The Washington Ballet added some refreshing excitement to the crowded spring social scene on Friday night with the Hemingway in Paris Ball at the Library of Congress. The event channeled Paris in the 1920s, with dancers in plumes and satin petticoats performing a stunning can-can; an authentic French meal of bouillabaisse followed by salad and cheese courses, with French wines; and after-dinner dancing few could resist. If a guest started to flag, all he or she had to do was step to the side for a made-on-the-spot chocolate crepe and more Champagne. The only thing Hemingway would have missed were cats.
Perhaps kittens rather than cats, tiny ballet dancers greeted formally dressed guests as they climbed the handsome stairs of the Italian Renaissance-style Library. The petite dancers, students from THEARC in Anacostia, twirled, pliéd, and curtsied, while behind them an accordionist set the mood with French cabaret songs. Add to that the hues of twilight, a breathtaking view of the Capitol building, and the spring air, and voilà! A good beginning to an even better party.
Inside the Great Hall, waiters passed silver trays with authentic ’20s-era drinks: gin martinis, Sidecars, and a Pernod and bitters concoction. These and other drinks were organized by Philip Greene, author of the book To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion. Behind the bar, bartenders uncorked chilled French Champagne as fast as possible, replenishing flutes in outstretched hands.
The ball was black-tie, of course, but some of the guests took it a stylish step further. Alison Paley, for example, in cream silk and strands of pearls, had a flapper flair. Jane Harman’s sequined sheath suggested Gatsby and Picasso. One man appeared to be in spats. The showstoppers, though, were the can-can dancers, who sashayed down the stairs and into the hall, quite literally kicking the party into a higher gear. They squealed, they twirled, they jumped in the air and landed in splits on the floor—they even pulled unsuspecting guests from the sidelines to come dance with them, no kicking or splits required.
Between the dancing and dinner there was only a brief pause for remarks from the ball’s co-chairs, Motion Picture Association of America president Chris Dodd and his wife, Jackie Clegg Dodd, who also had their young daughters, Grace and Christina, with them. Christina was on crutches, “not from ballet,” her mother said, “but from a flying leap over some pillows.” Dodd, a former senator, said chairing the ball was the “first time in 38 years I was raising money for something other than my campaigns.” Sylvia A. de Leon, head of the ballet’s board, called the evening “the most successful gala in the history of the Washington Ballet.” With them under a spotlight on the stairs was artistic director Septime Webre, who choreographed “Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises,” opening next month at the Kennedy Center.
At dinner, served upstairs on the mezzanine level, the tables were named after Parisian streets; some had views not only of gorgeous flower arrangements (roses, tulips, hydrangeas) but also the Capitol dome in the distance through tall glass doors and windows. It’s brave to serve bouillabaisse to 380 people, but Susan Gage Caterers pulled it off, despite the challenges of preparing the meal in back corridors and rooms of the ancient library. The fish stew was followed by a salad of watercress and endive with vinaigrette, and then a plate of French cheeses served with lavender sel gris and fruit. Between courses, guests could take advantage of a uniquely Washingtonian perk: climbing the flight of stairs to the balcony that provides a panoramic view of the esteemed Reading Room.
At my table I got to know Gouri Mirpuri, wife of the Singaporean ambassador. They arrived from Indonesia only six months ago, and she is still settling in. With her was a good friend, the choreographer Astad Deboo, who was visiting from India. He has collaborated with the Bolshoi Ballet, Pino Bausch of the Wuppertal Dance Company, Pink Floyd, and DC’s own Gallaudet University. Others at the table included Dr. Vicken Poochikian, James Spellman, Irene Roth, South Korean artist Sunhee Kim, and Annie Totah.
As soon as guests finished their cheese course, they started filing back down the marble stairs to the Great Hall, where they crowded onto the dance floor. DJ Pitch One did the spinning. In the middle of the swirl was DC City Council member Jack Evans and his wife, Michele. Evans helped earmark hundreds of thousands of dollars for the ballet and its work with THEARC, the Anacostia-based DC arts education center. We asked Evans whether his plan to run for mayor is still on track. It is. Expect an announcement in the next weeks, as soon as he finds the right location to officially throw his hat into the ring.