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American Ballet Theatre Turns 40 with a Gala for the Love of Lucia

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From A (lonso) to Z (orina) the stars came out

As a social event, the 40th-birthday party of the American Ballet Theatre was chic to jowl. Swarms of the elite paid $100 to $600 apiece to fill the flower-strewn Metropolitan Opera House from the orchestra to the family circle. Some had come for the sensational New York debut of Soviet defector Aleksandr Godunov, but most were there to pay tribute to, and sing a swan song for, Lucia Chase, 79, who has been co-director(with Oliver Smith, also retiring) of the ABT through its often turbulent years. When Chase leaves in September, Mikhail Baryshnikov will become the new boss.

From Alonso to Zorina, from all over the world, the stars came out to dance for Chase, whom choreographer Agnes de Mille, another ABT grande dame, described as “nine-tenths granite…almost ready to take on the Ayatollah.” One headliner was conspicuously absent: From Paris Baryshnikov cabled his polite regrets to “Dear Lushinka.”

The evening was in three acts—a pre-performance reception for patrons and other fat cats in the grand tier lobby, with Chandon pink champagne and a Grand Marnier-flavored birthday cake; the gala itself, with two dozen acts lasting 3½ hours; and, finally, an intimate backstage party with white wine and beer for the cast and friends. Feuds and temperament were checked at the stage door. Everyone kissed and there were a few tears. Jacqueline Onassis, honorary head of the gala, slipped through the crowd to hug Rudi Nureyev. The Heineken ran out by midnight, but the party flowed on with Gallo until 1:30. Toward the end of the evening Lucia Chase, talking with Jackie and daughter Caroline, observed, “Well, we’ve made it chic to be 40.”