No one could miss the magic. Cool alleys of giant pines wind through the park, the entrance by footbridge leads over a creek; far below, you can glimpse striated mounds accreted by live mineral springs. And then: the stately grounds. Even today, in its celebratory fiftieth-anniversary season, with a new plaza built around stadium-size latrines and concessions selling fried dough, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center maintains some of its Nelson-and-Happy Rockefeller–era allure. The center was built to offer New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra permanent summer residencies, and though attendance at dance events and the dance season itself have shrunk considerably over the past thirty years, coming to SPAC still feels eventful. The audience is filled with fans. They dress for the occasion. They know the performers. They roar with recognition when someone introduces the evening’s program. They cheer during curtain calls. They applaud, contrary to City Ballet’s urban custom, when dancers exit, and at the end of each musical section. They even clap for the scenery.
The dancers are looser here. They sweat more. They seem less remote. In fact, they are. If you stroll back behind the theater, you can watch them warm up through the studio windows. And the works themselves, especially the ones set out of doors, stir different sets of nerves when they themselves are performed in the outdoors, and the stage drops blend into real scenery. Imagine, among this year’s offerings, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with spooky deep black woods just outside one’s peripheral vision. Imagine the sublunar opening of “Serenade”—that surreal Delvaux landscape populated by sleepwalking—framed by crepuscular skies. Imagine, in a few minutes, the bosky glade of “Emeralds” morphing into Saratoga State Park to its sides.
Tonight is American Girl Night at SPAC, and NYCB is performing Balanchine’s three-act plotless masterpiece, Jewels. American Girl sponsors one performance each year. The audience has even more young girls than is typical. There are the bun-heads—young dancers—instantly spottable by their turnout and the stylish and ladylike footwear, too touchingly adult for their age and figures. There are always the very young, often in tulle and, if there’s more than one, in matching tulle, scrambling around blankets on the lawn. But tonight there are more: girls with dolls, or rather moms with dolls and their daughters, their many daughters or their daughter’s friends, dressed to the nines for a summer outing. The moms really do have their hands full. Getting to their seats in time is a challenge. Keeping their daughters in the seats is a challenge. Keeping themselves from texting during the performance—and, when they aren’t, from talking to their daughters and their friends, or from fussing over something—is apparently, the greatest challenge of all. One might reasonably wonder whether ADD is nature or nurture with this crowd.
They make it through the first part of the evening, “Emeralds.” Lyrical and sensuous, the lovely Tiler Peck, in the role created by Violette Verdy, appears to have inhaled perhaps a bit too much expensive perfume tonight—is that the effect of being in the woods?—while her counterpart, Rebecca Krohn, might have drunk some by mistake before her entrance, judging by her distracted air. Half of the American Girl crew make it through the second act, “Rubies.” Megan Fairchild, in the role created by Patty McBride, evinces sass and vinegar and fearlessness. But next to none of them stay for the trilogy’s end, the magnificent “Diamonds,” which is a great shame. Hieratic and distant, Sarah Mearns delivers a breathtaking performance, imperfect but spectacular. (Come to think of it, imperfect but spectacular could stand in as a description for the SPAC experience.) It’s clearly late and past many of their bedtimes. Hey American Girl, you should sponsor a matinee! The brightness of midday may dim the magic, but it won’t go away.
Jeff Seroy is senior vice president at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and a correspondent for the Daily.