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Where Have All the Dancers Gone?
Though longtime residents have fond memories of ballet celebrities socializing in the Spa City, changing times and a changing city have relegated much of the revelry to the past
By Mae G. Banner

Spotting New York City Ballet dancers after hours has been, over the years, one of the pleasures of living in Saratoga Springs. People who normally turned in by midnight would crowd into the Adelphi Hotel on Broadway after every performance, just to ogle the long-limbed, sturdy-calved members of the corps—maybe even to rub shoulders with a principal dancer.Voyeurs who didn’t know a backstroke from a bourée would lounge around all afternoon at the Victoria Pool in the Spa State Park, hoping to get a glimpse of a bronzed Peter Martins or to see rubbery-limbed Mel Tomlinson dive off the board.

But—sorry, folks—that was then, a halcyon period that flourished from 1966, when the Saratoga Performing Arts Center first opened, to about 1986, three years after George Balanchine died.

“After that, the company just changed. It lost its fizz,” says Sheila Parkert, proprietor of the Adelphi and fervent champion of the ballet. “About 19 or 20 dancers left the company all at the end of one summer, and the others are too young to drink.”

Raising the drinking age from 18 to 21 has deterred many dancers from hanging out downtown after hours. For Arts Sake, a volunteer group that works to drum up local interest in the ballet, moved its annual postshow party for the dancers and ballet orchestra from the Adelphi to the National Museum of Dance on the SPAC grounds this year to keep the youngest dancers away from the temptations of kalhua and rum.

Yes, a good handful of dancers did attend. Ravenous after dancing a wild Symphony in Three Movements, they gorged on homemade quiche and lasagna and told us how much they appreciate the Saratoga audience, which is more vocal than the usually blasé Lincoln Center crowd.

The Saratoga audience laughs, they said. Here, they applaud after a smashing solo, like cognoscenti at a jazz concert. They even boo the villain in curtain calls after Swan Lake.

The dancers know how much the local fans appreciate them, and they thrive on all that energy. Corps member Aesha Ash, who danced her last solo in Western Symphony on the final night of the season (July 26)—she’s leaving the company to become a soloist with the Bejart Ballet based in Lausanne, Switzerland—says, “Saratoga is special. I love the kids [who crowd around the stage door after every performance]. We’re the corps: You don’t always get people fawning over you. It makes you feel special.”

I was able to thank Ash personally last summer, when I saw her coming out of the Four Seasons health food restaurant on the corner of Phila and Putnam Street. Years before, when that very space housed Mrs. London’s patisserie and restaurant, I actually tripped over the outstretched leg of principal dancer Ib Andersen.

You can still see the occasional dancer or two at restaurants that stay open late. Chianti on South Broadway was a favorite this year, and I overheard some talk of Peabody’s Sports Bar on Phila. You’re more likely to spot them, though, at the 24-hour Price Chopper on Route 50, where they are stocking up on calories for their rental kitchens.

Which brings us to another reason why dancers have become less visible downtown in recent years. It’s the growth of Saratoga Springs.

Christie Handley, who has worked as a backstage dresser for about 20 years, explains: “Dancers used to live on the Skidmore campus or rent apartments downtown. Now, they live all over Saratoga. You don’t see them at Victoria Pool any more because, now, they get in groups of eight to 10 people and rent houses with pools.”

Victoria Pool, a part of Spa State Park, offered free admission to the dancers from 1966 to some time in the 1970s, according to a park official who declined to be named. “Every year, Mr. Balanchine would send a letter listing the dancers’ names and they would have access to the pool. We’re not sure of the date, but in the ’70s, a new state regulation said, ‘No,’ ” the park staffer said.

(Ballet fans who made a ritual of going to the pool haven’t changed their routine. In fact, this summer, led by Louise Goldstein, they’ve started a grass-roots movement to repair the Victoria’s crumbling infrastructure. Already, they’ve set up a meeting with park officials.)

Back to those invisible dancers: Handley, who teaches 10th-grade social studies in South Glens Falls, said the best place to see them this summer was in the theater: “They’re always working. Their day starts with class at 10:30 AM. Then, they have rehearsals all day, right up to a warm-up class onstage at 7 PM. The curtain goes up at 8:15 PM. Sometimes, they’re even rehearsing behind the stage curtain during intermission.”

This has been an unusually intense summer, for two reasons: First, the company danced three full-evening story ballets, which was extremely—some would say, excessively—demanding on the dancers and stage crew. Handley notes, “Story ballets are ensemble ballets with everyone on stage most of the time.”

Second, as you read this, the company is performing at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, where they will be dancing works by Balanchine, Martins, and Jerome Robbins through Aug. 5. In September, they’ll be in Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen, and in March, 2004, they’ll be at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

All this touring is part of a yearlong celebration called Balanchine 100, that honors the centennial of the birth of their founding choreographer.

The punishing schedule kept the dancers rehearsing the St. Petersburg repertory while they were at SPAC, so they had few breaks away from the amphitheater. “A lot of them take naps right in the theater,” Handley says. “They can’t be downtown with a schedule like that.”

Dancers may load up on carbs before a performance. They eat serious meals after the curtain goes down. Fans have spotted dancers this year grabbing coffee at Mrs. London’s or Uncommon Grounds, or stopping at Boston Market, where they filled their plates with carb-laden side-dishes, but no chicken.

When they’re asked what they like to do in Saratoga, dancers say they love driving their rental cars—a treat, since they don’t need cars in the city. When they’re not rehearsing, some go antiquing, and, now that the racing season overlaps with the ballet’s final week, some enjoy going to the races.

But, whoops. The expanded track schedule is another reason dancers are harder to find downtown. “Rents rise when the racing starts,” says principal dancer Philip Neal, “and that makes it harder for dancers to live in Saratoga. It’s also noisier. Some dancers live around Lake George. I rent a place in Middle Falls, so I wake up to peace and quiet.”

The days when dancers partied after hours in the Adelphi have provided me with treasured memories. At that time, members of the ballet orchestra got together in the hotel ballroom to play Mozart or Schubert’s Trout Quartet, just for the joy of it. One violinist had a T-shirt that said “Camp SPAC.” Daniel Duell, a multitalented principal dancer who went on to direct the Chicago City Ballet, would play the flute.

My favorite place to sit was not in the ballroom, but in the small porchlike room tucked between the dining room and the stairs that led to the garden. From this vantage point, I could look through a pair of windows into the ballroom. Also, I could see everyone who passed through to the garden.

One unforgettable night, I found myself sitting literally inches from Balanchine, who was entertaining a table of guests with stories about Stravinsky and about how to prepare a plate of meze. Across from him sat principal dancer Karin von Aroldingen, and next to her, the set and costume designer Rouben Ter-Arutunian. I’m still breathless, just thinking about it.

Maybe the dancers will be more visible when they return in 2004 to celebrate Balanchine 100 at SPAC.

For now, I ask Neal, “Where do you go on your time off?”

“What time off?” he replies.

This Week in Saratoga

Friday, AUG. 8

Nunsense II, Saratoga Springs City Center, 522 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. Popular musical comedy returns. 8/7-9, 8 PM. Matinee 8/9, 2 PM. $15. 581-9401.

Story Dance ’n Play. The National Museum of Dance, 99 S. Broadway, Saratoga Springs. Fri, 10-11 AM: An hour of folk and fairy tales with dancing inspired by the story and music. Open to children 18 months to 5 years. Free. 584-2225.

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs. 8/8, 8:15 PM: The Philadelphia Orchestra with violinist Elmar Oliveira perform works by Ravel and Brahms. $56-$14.50. 587-3330.

Borders Books & Music, 395 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. 8/8, 7 PM: Russ Dunn will present Adventures Around the Great Sacandaga Lake and sign copies. 583-1200.

Saturday, AUG. 9

Nunsense II, Saratoga Springs City Center, 522 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. Popular musical comedy returns. 8/7-9, 8 PM. Matinee 8/9, 2 PM. $15. 581-9401.

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs. 8/9, 8:15 PM: The Philadelphia Orchestra with violinist Joshua Bell and cellist Boris Pergamenchikov performs works by Beethoven, Brahms, Ravel and Rachmaninoff. $56-$14.50. 587-3330.

Sunday, aug. 10

St. Clement’s Church, 231 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs. 8/10, 7 PM: The Saratoga Choral Festival will feature Vaughn Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem and liturgical works by Rachmaninoff. Free. 791-0185.

Wednesday, aug. 13

Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga Spa State Park, Saratoga Springs. 8/13, 8:15 PM: The Philadelphia Orchestra presents a Salute to St. Petersburg and its Great Composers, with works by Glinka, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. $56-$14.50. 587-3330.

Saratoga Race Course

Open daily through Sept. 1, except Tuesdays.

Location Union Avenue, Saratoga Springs, 584-6200.

Admission $3 grandstand, $8 clubhouse, children under 12 free: seats are $5 and $8, respectively.

Parking $7 per car at the main gate and $5 across Union Avenue at the Oklahoma Training Track.

Racing At least nine races a day; pari-mutuel wagering on every race.

First Race Post Time 1 PM (except Travers Day, Aug. 23, when it’s 12:30 PM).

Major Stakes Races The Sword Dancer Invitational (Aug. 9); Alabama Stakes (Aug. 16); Travers Stakes (Aug. 23); Hopeful Stakes (Aug. 30).

Promotional Item Giveaways Baseball Cap (Aug. 10); Wall clock (Aug. 17); T-shirt (Aug. 31).


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