That Time I Saw Swan Lake

Last year, around the same time I decided to start this blog, I promised myself I would quit talking about going to see a ballet and actually GO SEE a ballet performance. I wanted to see the best dancers in a great location for a reasonable cost. I wanted to see Misty Copeland with my own two eyeballs. I wanted the best seat I could afford…and was lucky enough to find tickets to the American Ballet Theater’s (ABT) performance of Swan Lake at The John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, DC. This is my recollection of my experience.

At the time I purchased my ticket in November for the January show, I searched the web for the principle dancers but no information was available on the ABT site or the Kennedy Center’s site. After waiting for weeks to no avail, they finally opened up ticket sales to the general public and I quickly booked the last box-level seat for the Saturday evening performance. I found it interesting that The Kennedy Center charges about 10% of the ticket price to book tickets online, or else you have to physically show up at the box office, but I wanted the best seat available and the quickest way to achieve that goal was to buy online and pay the fee. That’s just how it goes. No refunds. No exchanges. Whatever.

A week later they announced the lineup and who other than Misty was dancing…except she was the principle dancer for Friday and Sunday night, not Saturday night. Correction: not my Saturday night. Not even the day. As the French say, Pas de tout, Not at all!  I’m not going to lie, I was salty. I’ve been trying to see her dance for months and I felt as though the opportunity slipped passed my right in my own backyard.

Oh well.

I refused to allow this mishap to dampen my spirit so I thought, “it’s just not meant to be…and maybe I can catch her at another performance or better yet, in NYC.” Once I got over the spilled milk, I was excited- What would it be like? What do people wear to the ballet? Where can I eat to make the evening even more magical? And what about parking? There were so many questions and the interwebz could only answer but so many.

When the day finally came, I was focused. I was going to have a great time. It was going to be amazing.

First thing’s first, it was a cold day in January so I pre-reserved a garage parking ticket for a $3 discount through the Kennedy Center’s partnership with a parking vendor online and downloaded the pass to my phone. Every dollar counts! After I secured my parking pass, I attempted to download my ticket to show on my phone at the door but it didn’t work so I ended up calling the box office and was informed you MUST print your ticket. That seemed a bit archaic, especially having just downloaded my parking pass to my iPhone. At any rate, my printer was not working so I called the center’s customer service line and the rep was kind enough to offer to print my ticket for me and have it available at the box office window for no additional charge. Score!

Next step: clothes. What did people wear? What was the age range? How did they dress in the winter? I searched the web and found many different answers. Some people recommended formal attire, others jeans, and the rest offered some vague combination of “shirt” and “bottoms”. There were hardly any images of the site or the attendees, so I took the middle ground and went business casual. I dressed in navy blue suiting pants, a sheer white polka-dot tuxedo shirt, and red pointy-toed heels.

I arrived 45 minutes early to park in the garage. After winding through a very confusing construction zone to the garage entrance, which happened to be on the left side of the street, I asked the attendants if I was in the right. After questioning what kind of parking ticket I held, they told me I was in the right space. Apparently certain garages are only for ticketholders. Make a note of that. I chose a space close to a sign and near the entrance so I wouldn’t get lost.

Parking garage marker.
The garage is scary at night, take a pix of your location so you can quickly return.

The inside of the Kennedy Center is a very large, boasting multiple levels and numerous wings. When I walked in I was greeted by a map. This map was not helpful. From a design point of view, all I wanted was a bright red “YOU ARE HERE” sticker and clearly marked areas that I could navigate to. That was not available; but luckily there were friendly people in red jackets standing around to help. Correction: there were a TON of red jackets and they were courteous, but serious.

I asked one of these attendants to point me in the direction of the KC Café and the will-call area, and she politely told me where to go. She didn’t move from her post. At all. Half way down the hallway and up two flights of stairs I asked another attendant and they further pointed in the right direction. You could tell these people were not playing around and they would no accept any kind of foolishness or tomfoolery in the establishment. The Café was a nice place to get a quick and delicious, albeit expensive, meal before the show.

Boxed salad, cup of mixed fruit, and a bottled water on a lunch tray.
Be prepared to pay- I spent almost $25 on a salad, fruit, and water from the Café.

After dinner I took the elevator back to the main floor. It was almost 7:30pm and the show was about to begin! I made my way down the impressive hallway, carefully stepping on the glamorous red carpet. This was the time to see and be seen. If you wore mostly black or some other dark color, you blended right in. The crowd ranged from the very young, perhaps around middle school, to the well-seasoned and dignified. Dance companies brought their students, mothers brought their daughters, and significant others brought their significant others. There was a quiet buzz of murmurs and excitement as everyone made their way (thanks to the red jackets) to their respective seats.

Patrons walking on a red carpeted hallway with international flags hanging from the ceiling.
Red carpeted hallway en route to the Opera House.

After the red coat at the top of the stairs tore my ticket, I was directed by another red coat to my seat in the balcony/boxed seating area. Again, the signage needed work but I walked up two flights of stairs, then back down one, to my boxed seat. Another red coat checked my ticket to ensure I was in the right area before sternly whispering, “there is NO photography allowed!” Thanks. Got it.

Ticket stub.
This bonafide boxed seat ticket was worth every penny!

I walked through the double doors, passed the private coat closet, and sat in my designated row. My box happened to be right next to the presidential booth, how cool! There was one person to my right and one in front of me. The boxed sections were delineated by a partition about two feet tall, so you could see and hear what was going on around you. At first I didn’t like the idea of someone sitting directly in front of me, but once the show began my box-mates and I performed an unspoken dance- the couple in front shifted slightly to the right and myself and the woman next to me shifted left. Voilà, an unobstructed view of the entire stage!

The lights dimmed, the orchestra played, and the dancers danced in a flawless performance. The set was exquisitely designed and well constructed. The painters must have spend months designing each piece from a decadent ballroom to the swan lake itself. And the costumes, OH the costumes! They were magnificent! I didn’t know what to fixate on- from the dancers who showed us perfectly executed techniques with heart-felt passion, the expansive set design, or the costumes, this was a production worth its weight in gold! After a beautiful performance, an intermission, and the finale it was time to go home.

Would I do anything differently? Perhaps. My advice would be to stalk your favorite dancer and be ready to purchase tickets quickly at a moments notice; open a browser tab on your phone with the ticket purchase site ready to go, set a google alert, or call the center to ask for the lineup often. When the time is right, buy, buy, buy! Once it was announced that Misty would perform, the best tickets were taken so stay thirsty, my friends. I would also skip eating at the Café. The salad was tasty and in a convenient location, but overall it’s not worth the cost. If the performance was scheduled in a warmer month, I would find a local restaurant to dine at, like Circa- Foggy Bottom, then take the free shuttle to the center. Other than these things, I would keep everything the same.

Would I do it all again? ABSOLUTELY! I set out to have a good time and I fulfilled a promise to myself to see a professional ballet performance. That’s one more thing off the ol’ bucket list and another experience to share for years to come.


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