The 2014 Kennedy Center Honors Sunday night began with a gospel-soul revival and ended in an incendiary mini-rock concert. In between came almost three hours of tributes and copious adulation – some of it directed at Charlotte Ballet’s Patricia McBride, who was honored for helping to lead that company and three decades of masterful dancing at New York City Ballet.
She seemed dazzled as she moved down the red carpet before the show. Honorees and their guests had attended a Saturday night dinner hosted by Secretary of State John Kerry and gone to the White House Sunday afternoon to meet President Barack Obama. Their takeaway was a rainbow-hued ribbon bearing rectangular brass bars that read “December 7, 2014,” “Kennedy Center Honors” and their names.
“To have been the muse of (choreographer) George Balanchine was the most exciting thing I could imagine,” she told reporters in the velvet-roped media pen. “The ballets you do make you into the final product you are. And I had extraordinary partners.”
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One of them, husband Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, sat with her and the other honorees – Al Green, Tom Hanks, Sting and Lily Tomlin – in the presidential box in the mezzanine of the 2,364-seat Opera House.
They listened as actress Christine Baranski (“The Good Wife”) praised McBride’s poise, grace and sense of humor and added, “She had the ferocity of a linebacker and the elasticity of a rubber Gumby.”
All the tributes but one, not to mention opening remarks by host Stephen Colbert, blended affection for the honorees and teasing.
The lone exception came in the deification of Hanks. It began with a long speech by Steven Spielberg about his Everyman persona and ended with Martin Short singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with new lyrics: “Yankee Doodle went to Spielberg, riding on his Oscars,” as a military chorus, fife and drum corps and color guard marched about.
The other segments had more dignity. All began with a speech by an admirer of the honoree: Garrison Keillor for Tomlin, Meryl Streep for Sting, Whoopi Goldberg for Green. A short video recapped a career. Lastly came performances by guest artists who always drew gasps from the crowd because none are announced in advance.
Jane Fonda, Jane Lynch, Kate McKinnon and Reba McEntire contented themselves with one-liners and fond memories for Tomlin, who has inspired and/or performed with each. But the sung and danced tributes brought the black-tie audience to its feet with the most heartfelt ovations.
The one for Green began with Earth, Wind and Fire fronting a 13-piece ensemble on “I Can’t Get Next To You” and ended with Mavis Staples and Sam Moore sizzling slowly on “Take Me to the River,” accompanied by the Joyce Garrett Choir.
The Sting finale started with Lady Gaga belting “If I Ever Lose My Faith in You,” built to Bruce Springsteen’s intense “I Hung My Head” – payback for Sting’s rendition of “The Rising” when Springsteen got this award in 2009 – and ended with Sting sound-alike Bruno Mars rocking “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle,” accompanied at last by the cast of Sting’s Broadway musical “The Last Ship.”
Dance fans’ excitement peaked during McBride’s segment. New York City Ballet’s Tiler Peck praised her beforehand, calling her “a special human being: a great dancer, but also a lovely person. Most NYCB roles I dance were hers, so it’s an honor to perform for her.” She zipped into Balanchine’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” (from “Who Cares?”) and joined NYCB’s Jared Angle in a snippet of Jerome Robbins’ “Dances at a Gathering.”
American Ballet Theatre’s Misty Copeland, Boston Ballet’s Jeffrey Cirio and NYCB’s Lauren Lovette also danced. But McBride beamed when four members of Charlotte Ballet – Anna Gerberich, Alessandra Ball James, Sarah Harkins and Pete Leo Walker – swung through “I Got Rhythm,” the infectious capstone to “Who Cares?” Eventually, all nine dancers came together at its climax.
“When I hung up my toe shoes, I didn’t look back,” McBride said just before the event. “In all my years, I have never looked back.” Luckily, she had another generation of great dancers willing to do it for her.