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From the Desk of David Adler: Inside The Washington Ballet's First Black-Tie Gala Post-COVID

BizBash founder and chairman David Adler reflects on the production of The Washington Ballet's first big event since the pandemic.

2021 The Washington Ballet Gala
Washington, D.C.-based Design Foundry fabricated the backdrop to the ballet. Pictured: Washington Ballet company dancer Katherine Barkman as Kitri in Don Quixote.
Photo: Tony Powell

I normally don’t report on the individual events that I attend for BizBash, but this one was special. This weekend, I was invited to Washington’s first big gala since the pandemic shuttered our industry and put a halt to in-person events across the globe for over a year. The leather- and lace-themed benefit for The Washington Ballet, which came roaring back to life at the reopened The Kennedy Center, featured 400 guests, including 30 ambassadors who cheered on performers as they danced on an all-white stage decked out appropriately with a dramatic lacework backdrop. 

While the air kisses flowed, preparing for the event was certainly not business as usual—for me as well as others I spoke with. There were challenges, namely fitting into old tuxes and dresses long shoved into the back of the closet, remembering long-abandoned table habits and overcoming the sheer alienness of being around other people again. Going out to events five or six nights a week, lunching every day at a trendy restaurant and traveling from city to city seemed normal to me for so long. In retrospect, it was more numbing than fun.

Before the official benefit, 26 private dinners took place around town including at the residences of ambassadors from Egypt, Germany, Japan, Jordan, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland and Slovakia, as well as at private clubs including The Metropolitan Club, Sulgrave Club, Chevy Chase Club and The George Town Club.

2021 The Washington Ballet GalaUS Event Structures provided tent rentals for the gala's outdoor festivities.Photo: Tony Powell

My guest, writer and producer Christian Conner, and I were assigned to The Washington Ballet board member Joan McCarthy’s table at The Metropolitan Club, which also recently reopened. The first goosebump moment of the evening was when the room stood to honor a true hero, Judge William Webster. In her opening remarks to welcome the small group at the dinner, McCarthy, our host for the evening, gave the judge a stirring introduction and detailed his numerous achievements as the only person ever to be head of the FBI and the CIA. He was even wearing the Presidential Medal of Freedom, presented by President George H. W. Bush in 1991. It was a moment that reminded us that there are true heroes in government after the turmoil of the last few years—and it was a fitting start. 

The conversations at the table felt a bit like the ice breaker for a group therapy session. The urge to connect and find common ground was the order of the night. Judge Webster met my guest, Christian, who happened to be his new neighbor in the country. One question I was asked—and asked of nearly everyone else I came across after a year in lockdown—was: “How did you make it through with your sanity?” Many newfound home chefs mulling another fancy kitchen gadget (The Big Green Egg being a favorite) could be found at our table. It felt like the first day of school with everyone excited to hear how they spent the pandemic. 

Our beat at BizBash is typically designed from the perspective of the event organizer, so we have to offer special kudos to the team at The Washington Ballet and global event management firm The Webster Group for pulling off the first major high-profile, black-tie, post-COVID fundraising event in Washington, D.C., and probably in the entire country.  

2021 The Washington Ballet GalaSummery florals from Atelier Ashley Flowers adorned tables at the gala's events.Photo: Tony Powell

Imagine the risk it was to begin planning an event this past winter. “We can’t ever go back to the way it was; this event took on a life of its own,” said Deborah Gitelson Krauth, vice president of production at The Webster Group. “For me, planning this event was the equivalent of being on an Outward Bound survival course. While it turned out well, everything was in doubt each day until the guests started arriving on Friday, June 4. Plans constantly changed; attendance limits changed; masks were on, then they were off; social distancing was required; dancing was allowed, food preparation was in flux; vaccine proof was a logistical challenge; and just doing an outdoor event added to the even normal anxiety. The charge was to move forward and lead the way into a brave new world.” 

Despite the challenges and doubts, the pandemic has helped rejuvenate people's creativity, and a new sense of positive collaboration is making events better than ever. This could be seen in the background for the Ballet performances serving as a centerpiece for the experience. Created by Design Foundry, the delicate and impactful set also doubled as a dramatic setting for the DJ who appeared at the top of a mountain of lace. According to Cory Frank, CMO at Design Foundry, the lace panels took around 40 hours to create and were made up of 68 layered pieces ranging in size from 4 to 8 feet wide, and there were around 4,000 holes in the lace overalls. Every aspect of the event, including the carefully crafted set, was meticulously planned to create a feeling of joy at being together again.  

While this is just one of the thousands of events rebooting in a post-vaccine world, I wanted to take a moment to express my gratitude for all the thousands of people, companies and organizations who can now get back on track. We have an industry that was badly hurt by the pandemic. We understood the need to put a pause on human gatherings. We are grateful to science for developing a vaccine that has now allowed us to come back. We mourn the almost 600,000 deaths and applaud the frontline workers who risked their lives to help us to survive. We are about to begin the return of our industry filled with new seriousness of purpose. We also know that more than ever before, the world appreciates what we do as an industry to help create the bonds of connection. 

AV, Lighting, Venue: The Kennedy Center
Catering: Occasions Caterers
Decor/Stage Design: Design Foundry
Entertainment: DJ Kryptk
Event Management: The Webster Group
Florals: Atelier Ashley Flowers
Health Screening/COVID-19 Testing: Reditus Laboratories
Photography: Tony Powell
PR: Pen Communications
Subsequent Venues: The Metropolitan Club, Delegation of the European Union, Sulgrave Club, Chevy Chase Club, The George Town Club, International Student House, The REACH at the Kennedy Center
Tent Rentals: US Event Structures
Valet: MJ Valet

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