Swan’s Way

New York

Left: Collector Maria Baibakova with dancer David Hallberg. Right: Lincoln Center president Jed Bernstein. (Except where noted, all photos: Will Ragozzino/BFAnyc.com)

IN AUGUST 1991, during the last days of the Soviet Union, a three-day coup placed then president Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest in the Crimea. Citizens turning on their TVs looking for news were met with a broadcast of Swan Lake, played on loop for hours on end. Since that moment, Tchaikovsky’s ballet, a cautionary tale of love and mistaken identity steeped in a Europe-facing Imperial Romanticism, has been coupled with political turmoil in the Russian cultural imagination.

When the Moscow-based Bolshoi Ballet descended on New York’s Lincoln Center last week, kicking off its program with Swan Lake, it should have been—and in many ways, was—a triumph, a meeting of East and West harking back to the days before the current Crimean crisis and Russia’s recent restrictions on media and LGBT rights. After all, playing prince to prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova’s Odette-Odile was none other than David Hallberg, the South Dakota–born, Arizona-raised dancer who joined the venerable company in 2011 as the first American-born principal in its 238-year history.

On Thursday morning, hours before a special evening celebrating Hallberg and the Bolshoi Ballet, the potential for cultural diplomacy was put to the test by news that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 had been shot down over eastern Ukraine near the Russian border, crashing into a field of sunflowers and killing 298 people. “I wasn’t even sure if I should come tonight,” a curator confessed as droves of New York’s proverbial great and good arrived.

With women in chiffon and silk gowns and men in bespoke suits and bow ties flowing into the David H. Koch Theater, the night felt more like Edith Wharton’s New York than our post-Bloomberg metropolis. The guest list for the après-performance dinner was a far cry from the ballet’s usual scene today, typically casually dressed aficionados and tourists sporting their New York best. The crowd was cherry-picked to bring together those who work in the creative industries with those who endow them, compliments to the spirited and perspicacious Maria Baibakova, who moves effortlessly between worlds. She, along with patrons Yana Peel, Anna Nikolayevsky, Inga Rubenstein, Nasiba Adilova, and Miroslava Duma, were to host the dinner honoring Hallberg and the Bolshoi, which Baibakova conceived last fall while sharing a plate of blini with Hallberg in Moscow.

David Hallberg dances in Swan Lake for the Bolshoi Ballet at Lincoln Center. (Photo: Stephanie Berger)

Out of Order founder Dorian Grinspan and I arrived at a quarter to eight and shared a cigarette with Valentino’s Carlos Souza on the balcony. Below, we spotted Fivestory founder Claire Distenfeld and designer Rosie Assoulin being photographed in front of the fountain. Curator Neville Wakefield skirted by and China Chow posed for a picture while in sauntered Victoria’s Secret model Maryna Linchuk. There were five editors from Vogue. Also, artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, Jeffrey Deitch, Gagosian’s Cooke Maroney, patrons Phil and Shelley Fox Aarons, and designers Prabal Gurung and Derek Lam. Scott Rothkopf, curator and associate director of programs at the Whitney, walked arm in arm with Whitney cochair Brooke Garber Neidich, greeting New York Magazine editor-at-large Carl Swanson with a quick hello as conversation turned to summer houses and how underappreciated the ballet was. “I mean really,” said one. “We must attend more often. It’s just as important as art.”

This iteration of Swan Lake, a revival of Yuri Grigorovich’s 1969 version for the Bolshoi, was a fun if stilted rendition, offering awkward evidence of the Bolshoi’s many virtues. “It’s sad to see the deadening effect of this production, with its many repetitions of steps, on good dancers,” complained Alastair Macaulay, the New York Times’ chief dance critic, in his review. If the gilded set and heavy-handed choreography seemed retrograde, the remarkable dancers did their best to enliven the material. The death of Odette, though—with its anti-Petipa “Was it all a dream?” conclusion—was eerily apathetic, as she fell to the stage behind a gauzy green veil, killed by what, lethal injection?

“Is she dead yet?” whispered Grinspan.

The curtain began to fall, answering for us. “Yup, she’s dead.”

After a standing ovation and last curtain calls—“Americans don’t have patience for clapping,” a friend noted, surveying the half-empty halls as the dancers continued their bows—Russians, Americans, and Ukrainians came together to celebrate Hallberg at the Michelin-starred Lincoln Ristorante. It was nearly midnight when appetizers were finally served and, unlike most art dinners, where politics that might divide a table go politely unmentioned, whispers were rampant. Adding to the drama was news that Obama was also in town for a fund-raiser on the Upper East Side (explaining the dreadful traffic many experienced en route to Lincoln Center).

Left: Whitney Museum cochair Brooke Garber Neidich. Right: Artists Emilia Kabakov and Ilya Kabakov with Inga Rubenstein.

Baibakova, pretty in a cream-colored Valentino cape dress, was particularly distraught, having heard about the crash only moments before the performance. Her toast to Hallberg began with soft tears and a request for a moment of silence.

“We must remember that people around the world don’t have the pleasure of seeing the performing arts, as we did today,” she said, going on to speak of art’s “healing power” and praising Lincoln Center for its dedication to cultural diplomacy.

The institution’s president, Jed Bernstein, took the microphone, noting that art was indeed restorative before listing “a few fun facts about Lincoln Center” and introducing Hallberg, the man who “puts the bow in Ballet, the swan in Swan Lake.” For his part, Hallberg gave a moving toast, thanking his mother as well as the Bolshoi’s beleaguered artistic director Sergei Filin, who was responsible for bringing him to the company and who was nearly blinded last year by an acid attack plotted by another Bolshoi dancer. (Black Swan’s depiction of ballet’s internecine politics might not have been hyperbolic after all.)

Len Blavatnik, the Ukrainian-born philanthropist who paid for the dinner, had abandoned his assigned seat, apparently to sit at a less conspicuous table with his family, though no one seemed able to spot him.

“Do you know which side Blavatnik’s on?” I heard at the press table.

“Do you know what side anybody is on?” asked another.

We pushed our meticulously prepared branzino around our plates.

“I just love the ballet, don’t you?”

Allese Thomson

Left: Curator Neville Wakefield with Vogue European editor-at-large Hamish Bowles. Right: David Hallberg.