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A New York Impact – An Interview with Attorney and AWB Student without limits Kenneth Gordon

Interview by Rachel Brodine

Kenneth Gordon is a New York based attorney, who has a long history of attending performances at the New York City Ballet. Kenneth is currently taking Ballet classes both via ZOOM and in person (including AWB Virtual classes) although he is 71 years of age and has a variety of physical disabilities.

Rachel: What sparked your interest in dance/ballet?

Kenneth: My parents discovered George Balanchine shortly after he first came to New York City. They attended performances of his ballets even before there was a New York City Ballet. My family has had a subscription to the NYCB from the outset of that company. 

In either 1954 or 1955, my father took me to see a performance of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®. I fell in love with ballet from the moment I attended that show. I was especially intrigued during that performance by Drosselmeyer. My father later told me that George Balanchine played Drosselmeyer that evening.

I have been attending NYCB performances since 1954-1955, and have been privileged to see some of the greatest dancers and finest ballets in history.

While I have seen many other ballet companies, I am an unabashed NYCB fan. I have seen various forms of modern dance, but ballet is my passion.

Why is dance so important? Because we are all programmed to dance. When music plays, our bodies respond. We want to move.

Why specifically ballet as opposed to other forms of dance? Because we are all programmed to fly. We all dream of flying. But we can only jump up and fly for a few seconds. To “fly” for longer than that we need to be lifted by some person or machine. Except for ballet, where the dancers (especially ballerinas on pointe) are barely in contact with the earth. Ballet dancers defy gravity and move to (often glorious) music. Thus, ballet satisfies two primal dreams: To move to music and to fly.

Why do we attend performances to watch other people dance? Because while we want to move to music, we have two problems: (a) we don’t know what to do; and (b) even if we could figure out what to do, most of us aren’t physically able to move the way the music urges us to. The solution is to attend performances of ballets created by great choreographers (who know what to do) that are danced by skilled ballet dancers (who are physically and artistically able and trained to bring choreography to life).

R: Who are some of your favorite choreographers and dancers?

K: My favorite choreographer ever is (no big surprise) George Balanchine. There are two categories of choreographers for me: George Balanchine and everybody else.

Among the others, my favorite is Jerome Robbins. Of contemporary choreographers, Justin Peck is my favorite. My ballet teacher, Anne Easterling-Friefelder is also a wonderful choreographer. She recently created a piece to a Bach Toccata and Fugue entitled ‘Re-Make’ that was danced by Teresa Reichlen and Russell Janzen of the New York City Ballet.

My favorite male dancers of all time are Edward Villella, Jacques d’Amboise, and Damien Woetzel. 

My favorite ballerinas of all time are Suzanne Farrell, Patricia McBride, and Teresa Reichlen (for whom my wife Elizabeth and I have commissioned four ballets, including the Bach piece I just mentioned).

My favorite ballet pair of all time was Anthony Dowell and Antoinette Sibley.

There are also a host of current dancers who in my view are well on their way to scaling Olympus. If time permitted, I could name dozens more dancers and couples.

R: Who are your favorite composers?

K: Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, and Chopin. Of the four ballets Elizabeth and I have commissioned, two were set to pieces by Bach, one by Mozart, and one by Dvorak.

I have been playing the piano for 65 years. At one time, I was hoping to become a concert pianist. When the sad reality sunk in that I lacked the talent to do this, I ended up becoming a lawyer and now play the piano in my spare time.

R: When did you start taking dance classes?

K: I took my first ballet class in late 2011. By then I had been watching and enjoying ballet for over 55 years. I decided to take classes because of my love of ballet and to improve my fitness.

In high school, I wrestled and played soccer. I later took up marathon running and completed five marathons. But then I got injured in 1986 and have not been able to run longer than a few miles since then. Nonetheless, I continued to eat as if I were running marathons (i.e., 14,000 calories a day). Through eating my usual gargantuan portions (I have never lost an eating contest) I managed to put on over 70 pounds, develop heart disease, and become diabetic. I also developed a variety of orthopedic problems (back pain, busted knees, etc.). If I wanted to continue to eat like a hippopotamus and not turn into a complete butterball, I needed to exercise. Since my back and knees couldn’t bear the stress of pounding 6-20 miles per day on the pavement, and since I love ballet, the choice seemed clear. After all, having watched ballet for so many years, I knew a lot about this art form. Or so I thought.

Ballet, however, turned out to be far harder than I ever imagined. I was 62 at the time of my first class, and was becoming morbidly obese. I persuaded Anne Easterling (today Anne Easterling-Friefelder) of The Ballet Club that I was serious about taking up ballet. She had an adult beginner’s class, and I thought that would be an ideal first step for me. My illusions, however, were soon dispelled. Anne had me come in for a try-out, and to my horror she told me that I was not even at a beginner’s level. Plus, it turned out that I did not know anywhere nearly as much as I thought I knew about ballet. Anne told me I would have to take months of classes before I could even qualify to take a beginner’s class. But I am stubborn, and persevered. By 2012, and with Anne’s patient help, I attained the exalted level of “beginning ballet student”.

I have continued taking lessons at The Ballet Club since 2012, and have made slow but steady progress.

R: What physical challenges have you faced that complicate your ability to dance?

K: You name it, I’ve got it. I was fat, I had herniated discs in my back, I had serious respiratory difficulties, I had a heart attack in 2012, I required back surgery in August 2015, I’ve had a number of shoulder injuries, I’ve had arthritis in my knees requiring three operations and then had a partial knee replacement in December 2015. I have all sorts of foot injuries that are too disgusting to describe. Because of my variety of ailments, I was instructed by my physicians to avoid strenuous activities lest I have another heart attack, to avoid bending (because of my back) or straining my knees (one of which is only half human), and to avoid putting weight on my feet whenever possible. In sum, I was told that ballet would cripple me if it didn’t kill me.

I suffer from constant pain in my back and legs. To top everything off, a little more than a year ago I fell out of bed and snapped my neck. Standing up straight has now become very difficult and painful, as is walking or lifting my arms.

But I like challenges, so I soldiered on with my ballet lessons. I have never once regretted this decision. Fortunately, my instructors have been patient with me and taken good care of me.

R: How has dancing impacted your life?

K: Attending ballet class and dancing ballet is incredibly rewarding and well worth all the pain. While I have many other passions, the time I spend in ballet class and dancing ballet is among the great delights of my life. I won’t give it up for anything. Even when I was scheduled for back surgery and barely able to walk, I went to class and did my best to keep up. 

The results have been spectacular. I have lost weight (about 40 lb. thus far, including over 20 lb. in the past seven months). I am no longer diabetic. My heart disease has nearly vanished.  My EKG’s have become nearly normal. My back pains have lessened. The only thing that has not improved is my partially reconstructed right knee. That’s because it’s made of titanium steel. Steel does not improve even with ballet class.

Most important, I feel ever so much better. My posture has improved. My breathing is better. My core strength has increased dramatically.

As my fitness improved (in large part because of ballet), I took up mountain climbing and training for mountain climbing in the gym. In 2018, I managed to pull myself up a 65′ peak, but then fell down trying a 100′ peak. I worked out for another year, and then last August I made it to the top of that 100 ‘ peak. I am now training for a 1,000 foot climb in the desert in October. My ballet classes have been an essential part of my training. 

The three most important impacts of ballet class have been:
1) I can more fully appreciate the skill and artistry of professional dancers,
2) The sheer delight of dancing ballet, and
3) I was able to continue to eat 10,000+ calories a day (I love to eat, preferably in large quantities) and still lose weight.

R: How have you incorporated dance into your life during your career as New York attorney?

K: Before 2011, my experience of ballet was as a spectator. My clients are sometimes leery of attending ballet, but I have converted nearly all of them. When they allow me take them to dinner and prime them for the choreography and dancers they are about to see, these ballet “virgins” discover they love the NYCB. Almost everyone wants to return.  Over the years, ballet has been a fabulous tool for getting new clients and entertaining and keeping existing ones. 

Since 2011, I have devoted more and more time to learning ballet both through education from my teachers and from taking class. Most important of all, I have been able to perform.

In 2013, I performed a duet that was choreographed for me and one of my classmates by Emory LeCrone (Megan LeCrone’s sister).

In December 2014, I performed the role of Drosselmeyer in The Ballet Club’s annual performance of The Nutcracker. Having seen at least one (and usually numerous) Nutcrackers every year since 1954/1955, being able to be part of an actual production was sheer magic. I cried.

Later that same month, I had what was perhaps the most thrilling (and nerve-wracking) experience of my life. My beginner’s class gave a recital. In attendance were about 75 knowledgeable ballet people, including Teresa Reichlen of the New York City Ballet and two former principal dancers from the Bolshoi Ballet. Dancing in front of this audience was light-years more daunting than any trial or oral argument in which I have participated as an attorney. Among other things, I danced in a piece performed by Anne (the head of the Ballet Club) to music by Scarlotti.

To top this all off, at my December 2014 recital I danced the role of the Cavalier with the Sugar-Plum Fairy in a slightly revised version of Balanchine’s pas de deux from The Nutcracker. It helped that my partner (the Sugar-Plum Fairy) was performed by a student who had trained with the Royal Ballet. Even more magical was the fact that my partner and I were both coached by Harrison Ball and Megan LeCrone of the NYCB! Harrison taught me lifts. Best of all, in rehearsal I got to play Cavalier and dance the Balanchine Nutcracker pas de deux with the incredible Megan LeCrone. 

Talk about a dream come true!

R: How did you get connected with Megan LeCrone as your teacher?

K: I met Megan’s sister Emory through YAGP. She choreographed two of the four ballets my wife and I commissioned for Teresa Reichlen. Emory helped coach me for my first ballet recital.

I initially knew Megan as a fan. My wife and daughter were with me when I first saw Megan dance Dewdrop in The Nutcracker. She was incredible, and that was the first time we sent her flowers (the first of many bouquets Megan has received from the Gordon-Frenchman household). I initially met Megan through Emory, and Megan filled in as a coach for Emory to help get me prepare for my 2013 ballet recital.

When my fellow students and I discovered that Megan is a fabulous teacher as well as a brilliant ballerina, we took classes from her. And then Megan took on the major role of preparing me for my 2014 recital. I have learned so much from her!

Since that time, I take class from Megan whenever our respective crowded schedules permit.

Megan is both inspiring and patient. She knows my strengths (fanatical devotion to ballet and a willingness to try anything) and my weaknesses. In particular, Megan knows my various medical problems. For example, my mechanical right knee can only bend deeply a limited number of times before it fails, so Megan allows me to cheat on deep plies and combres. When I really need to, I can do these moves. But Megan knows I am saving myself for one last performance when I will go full blast. She knows my goals and has been amazingly supportive.

R: What goals are you currently working towards?

K: I want to improve my dancing, and hope (if we ever emerge from the current pandemic) to give at least one final performance on stage. To do this, there are a number of specific skills I need to work through, e.g., better promenades, pirouettes, tour jettes, jumps, etc. I am also working on my upper body strength so that my lifts in my ballet finale will be all I want them to be.

I am also training to climb Solar Slab in the Nevada desert in October. This is approximately the same height as the Empire State Building, and the climb is like scaling the Empire State Building from the outside. The temperature will be above 100 degrees, and this will take me at least 12 hours in the desert sun. Ballet is part of my training for this possibly suicidal venture. I will need to lose at least another 10-15 lb. to have any chance of success in this climb. Ballet helps in this weight loss program.

Climbing Solar Slab will be extremely difficult. But even more challenging is the ballet finale I am planning (if I make it back alive from Nevada).

Goals are great. They keep us alive (providing they do not kill us).

R: What drew you to the Art Without Borders Virtual Program?

K: The Ballet Club where I take classes stopped giving live classes in March because of COVID-19. My teacher Anne-Easterling Freifelder has been giving 90-minute adult class each week. When I learned that Megan LeCrone was back in New York and giving virtual classes, I signed up. Learning of the other outstanding dancers who are also giving virtual classes at AWB, I realized that AWB provides an excellent chance to bolster my education and training while my ballet school is closed.

R: How have you embraced the new challenge of learning online?

K: This has gone better than I anticipated. My apartment is not well suited to serve as a dance studio, and using a chair as a barre and trying to dance on a rug are hardly ideal. But Anne has designed ZOOM programs for us that enable us to work on many aspects of our technique.

Megan’s class, which is not solely for seniors, is more challenging, and I can’t always keep up. Her ideas, however, are always refreshing and challenging, and I love it! I am especially happy that AWB is going from 60-minute classes to 90-minute classes. Among other things, this will let us do some center work.

I was able to get a private lesson with Megan earlier this month, and she will have a few classes for a very small group during August, so I will get to dance in a studio at least a bit. But this is hardly sufficient for my current needs, so I am grateful for the chance to take Anne’s weekly ZOOM class and the AWB classes for which I have signed up during this difficult time.

R: Words of wisdom to encourage in this dark moment?

K: I wish I could say something encouraging, but things look bleak.

One of my clients is a public sector City union. As a result, I have to deal with a range of COVID-19 related issues for our members, including how to allow our people to continue to provide essential City services (e.g., water, ambulances, fire engines and ladder trucks, sanitation collection trucks, police patrol cars, etc.) without getting sick or dying. We have already had many tragedies. While we have managed to get the City to adopt new protocols to protect essential workers (what was happening at the outset was a travesty), the future as it has been related to me suggests that matters will not return to normal for quite a long time.

From what I have learned from the various City agencies with which I deal, I do not expect to live long enough to see another live ballet performance. There will probably not be an effective vaccine approved for at least about another year. It will then take 12-18 months to get even 75% of the population to submit to the vaccine. (Another approximately 25% consist of the crazy anti-vaccination people who will never agree to get the vaccine). Once the vaccine gets administered to those willing to get it, there will be the shock that it does not provide complete protection, and there will be further deaths.

Ballet is, and will continue to be, hit especially hard. 

The only hope for the foreseeable future is for remote classes and performances. Thus, what you folks at AWB are doing (and what teachers like Anne at The Ballet Club are doing) provide the only glimmer of hope that the wonderful art of ballet will survive this pandemic.

I thank you and all the dancers who are working with you from the bottom of my heart.  If ballet does not die, it will be because of such efforts.