“Everything was beautiful at the ballet” was the soundtrack in my brain as I chatted my way through two Youth America Grand Prix private parties. Ballet stars, women who remembered little girl classes with love, and other balletomanes filled the homes of Caroline Hyman — for cocktails to honor ABT Artistic Director Susan Jaffe — and Afsaneh Akhtari — for a luncheon to fete Dutch National Ballet company principal dancers Olga Smirnova, Jakob Feyferlik and Constantine Allen.
Another night, “Downtown” could have been the sound track to a celebration at Michele Oka Doner’s Soho loft feting Tiffany Dubin’s Sotheby’s Art as Jewelry as Art exhibit and auction.
Like jewelry as art, YAGP is one of those inevitable ideas that, if it didn’t exist, had to be created. Larissa Savaliev did. It’s an international network to foster and connect the brightest emerging dancers with the best ballet companies Their showcases are competitions. How significant are they? 70 out of the 92 dancers at ABT are YAGP alums. ABT’s current Artistic Director, Susan Jaffe, the evening’s honoree, remembered when Larissa shared the vision in her home: “She had these little red hot pants on. ‘Susan! Susan,’ she exclaimed. ‘I want to do a competition.’ With celebrities? ‘No, no,’ she said, ‘ballet!’ Thank God, I thought.
“She’s still basically the center of our existence. She was described by 60 Minutes as one of the most important people in the ballet world. She may not know it, but we do. Larissa is the matchmaker: working the room, the judges, the teachers to get the right fit. ‘Susan! Susan!’ she would say, ‘I have a perfect student for you — Perfect! Perfect!’”
Larissa founded it with husband Gennadi Savaliev. They were one of those Bolshoi dancers who lept to freedom, “20 pounds and 30 years ago,” she likes to say. “We were on tour with the Bolshoi and we didn’t come back. There’s a joke in Russia: Bolshoi may mean big, but when they return from touring, they are a little smaller.”
Judith Hoffman is Trustee Emeriti. “She’s like my mama,” Larissa continued. “She tells me what to do — and what not to do! When I don’t behave, she lets me know! When I do, she gives me a pat on the shoulder and says, ‘not bad.’”
Judith was one of those little girls who studied ballet — at Miss Marian’s ballet school in Queens, to be exact. She gave her first performance at three — in a Broadway theater. “Miss Marian somehow secured the Lyceum theater for our recitals,” remembered Hoffman. “I sang Mickey Mouse’s Birthday Party and did a quick one two tap dance with a group of three to five year olds.”
Judith now occupies the other side of the stage. She’s in the front row of Lincoln Center so often, she gifts ushers at Christmas.
Another tiny dancer? The evening’s hostess, Caroline Hyman, growing up in Olympia, Washington. “They would put notes in our toe shoes about famous ballerinas,” she remembered. “When I went to Briarcliff, I started following the dancers in earnest.” That informed a passion for collecting the Diaghilev period costume illustrations that circle Caroline and Ed’s river view apartment.
It has a storied past. The movie East Side West Side (with Barbara Stanwyck, Ava Gardner, James Mason — and Nancy Davis) shot there. Later, it was the home of Gloria Vanderbilt.
As a Medieval Art specialist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Caroline understood how collections are built. “I started accumulating the illustrations about 40 years ago when I was drifting through Sotheby’s and saw a collection for sale,” she told me. She’s donated much, as a committee member, to the Library of the Performing Arts Dance Division. “I’ll buy something I like in a lot of 20 and give the rest to them.” Impressive works from her collections of 18th Century Italian vedute (i.e. views) paintings, red-figure (for the most part) classical Greek vases from early 5th Century B.C. and Japanese woodblock prints framed singly as diptychs and as triptychs (although most were originally meant to be triptychs) are also on display.
Painter Richard Osterweil also brings an art background to the organization. And a sense of humor. “Being the new Chairman of the Board surprises no one more than it surprises me,” he told the room. He prefers to brag about the 1993 documentary Painting the Town, that followed him around from party to party. Party crasher? “Maybe,” he smiled. “A friend and I followed Lauren Bacall into Liza Minelli’s wedding. I covered it for the New York Times.”
The following week, we were at Afsaneh Akhtari’s modern, glassed, river view home, filled with modern art. This luncheon feted another expat Russian dancer: prima ballerina Olga Smirnova, who left the Bolshoi in March to protest the Ukraine invasion. Powerhouse Larissa had been a friend. The next night, Smirnova was performing with the Dutch National Ballet at City Center.
“Olga is a ballet superstar,” YAGP Director of External Affairs, Sergey Gordeev (who has a significant on air career on National Geographic, Fox Sports and the Russian American NTV networks) told me. “But, she’s also an artist and a human being with a lot of integrity. She couldn’t, in good conscience, remain a part of what was going on. For her, the Bolshoi ballet is the quintessential representation of Russian culture and their symbol to the world. She left her family, her dance family and her home. It was probably was one of the most difficult decisions of her life.”
Susan Pappajohn’s home was only several floors away. “I joined New York City Ballet, when I was 17, in 1978,” she told me, “there for Balanchine’s last two years. He chose me to do leading roles, like the Sugar Plum Fairy, right away. Being coached by him was extraordinary. Misha was still there. I’ll never forget watching Mr B coach Misha and Allegra Kent in ‘La Sonnambula.’ People talk about his steps and such. But, Mr B spent so much time on pantomime, which goes back to his Russian roots. He wasn’t just all fancy dancing. The littlest gesture from the kids in the Nutcracker, the way you hold the candles in “Sonnambula.” That ballet is all in the nuances.”
We moved to the nuanced sculptural gestures in Sotheby’s Art as Jewelry as Art exhibit, celebrated in artist Michele Oka Doner’s Soho loft. “It’s nothing like Sotheby’s has ever done before,” said Sotheby’s Artist Jewelry Specialist, Tiffany Dubin. “It’s not jewelry as you think of it. All of these works are small maquettes. Everything has a story. Michele’s extraordinary totems, for example. They’re made out of brass with diamonds put randomly as she felt they should be. They ward away the evil spirits. When you wear them, only good souls hang out with you.”
Tiffany turned to her dear friend interior designer Carolina von Humboldt, who had helped Tiffany design the rooms. “Carolina worked with me to show these nine different periods of art in a comprehensive way and came up with a brilliant plan to make this exhibition cohesive.”
“Beautiful jewelry is usually presented in a boring manner, even if you have fabulous stones and pieces,” said Carolina. “I wanted to make it different. We used lucite blocks in different levels, with a black background.”
“We added fantastic plaster busts Robert Lee Morris made for us,” said Tiffany, “and some funky mirrors. Everything pops up. The room is really spectacular.”
The spectacular rooms that set the scene for these parties stayed with me long after the make-up came off and the clothes hit the cleaners. New York is not known for at home entertaining. Yet, it is filled with stately apartments, glass palaces and one of a kind lofts. In our town, there is so much diverse beauty packed into 23 square miles. It’s always thrilling to be invited in.
Photographs by Patrick McMullan/PMC (Susan Jaffe & Afsaneh Akhtari); Michael Ostuni (Art as Jewelry as Art)