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Ted: New York City Ballet Benefit Is Off

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“We have all been here before.”
Crosby, Stills, Nash or Young—one of them

By Ted Kruckel

In Le Mythe de Sisyphe Sartre (or was it Camus?) used the Greek myth to demonstrate the eternal yet varied repetition of life. Sisyphus, as I recall (don't roll your eyes, just skip ahead if you cannot stand it), pushed this rock up a hill, strenuously, ardently, every day. But when he neared the summit, said rock rolled back down and the task began anew. I always thought it a stupid tale, and assumed that existentialists were just lazy, using heroic futility to justify their colorless stories (if you can sit through a Beckett play, I bow to you).

Ah, but now je compris. We repeat ourselves, our patterns, our lives, knowing that we are merely retreading paths fore-trodden. For me, it's going to the same party, year after year, even if I didn't enjoy last year’s model.

Un annee passé I auditioned for this column (against no one—still, I was cast) with what I considered a fair, gentle even, assessment of New York City Ballet's annual Dance With the Dancers benefit, which was held again this season at Lincoln Center's New York State Theater last week.

I've attended and enjoyed this event many times, and still salute the way it actively involves the actual students and dancers as a way to recruit young donors. (At 41, I was far from the oldest, je t'assure, and the Franglais stops here, je promis.) It's like the training-wheel version of the Metropolitan Opera's gala where you have dinner on the stage amongst the props, practically with the camels (don't knock it 'til you've tried it).

Here's the set-up. Every year a few young, socially prominent women act as chairs, with no repeating. They pick a theme and a decorator. The young dancers from the company and its feeder school sell raffle tickets and do a short theme-inspired performance during dessert. It is almost always covered by The New York Times (who reported that they cleared $400,000 this year), Women's Wear Daily, blah, blah, blah. There are no celeb attendees yet, I'm pleased to report.

The performances are usually just so-so (last year's off-key warbling by Deborah Harry was a crowd pleaser but a musical embarrassment, and no, the promoted entertainer does not count as a celeb attendee). But the trained dancers letting their hair down and enjoying their art provides a visceral connection to your patronage.

Dance With the Dancers has also served as a kind of unofficial end to the New York social season, the last in-town eve where swells rise for post-dinner dancing with (relatively speaking) abandon. A few seasons back, Rena Sindi drove the boat with an Arabian Nights theme (it's in her Assouline book, Be My Guest: Theme Party Savoir-Faire) and they kicked everybody out whenever they have to kick you out at Lincoln Center (another sign of a great party is forgetting the time you left, no?).

Last year, the party had all the right players and elements in the house: One fancy lady's dress repeatedly fell off her bosom (I tried to fix it, sorry), another lady fashion V.I.P. went behind closed doors with one of the City Club Hotel-provided, blue-underwear-clad bartenders (I tried to follow). Yet it didn't quite take off.

I was underwhelmed by the obvious-choice disco balls and store-bought floating-candles décor (by Bronson Van Wyck and his ma of Van Wyck & Van Wyck) that didn't trip the light fantastic and may have complained about the buzz-killing, thanks-list speeches. But the truth is you can’t really point to the thing that makes a party zing or not. But I lamented the fading of a near-legendary gala. And when one of the oh-so-social chairs confronted and complained (months later in public, tsk, tsk), well that's as close to Woodward and Bernstein as it gets for a party writer.

But it wasn't journalistic integrity that brought me back again this year. It must be that Sisyphus thing that had me barreling back from the beach to attend a Monday event*—the instinctual need to push the same damn rock up the same damn hill.

Why else, on a perfect beach day, race to a magnificent but breeze-free deck, sweating, waiting and hoping that a bartender will notice me? Like last time, they are super-sexy-shirtless, but this year they’re cocky, not willing to cop to being caterers, dancers or actors. OK, I only asked two, but last year I remember friendly guys.

Inside, a fully dressed female bartender from Robbins Wolfe Eventeurs (they're good, big-time caterers—ignore their silly name) was way more accommodating and remembered my name and my drink order. (Isn't that the whole trick when you're spending money, feeling personally cared for?) I was soaking up the air-conditioning (readers of this column know that air circulation is a frequent fixation here, and let me tell you, they got good air, and plenty of it in the New York State Theater) pleased with my cocktail location when an important Condé Nast dame came inside with a visibly sweaty brow.

Time to get to work and ask some questions and take some notes. (It's also disclosure time: All the evening's main vendors and all but one of the chairs are social acquaintances and/or previous business colleagues. Will that do?)

Chris Robbins, the cheerful and eponymous caterer/eventeur, hands me a martini (yes, yes, there's repeated verbal and written reassurances of “shaken not stirred” to match this year’s James Bond theme). He 'splains to me he's done this event before, though not last season, so he knows the drill. This is a dance party, and they don't want a fuss. Thus the main course is plated and placed before guests sit, with only one full-service round for an elaborate dessert. So smart to eliminate courses.

With poultry, meat and vegetables all simply proffered at room temp, who can complain? I'll even abide the waiter who pretends that the pre-set sauce, also tepid, is hollandaise. It is efficient. People eat uncaring (but uncomplaining) and the table butlering is swift, wine is repoured, and a special-order vodka appears without complaint or delay.

But the tables are hot and heavy, for more than one reason. First off, there are more than 20 candles on every table. There's a three-tiered, water-base Lucite number with the same store-bought floating votives from last year, plus a few flowers (orchids, I think, designer Antony Todd was busy when I approached) with four pairs of plain votives flanking each set-up. Too many candles is my number two pet peeve (today). Even though Lincoln Center's air conditioning was up to the task, don't forget that candles also visually imply heat. It just looked too damn hot—50 or so tables means more than 1,000 candles—for June.

I gather that Antony either cut or donated his fee, since he was thanked as a sponsor (both in writing and via microphone—I wish people would simply say “please read the names of our sponsors”). That matters so I'm pointing it out.

Each chair was laden with two gift bags from Saks Fifth Avenue (Saks' Jacqui Lividini, a new mom, was a chairwoman) and Chanel (arranged by co-chairwoman Jill Kargman, just weeks after giving birth to her book, The Right Address).

Now listen, I am so for eliminating steps, so I buy hanging a gift bag on the chair as opposed to making a station with a tablecloth where two (hopefully) attractive and pleasant staffers dole them out. I am also in complete understanding with sponsors and donors, particularly of the caliber of Saks and Chanel, who don't want to commingle their gifts. The bag is everything. Jill's dad, Chanel bigwig Arie Kopelman, would have a fit if he knew how I re-use those black and white shopping bags. But two hanging bags per chair with 27 candles on the table is just too much to negotiate.

While we are talking about sponsorship, I'm stating unequivocally that Shape magazine is not the right kind of sponsor for the New York City Ballet, nor the right commercial partner to share the stage with Chanel and Saks. It's simply too down-market and off-message. I understand fund-raising pressure, but wrong is wrong. Call me next year, kids, I'll try to get you a suitable magazine sponsor.

Conversely, I was wishing for more paper products in the raffle ticket buying process. The skinny but earnest dance kids were selling hard, and how can you resist? But I'm fussy about money things like this and I objected to their procedure. You fill out the tag, and then they walk away, leaving no receipt, no number. They call your name if you win, which is simplest for them.

I bought the tickets as a gift for my date, but had nothing to present to her. I told her, but it just isn't the same as saying, “Hold on to these, let's get lucky.” Also, I had nothing to present to my long-suffering husband-and-wife accountants, Maggie and Andre, for whom non-receipt cash expenses are an ongoing source of irritation.

Did I mention that the ballet's staff is always nice when I call? There's other good bits I'll regret not mentioning. But maybe next year, je suppose.

* A note on Monday nights to you arts and museum organizer types: We get that it is your one dark night each week and the only time you have the run of the joint, but we all hate it and it is time to face facts.

Posted 06.23.04

Columnist Ted Kruckel is an experienced and opinionated former event and PR pro who ran events for 20 years for high-profile clients like Vanity Fair, Elle Decor, Christian Dior and Carolina Herrera. He shuttered his firm, Ted Inc., in 2003. You can email him at [email protected].

Photo courtesy of New York City Ballet

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