Patricia McBride wasn’t quite prepared to teach her dance class Thursday at Charlotte Ballet Academy. She’d spent too much of the day on the phone, taking congratulations for her 2014 Kennedy Center Honor.
McBride will join Al Green, Tom Hanks, Sting and Lily Tomlin at a private ceremony Dec. 6 in Washington, D.C., where they’ll receive awards from President Barack Obama. She’ll sit in a box at the Kennedy Center the next night, as performers pay tributes on stage. (That show airs Dec. 30 on CBS.)
“It would be a dream if our (Charlotte Ballet) dancers could dance, but I have so little to say about it,” she said. “They’ve told me to just relax, do nothing and enjoy the celebration.”
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The Kennedy Center does not reveal names of nominators or criteria behind selections. A press release from Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein refers to her simply as “one of the world’s greatest ballerinas, (who) continues to carry forward her legacy for future generations.”
But the prize probably honors both halves of her creative life: 28 years as a principal with New York City Ballet, dancing masterpieces by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and 18 years running Charlotte Ballet with husband Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux.
Balanchine was in the first crop of Kennedy honorees in 1978. Robbins followed in 1981. Five great NYCB dancers preceded McBride into the Kennedy pantheon: Arthur Mitchell, Jacques D’Amboise, Maria Tallchief, Edward Villella and Suzanne Farrell.
“I owe so much to George Balanchine, who took me as a teenager and gave me beautiful dances my whole career,” she said. “Mr. B has been with me my whole life, and he’s still with me: I’m (setting his) ‘Four Temperaments’ now for the opening show in October.
“New York City Ballet used to go every other year to the Kennedy Center, and I’ve danced there so many times. Then we went twice with Charlotte Ballet, and it was thrilling to see our extraordinary dancers being craved and loved.”
A dance institution
So it’ll be Old Home Week for the girl from Teaneck, N.J., who decided at 12 that she wanted to be a dancer even before she saw her first professional ballet.
She moved to New York two years later as a scholarship student at Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, then danced as an apprentice and a member of the corps. At 18, she became the youngest principal dancer; when she retired at 46, she’d held that position longer than anyone.
Bonnefoux and McBride came to Charlotte in 1996 as artistic director and associate artistic director of what was then called N.C. Dance Theatre. They enlarged the main company to 16 dancers and built Charlotte Ballet II, young professionals who do lecture demonstrations and residencies at schools. In gratitude, the new facility at 701 N. Tryon St. was named Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance.
She turned 72 two weeks ago, shortly after hearing about the prize from Kennedy Center officials. They swore her to secrecy: She was allowed to tell only Bonnefoux, but he was on a retreat without a cellphone or computer.
“I couldn’t get him for 10 days,” she said. “When I told him, he was so happy he cried on the phone.”
“It’s the highest reward a dancer can hope for, and it’s not just for classical dancers,” said Bonnefoux. “It goes to modern dancers, Broadway, everyone.
“We don’t know why she won, but when you look at the scope of what Pat has done, it’s not easily matched. She’s helping young artists, and that’s a special quality.”
When the Kennedy Center asked for a response, she wrote, “I’m honored, astonished, moved, humbled and ecstatic to have been chosen. It’s extraordinary to be honored for something that I have loved doing and has given my life so much meaning and fulfillment.”
And she hoped, as life began to return to normal Thursday, her company would share in the glory.
“The dancers inspire me: They have a passion that’s unparalleled anywhere. As Balanchine used to say, we have a garden full of beautiful flowers, and they’re beautiful in so many ways.”