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The Washington Ballet bounces back with the capital’s first post-pandemic gala

After the formal programming, guests dance at the Washington Ballet gala, which was hosted at the Kennedy Center on June 4. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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That buzz at the Washington Ballet gala wasn’t the cicadas. It was the sound of 400 people breathing a massive sigh of relief.

The black-tie benefit at the Kennedy Center on Friday night was the first big VIP event in 15 months, the first time Washington society returned to the glamorous fundraising whirl it loves so much. Tuxedos were required but masks were optional; everyone had to submit a vaccination card or a negative coronavirus test to attend. Guests greeted each other like long-lost family — hugging, air-kissing, taking lots of pictures to capture the moment.

“At our first gala planning meeting back in the fall, faced with a completely unknowable future, we made the decision to be optimistic,” gala co-chair Lisa Barry told the audience. “We were inspired and encouraged by artistic director Julie Kent’s creativity, courage and determination to move forward despite the pandemic. . . . And here we are tonight at an in-person gala. The show has indeed gone on!”

The evening, which raised a record $1 million for the organization, was also a redemption of sorts: Last year’s gala went viral — literally — after one of the co-chairs contracted the coronavirus and a number of members of the ballet company, including Kent, became infected.

The virus didn’t stop a Washington socialite from throwing a backyard soiree. Then the tests came back positive.

One year later, ambassadors, millionaires, politicians and other dignitaries casually mingled on this flawless June night. The guest list, including Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), former House speaker Paul Ryan, White House Deputy Director for Legislative Affairs Reema Dodin, NPR’s Nina Totenberg and Diane Rehm, Fox News anchor Bret Baier, philanthropist Sheila Johnson, and Reggie Van Lee — nominated as the new chairman of D.C.’s arts commission, who was honored for his support for ballet and other arts organizations — was only possible because the ballet insisted that everyone adhere to strict vaccination and test compliance or be turned away.

“The idea that this was a huge precondition for us to spend time together is not too much to ask of people,” said Warner. “Is there not some minimum respect we should show to each other?”

Surviving the pandemic was the subtext of the night, and so the small talk was a bit bigger. The first question for many seeing each other for the first time in a year was an earnest, “How are you doing?”

An emotional Kent was the only one to bring it up directly. “The Washington Ballet chose to keep moving forward, persevering through the worst public health crisis of the past century,” she told the crowd. “Now, on the precipice of a new chapter, we are stronger and we are filled with gratitude for all that we learned and experienced together.”

What they learned is that optimism is never enough. Last year’s June 18 gala — a virtual event with some live components — was originally deemed a triumph in the early days of the pandemic. But the next day, gala co-chair Ashley Taylor Bronczek came down with the virus. Several members of the ballet were exposed and became ill after Bronczek came to the company’s headquarters for the live-stream portion of the gala, and a number of other people were infected after attending her private backyard celebration — without masks, seated closely together — that night.

Three weeks after the gala, Kent announced her diagnosis in an Instagram post. She did not say how or where she might have contracted the virus, but at least three other ballet employees got sick after participating in the fundraiser.

Washington Ballet director Julie Kent says she is recovering from covid-19

So it was critical that this year’s event go off without a hitch and with every possible precaution in place.

Planning began last October, when the organization — buoyed by the success of its virtual programs over the past year — decided to move forward with this year’s event. “It’s possibly the most complicated gala we’ve ever undertaken because of the unique timing of it,” said the ballet’s managing director, Patrick Muhlen-Schulte. “We tried to foresee all the possible permutations that the health restrictions would have. We had multiple contingencies planned.”

Given all the unknowns at the time, they first settled on finding an outdoor performance space where the dancers could shine. Then they began the process of determining what safety protocols would be required to pull off this gala. Reditus Laboratories, one of America’s leading coronavirus testing labs, signed on as a sponsor. “And then we said, ‘It would really help us if you could test our dancers throughout the season as well, because we’re spending a fortune to try to get them tested twice weekly,’ ” said Muhlen-Schulte. The lab agreed, which allowed the company to rehearse together and for every guest who needed a test to have one.

Instead of one large dinner, the gala committee recruited hosts for 26 private dinners around town before the main event. The dinners ranged from 10 to 50 guests held at embassies, private homes, social clubs and the Kennedy Center’s new Reach space, where ballet board chair Jean-Marie Fernandez hosted a VIP dinner.

Then everyone converged on the North Plaza of the Kennedy Center for cocktails, a ballet performance, dessert and dancing. The timing was perfect. The District’s restrictions on large crowds have been lifted; CDC guidelines do not require masks outdoors for those who have been vaccinated. The carefully timed schedule was thrown off from the start because people insisted on catching up with old friends and schmoozing with new ones instead of taking their seats.

“I’m so happy to be at my first big event, post-covid,” said Van Lee. “Nothing could be better than this.” In keeping with the evening’s “Leather and Lace” theme, he wore a vintage Dolce & Gabbana lace jacket he found in his closet. “I’m surprised I can still squeeze into it.” His date for the night, Cora Masters Barry, wore a black lace ensemble. Given the balmy night, there were a notable number of black ballgowns, perhaps a nod to the formality of the event, perhaps a concession to pandemic pounds. “Slimming,” said Van Lee with a laugh.

Van Lee was responsible for persuading Kent to leave New York after three decades with the American Ballet Theatre, and was singled out for his contributions to bringing diversity and inclusion to the country’s arts organization. There was also a special tribute to the late Buffy Cafritz, a ballet patron and supporter.

There was dancing, of course: six short modern and classical ballets that showcased the company’s performers, then a DJ and dance floor for the less lithe in the audience. The professional dancers jumped in to provide the energy; the guests, the enthusiasm.

Washington was back to normal, at least for one night.