Patricia McBride has visited the White House multiple times and danced at the Kennedy Center for years with New York City Ballet, starting with its first season in 1971. So you can forgive her if her weekend in Washington, D.C., earlier this month has blurred into a whirl of state dinners, private tributes and public acclaim.
But the associate artistic director of Charlotte Ballet remembers one moment quite clearly: When David Rubenstein, the center’s chairman of the board, placed a rainbow-hued ribbon around her neck that identified her as one of five Kennedy Center Honors winners for 2014. (You can watch the public broadcast Tuesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.)
“The ribbon has a gold clasp behind, like a necklace, and it’s heavier than you’d think because of the metal bars,” she said, referring to tags that read “Patricia McBride,” “Kennedy Center Honors” and “December 7, 2014.”
“Tom Hanks can win Oscars. Sting and Al Green win Grammies. Lily Tomlin can win a Tony. But in the dance world, we don’t have awards like that. For a dancer to win this is special.
“In Europe, a great dancer might be on the same level as a movie star. In America, not so. So it’s great to get national exposure for dance.”
She spoke backstage at Belk Theater, where she’d gone to check on a school performance of “The Nutcracker” by Charlotte Ballet. (She tries to see each public performance of a show.) Looking back on her celebratory weekend, the thing that made her happiest was the presence of husband Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, artistic director of their company, and children Christopher and Melanie: “That my family could be there the whole weekend, really, was the best part.”
Listening to her, you could see the truth in comments by Jacques D’Amboise, her frequent dance partner at New York City Ballet and a Kennedy honoree himself. D’Amboise, bursting with energy at 80, stopped on the red carpet to talk to reporters before the ceremony.
“As a partner, certain people are floating lilies. That was the way she was,” he recalled. “Always thoughtful, always good manners, not a drop of malice and never complaining.
“A lot of dancers complain all the time. ‘Oh, I can’t go in today. Oh, I hurt.’ Patty never said that. She was always sweet and excited: ‘Oh, we’re going to dance today! Great!’ And it wasn’t Pollyanna. It was real.”
McBride reportedly kept even Jerome Robbins, the famously irascible choreographer, on an even keel. So nobody would be surprised to learn her fellow honorees were grinning and gracious around her.
“I was nervous, because I didn’t know what meeting Tom Hanks would be like after seeing all his movies,” she said. “But he was completely charming. He said (on the red carpet), ‘Patricia McBride – love those gams!’ And he’s egoless. All of them were.”
All? Even the notoriously prickly Sting?
“Oh, yes. At one point, I said, ‘We’d love to have you come write music for a piece for Charlotte Ballet.’ He just smiled. And Al Green, whom I didn’t know much about, was so funny!” (She’ll know more now: Green’s manager mailed her a box of his recordings, so she could become a fan.)
A Mercedes van whisked McBride and her family around Washington that weekend, from the State Department (where Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a Saturday dinner) to the White House on Sunday afternoon before the public show to the after-party at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, where she stayed.
“It was a pleasure to meet President Obama and Michelle,” she said. “I’m not a political person, but I admire what he has done.” He’d have been in high school when McBride and Mikhail Baryshnikov danced two pas de deux on the tiny stage in the East Wing during Jimmy Carter’s presidency.
The honorees never speak for themselves or perform during the weekend. So another longtime NYCB star and Kennedy honoree, Edward Villella, paid homage at the Saturday affair; actress Christine Baranski presented McBride at the Sunday night show; Damian Woetzel, a retired NYCB principal whose career briefly overlapped with McBride’s in the late 1980s, arranged the onstage dance tribute.
Yet McBride expressed herself indirectly, through movement, as she has all her life. Four of the dancers she helps train at Charlotte Ballet – Alessandra Ball James, Anna Gerberich, Sarah Harkins and Pete Leo Walker – performed a snippet from “Who Cares?,” the George Balanchine ballet set to Gershwin’s music that she and D’Amboise (among others) premiered in 1970.
“You don’t get to say which dancers will perform for you,” she said. “You can ask, but there are no guarantees. I think Jean-Pierre suggested it to Damian, and I was touched that it could happen. Our company has danced twice at Kennedy Center, and to see some of them dance on this occasion – that was so moving.”