After a tidy donation to the American Ballet Theatre, a friend was rewarded with two member passes to a dress rehearsal of their new ballet, Lady of the Camellias, and invited me to come along. Cool. A member of stage crew in school, I’ve always been as fascinated with what’s happening behind the curtain as in front of it.

I also looked forward to photographing Lincoln Center, especially the interior of the ballet’s home theatre, the Metropolitan Opera House, with its great, curved staircases and dazzling crystal lights. But when I arrived at the Met — alone, my friend had suddenly been hit with a virus — I received the disheartening news from a security guard that no photographs were allowed in the house beyond the ticket takers. Bummer! I consoled myself with some rapid shots in the gift shop and lobby.

Once seated, I contemplated a brightly-lighted stage dotted with a few pieces of beaten up furniture and dusty looking, rolled up carpets. Okay, this was a dress rehearsal, but shouldn’t the joint look more organized this close to zero hour? Dressed in a baggy, red sweater and gazing down at the floor with concentration, the lead ballerina circled the stage, going through bits of her routine in slow motion. Stage hands rapidly criss-crossed paths in and out of the wings. Clipboard carriers conferred with dancers in leg warmers. A performer in a hooped black gown swept uncertainly around the set trying to get the hang of her costume’s wide swinging skirt and sweeping floor length.

After the lights went down…Silence. Not a note of music. Dim lights popped up around the stage and men in dark suits, capes and top hats started silently traipsing in and out of the space. This sashaying around continued till a big lettered sign appeared: “Auction.” Ah-ha. So much for the forlorn furniture. The hooped skirt lady sailed in, plucked up a portrait of presumably Camille and dramatically hugged it. So there it was. Our consumptive heroine had already coughed her last cough and her possessions were now being auctioned off.

Unfortunately this silent, disjointed opening set the pace for the rest of the production, which was low in energy, repetitive in choreography and s-l-o-w…actually pretty much in keeping with the ballet’s flashback thread of action—which was, after all, Camille on her way to the happy hunting grounds. But taking three hours to expire on a stage is not much of a prescription for a thrill packed story or dynamic dancing.

The carefully groomed, afternoon crowd composed mainly of women — their hubbies presumably busily engaged in bacon-land — was respectful and still, while I squirmed In my seat, trying not to check my watch again to see how much longer till intermission. For the most part, the women were casually dressed in sleeveless tops and sandals, making me over-dressed in a dressy shirt and earrings. (I had even filed my nails for the occasion.) There was, however, no missing all the high karat gold gleaming at their wrists and necks.

Finally free at intermission, I moseyed on downstairs for a spot of spying in the more upper crust seating areas. I’ll be jiggered. Look what the big buck contributors had down here: a swanky private room, The Belmont Room. The door was open wide enough to allow a peek inside at spacious, posh furnishings that yelled: “Private Club.” And as if that weren’t exclusive enough, top tier patrons also had their own private terrace furnished with commodious wicker furniture to lounge around in and put up their feet. Yep: the American Ballet Theatre sure knew how to treat their big spenders.

And what an ingenious idea too, this modern concept of rewarding benefactors with passes to dress rehearsals, events that are already part of the theatre process, thereby costing the company pretty much zero in effort and funds. Take note – to all organizations currently trying to wring contributions out of the money crowd: forget about saying thanks to benefactors with material gifts. They have plenty of things. Instead, express your gratitude with experiences donors can later reflect on and recall as long lasting, singular memories.

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