one engraved with the artist’s name, one with the date (December 7, 2014), and one with the name of the award (Kennedy Center Honors) – at a dinner hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry on the evening of Saturday, December 6.
On Sunday, the President and Mrs. Obama hosted the traditional White House reception for the honorees. The festivities culminated with the gala celebration at the Opera House – a black-tie extravaganza which brought to Washington a parade of Hollywood stars and luminaries of entertainment, music, theater and dance.
When asked what this award meant to her, Patricia McBride replied: “It’s beyond my wildest dreams. It’s the greatest award a dancer can receive. To be honored with Sting, Tom Hanks, Lily Tomlin and Al Green is such an honor; and to go to the White House and meet President Obama and also meet the Chairman and the President of the Kennedy Center [David M. Rubenstein and Deborah F. Rutter], it’s amazing.”
Wearing a strapless black gown, Ms. McBride looked stunning on the red carpet of the Kennedy Center’s grand foyer before the gala during which she would join the President and First Lady in the Presidential Box of the Opera House for a star-studded concert-tribute to her and her fellow honorees. She was accompanied by her husband of 41 years, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, a former principal dancer of New York City Ballet with whom she currently runs the Charlotte Ballet.
A Ballerina with a Remarkable Career: Dreams Do Come True
Patricia McBride had her first ballet class at the age of seven with Ruth Vernon in her home town, Teaneck, New Jersey. “My mom just sent me to ballet. She thought it would be marvelous. All the little girls seemed to be taking ballet lessons, so I went and I cried. I hated it. I just couldn’t do it. It was the most difficult thing,” wrote McBride in a compendium of short stories titled I Remember Balanchine, describing her very first steps as a dancer. But she turned out to be a determined little girl, unwilling to give up. “I just stuck to it, and I got to be pretty good.”
She was more than good. She was extraordinary; and ballet became her career and life-long passion. McBride joined the New York City Ballet in 1959, and two years later, at the age of 18, she was promoted to the rank of principal, becoming the youngest principal dancer in the eminent troupe’s history. By the time she retired from NYCB in 1989, at the age of 46, she had held that position longer than anyone else in the company.
McBride talks about her years with New York City Ballet with a sense of heartfelt delight and appreciation. “I felt I was so joyous to work with George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. They made my life something that I have never dreamed of having. I always loved dancing and to be able to dance, and having ballets to be made especially for you is the greatest gift a dancer can receive. I was fortunate to have a vast repertory and to be able to do all kinds of ballets, portray different characters and dance with amazing partners. I had extraordinary partners in my career! When I look back I feel so happy and blessed. It was beautiful!” she said during the red-carpet interview.
Admired and recognized for her expressive versatility, warmth and radiance as well as her astonishing technical gifts, McBride rapidly emerged as a star, inspiring Balanchine to create more than 20 roles specifically for her, many of them considered masterpieces of modern classical ballet repertory.
She originated the roles of Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Columbine in Harlequinade, Swanilda in Coppélia, the paper doll ballerina in The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Pearly Queen in Union Jack. Among her signatures were the leading roles in Rubies and Who Cares? The list can go on and on.
McBride was also the source of creative inspiration for Jerome Robbins, who created for her roles in Dances at a Gathering, In the Night, The Goldberg Variations, The Four Seasons and Opus 19/The Dreamer, among other ballets.
“She is the quintessential Robbins dancer and a highly individual Balanchine ballerina,” wrote The New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff, summarizing McBride’s immense talent.
In the 1960s Balanchine paired her with the athletic and vigorous Edward Villella – an artistic partnership that was as dazzling as it was magical. “This was one of those exhibits of virtuosity that, in sheer excitement, transcended anything else the art of ballet has to offer. I was held on the edge of my seat by suspense as these two scintillating artists whirled and leaped, and the roar that went from the audience at the end of the number showed that there were many others who felt as I did,” wrote The New Yorker about one of their performances.
Over the course of her long, distinguished career, McBride created many more memorable partnerships with some of the most exciting male dancers of the company: Jacques d’Amboise, Ib Andersen, Helgi Tomasson and Mikhail Baryshnikov were among them.
Mr. d’Amboise, dressed in sharp black attire, looked spirited and energetic on the red carpet on Sunday night. When I asked him to describe Patricia as a dancing partner, he put it very eloquently: “Certain people are floating lilies – that was the way she was: pure and good, not a drop of any envy or malice. She was always good, always thoughtful and a joy to dance with. She never complained. A lot of dancers complained, Patti never. ‘Oh, we are going to dance together!’ she would say, all Pollyanna and sweet; and it was for real, not fake. She is a jewel.”
The Second Chapter: The Company
After retiring from the performing career, McBride undertook a teaching position, joining her husband, who at the time was head of the dance department at Indiana University. In 1996, the couple moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, to assume artistic leadership of Charlotte Ballet (formerly the North Carolina Dance Theatre). Bonnefoux is the troupe’s artistic director; McBride is associate artistic director and master teacher.
When McBride talks about her company, she beams with joy and pride. “We love working with our company,” she said before the gala. “We have remarkable, extraordinary dancers, who are passionate about what they do. They are beautiful, special dancers in every way. I am very lucky because I get inspired by them. It’s a wonderful second career and I love it.”
Washington audiences certainly remember this exuberant company, which left indelible impressions during the Ballet Across America seasons in 2010, with an explosive bluegrass romp, Shindig (choreographed by Bonnefoux), and in 2013, with Sasha Janes’ playful and witty Rhapsodic Dances.
Comedian Stephen Colbert, this year’s host of the Kennedy Center gala, spiced the opening remarks with his trademark humor: “Tonight, Washington puts the arts above politics, because no matter what party you belong to, everyone wants a selfie with Tom Hanks,” he uttered to the obvious delight of the glittering crowd. On a serious note, he introduced the class of 2014 Kennedy Center Honors recipients, describing Patricia McBride as a dancer “whose rapturous love of dancing and fascinating rhythms earned her accolades as America’s most exciting ballerina.”
After the traditional video showing the President’s welcoming remarks at the White House, the celebration at the Opera House took off, with each honoree receiving a tribute of words, special performances; and a short video with highlights from their distinguished careers. Al Green was introduced by Whoopi Goldberg, Patricia McBride by Christine Baranski, Tom Hanks by David Letterman, Lily Tomlin by Garrison Keillor and Sting by Meryl Streep.
Emmy and Tony Award-winning actress Baranski delivered an emotional and lively homage to McBride, recollecting her time in New York in the 1970s. “This was the golden age of New York City Ballet. This company’s principal dancers were like rock stars and the jewel in the crown or, I should say, the dazzling red ruby was Patricia McBride. From her dark eyes and porcelain skin down to her impossibly pointed arch, she was the one… the one you couldn’t take your eyes off,” the actress said with utter affection.
“There was her blazing partnership with Edward Villella; but she also danced with the great Jacques d’Amboise and the legendary Mikhail Baryshnikov. She was the muse of two of the 20th century’s greatest choreographers, George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. All of these names are Kennedy Center honorees. Tonight, at long last, she joins their company,” Baranski continued.
“She had this rapturous love affair with her audience because of her emotional generosity, her joie de vivre, her humanity which radiated to the off-reaches of the balcony. I know. I was sitting up there shouting ‘Bravo!’ Thank you for however many hours, years, tears, pains, sweat and emotion it took to be that astonishing. Bravo, Ms. McBride! Bravo to our American prima ballerina!”
It was fitting that the dance segment of McBride’s celebration began with a performance by Tiler Peck, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet and one of the brightest ballet stars of today, who had recently spent more than two months in Washington, capturing our hearts with her superlative performance in the Kennedy Center’s own brand-new musical, Little Dancer.
“It’s very special for me to be here honoring Patricia,” said Peck in her red-carpet interview before the performance. “I am so happy she is getting this award. She deserves it. Patricia is just one of a kind. She was such a versatile dancer; she could do anything. And she is just a special human being; she is very lovely.”
Clad in a sparkling little dress, Peck whirled and flurried around the stage to jazzy sounds of Gershwin, stitching together one marvelous string of pirouettes after another in one of her favorite roles – the “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” solo from Who Cares?.
Lauren Lovette, a soloist with NYCB, and Jeffrey Cirio, a principal dancer with the Boston Ballet, were splendid in an excerpt from Rubies. “Patricia was such an amazing dancer and she still inspires young dancers today. She is a quintessential American ballerina to me,” said Cirio before the gala, commenting on McBride’s award.
Wearing a light-colored flowing dress, Misty Copeland, a soloist with American Ballet Theatre, was magnificent in an evanescent, swirling solo from Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, by Balanchine.
Dressed in pink, Peck returned to the stage with Jared Angle, a principal dancer of New York City Ballet, for a passage from Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering. An expressive and generous dancer, Peck made this short, fluid duet particularly exquisite.
McBride was obviously thrilled to see four dancers of the Charlotte Ballet (Anna Gerberich, Sarah Harkins, Alessandra Ball James and Pete Leo Walker) teamed up with Peck, Angle, Copeland, Lovette and Cirio for an exhilarating finale of “I Got Rhythm” from Who Cares?
The gala culminated with a musical homage to Sting. It included performances from Lady Gaga, Esperanza Spalding and Bruce Springsteen. For the final exclamation point, Bruno Mars unleashed his inner rock star with a rousing rendition of Sting’s greatest hits, including “So Lonely,” “Roxanne,” and “Message in a Bottle,” bringing this unforgettable night to a stirring conclusion.
The 2014 Kennedy Center Honors gala concluded with a supper dance in the grand foyer.
The gala will be broadcast on the CBS Network as a two-hour special on Tuesday, December 30 at 9:00 pm.