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On the cover of Ballet Review, Ethan Stiefel holds up the American flag at the curtain call for Black Tuesday on September 11, 2001. Photo courtesy Carlos Lopez.
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A Look Back at 80 Years
September 11, 2020
We asked members of the ABT community to remember where they were on September 11, 2001 when terrorist attacks struck New York City and other parts of the United States. Here are their stories.

“The rest of the season that year felt like it had more of a sense of mission to it. We had to rally around—we were American Ballet Theatre."

Where were you on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001? You might remember exactly where you were, what you were doing and who you were with when you learned that a pair of planes careened directly for the World Trade Center. You might have watched helplessly as the Twin Towers fell, one after the other—only 17 minutes apart. We all share the life-defining moments of that tragic, fateful day. Everyone has a story.

These are the stories of seven individuals at ABT, where they were on 9/11 and what happened next. Susan Jones; a Ballet Master in 2001, now Regisseur at ABT. Clinton Luckett, the senior member of the men’s corps de ballet in 2001, now Associate Artistic Director. James Whitehill, who has risen from a member of production staff back in 2001 to Director of Production. Dennis Walters, Education Associate in 2001, now Director, Education Operations. Olinda Cedeno, the longstanding, beloved Company masseuse. Sascha Radetsky, corps de ballet member in 2001 who now Artistic Director of ABT Studio Company. And Carlos Lopez, who joined ABT as a senior corps de ballet member the week before September 11, 2001 and is now Director of Repertoire.

Dennis Walters, the youngest member of the full-time administrative staff back then, was one of the few people who stayed in New York while the Company went on tour. He remembers exiting the Union Square Subway Station, just a few streets down from ABT’s offices and studios at 890 Broadway, confronted with an unusual amount of people facing downtown, looking up at the sky.

“I turned and started scanning the building rooftops trying to figure out what everyone was looking at and then I finally saw the gaping hole in the side of the World Trade Center.”

Dennis remembers looking at the horrific scene before rushing to join his colleagues at the office, who were trying to process any piece of information they could gather. They were together when the first tower fell. They were together when the second tower fell. They were all in utter shock.

The Company gathers for a group picture in front of one of their buses during their cross-country journey on September 12 and September 13, 2001. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.
The Company gathers for a group picture in front of one of their buses during their cross-country journey on September 12 and September 13, 2001. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

The rest of the Company had set out for a three-week tour on September 10, one day before the attacks. They were meant to perform on the evening of September 11 in Kansas City and then fly to the West Coast for the remaining portion of the tour in San Diego, Berkeley, and Seattle on September 12.

Having arrived in New York from Spain just a week before, Carlos Lopez barely had any time in New York City before leaving with the Company on tour. Still jet lagged, Carlos woke very early on the morning of the attacks. He decided to spend some time down in the lobby of the hotel watching TV. He saw the first plane hit.

Sascha Radetsky was doing calisthenics in his hotel room when he heard his now-wife Stella Abrera scream and rushed to the TV to see what was going on.

Susan Jones was up early that morning, and turned on The Today Show, not knowing she would see both planes fly into the towers and watch the events unfold in real time.

Clinton Luckett turned the TV on and thought he was watching a movie. He turned to the next channel, which was oddly playing the same movie, until it struck him—this was real.

James Whitehill received a call from a friend to turn the TV on. He tuned in just in time to see the disturbing images of the North tower on fire, and just moments later the second plane hit the South tower. Now the whole world was watching.

After arriving at the theater, James and the production crew tried to continue working, not knowing what was going to happen and what other events would unfold:

“I was overcome by the eerie feeling of helplessness, anger, horror and disbelief at what we were all witnessing. Then the realization that in the midst of all this I had to get back to work and gently redirect everyone else’s attention to the stage.”

Simone Messmer in <i>Black Tuesday</i>.
Simone Messmer in Black Tuesday.

The dancers began the ritual of morning class in the theater, but everyone was ducking in and out, taking turns to watch the news in a crew room close to the stage. By that point in his career, Jamie had seen thousands of classes, rehearsals and performances.

“One underlying constant,” he said, “is how completely focused and driven the dancers are. During class and rehearsals that day, it was obvious that much of that focus was interrupted by the events at home. There was genuine concern that someone onstage might get hurt in a moment of distraction during fast-paced, tight-knit choreography coupled with moving scenery and changing lights.”

There was a difficult decision to make—should they perform that night? It can be easy to forget, if you live in or near a big city with easy access to the arts, that some people, like the intended audience that night in Kansas City, wait for a long time to see the ballet. As a touring company, ABT held a responsibility that many other companies didn’t—to share ballet with the largest possible audience.

“Apparently ticket holders made it clear that they wanted to come—perhaps to get away from the reality of what had occurred,” Susan Jones said. It was decided that the show must go on. There was just one complication.

In the program that night was Paul Taylor’s Depression-era ballet, set to songs from The Great Depression, Black Tuesday, a cruel coincidence on that fateful day.

There was no chance to replace it with something else. ABT was performing to tape that night, meaning there was no orchestra to play the score to a different ballet. In a bold move led by Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie and the Company Managers, the show stayed intact.

It was clear that there was an appreciation from the audience, an intimate gratitude they had for the presence of performers facing a tragedy at home. But there was also gratitude from the Company for the presence of the audience when they needed something to dance for. Sometime later, Kevin told the Los Angeles Times in reflection of that day,

“There can’t be a question in your mind as to whether or not it’s appropriate to perform. You are part of the healing process. Last night, it was going to be a fun tour. This morning, it’s a mission.”

“The whole trip was unbelievably stressful. This stop was really the only peaceful moment in those three weeks, everyone forced a smile for the camera inspired entirely by a moment of natural beauty and sunshine in an otherwise unbearable situation.” James Whitehill and the production team pictured here in the Rocky Mountains.
“The whole trip was unbelievably stressful. This stop was really the only peaceful moment in those three weeks, everyone forced a smile for the camera inspired entirely by a moment of natural beauty and sunshine in an otherwise unbearable situation.” James Whitehill and the production team pictured here in the Rocky Mountains.

Taylor’s Black Tuesday ends with a powerful solo danced to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”, which portrays a WW1 soldier struggling to rebuild his life after coming home. All of the dancers felt sickened throughout the ballet, for standing in the background in every scene, was the New York City skyline. A skyline with two very intact Twin Towers.

The final number was performed that night by Ethan Stiefel. The curtain closed on his powerful performance to a stunned second of silence before the audience erupted into thunderous applause. Ethan joined the cast last for his bow, running out in a heart-wrenching moment, holding an American flag up high.
“I’m getting chills just thinking about it,” Sascha said as he recounted the story to me.

Given that all flights were grounded, ABT’s plans of flying from Kansas City to San Diego on September 12 were out of the question. That morning the entire Company boarded two buses for a two-day, 30-hour bus ride across the country to make it to San Diego by Thursday.

September 11 was an especially grueling day for the production team and the crew. After the crew worked from 9am to 1am and endured a restless and brutal journey, they barely had time to check in to the hotel and shower before heading to the next theater to begin the set up. For others, the trip was unforgiving in other ways. For Olinda Cedeno, it would be the worst bus ride of her life. 


Olinda and I spoke about 9/11 for a long time. Her story is particularly heartbreaking, as is true for many, many families who lost loved ones that day, and it was an honor to hear it. For her, it was one of her closes friends, Captain Patrick Brown, FDNY, of Ladder 3 on East 13th Street. He was a decorated Marine—a Sergeant—in the Vietnam War. He was one of the most highly decorated active members of the FDNY and a role model for every firefighter.

On 9/11, Paddy and 11 other firefighters from Ladder 3 were the first to arrive at the scene. He and his men safely evacuated over 25,000 people from the World Trade Center in one of the most successful rescue efforts in U.S. history. Paddy and his men were on the 40th floor of the North tower when it fell. 5,000 people attended his funeral in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. His was the last funeral of Ladder 3, and nothing could be more fitting for a man who was always, as Olinda put it, “The first one in and the last one out.”

I take this brief detour because there is no way I can do Olinda and Captain Paddy Brown true justice. No matter what, even 19 years later, we must share these stories and remember the great sacrifice that 412 emergency responders took on 9/11. We remember them, along with the 2,977 brave individuals who perished on that day.


 

Captain Patrick J. Brown. Photo courtesy Olinda Cedeno.
Captain Patrick J. Brown. Photo courtesy Olinda Cedeno.

Olinda chose to sit on the noisy bus with the dancers that day. She knew her friend Paddy would be down there at Ground Zero. She knew he would be the first one to run into the burning tower.

“He’s professional,” she remembers thinking, “He knows what he’s doing. He was tough stuff.” As she continued to hear about the 360 some odd firefighters missing, she never thought he could be one of them.

But then the phone rang. Paddy’s dear friend, Robert, was sobbing as he told Olinda that his brother was missing. “Well, where did he go?” she kept asking. “He’s gone,” Robert managed to say before he hung up. She began to sob, burying herself into a pillow she took from the hotel (“I was not going to be on that bus for two days without a pillow!”).

Dancers all around her began asking what was wrong, what happened? She lifted her head for just a moment, long enough to tell them the news.

“It was amazing what happened. I had a dancer jump over the seat to sit next to me. Wherever a dancer could put their hands on my body they did. I felt all these hands all over me. I didn’t even know who it was, but it was so healing, people just touching me.”

She sat through two agonizing bus rides across the country, but not once was she alone.

Reflecting on the return home, Clinton told me, “The rest of the season that year felt like it had more of a sense of mission to it. We had to rally around—we were American Ballet Theatre. Right before the Fall Season began, the entire organization, staff from every single department, gathered in Studio 5 and took a group picture together.”

It was the first time they had ever taken a picture like that. Though the smiles were genuine, they all intimately felt the lasting loss of 9/11. Sascha Radetsky adds:

“There was this remarkable feeling of this bond—of community, of kinship, of kindness with one another, of patience, and under all of that was a sense of mourning and a sense of grief.”

The presence of friends, family and colleagues took on a new importance. The work ABT did had a purpose it didn’t necessarily have before. Dancers have the unique ability to express unspeakable grief through a wordless artform, and sometimes that’s all we need to heal.

In the face of tragedy, horrors no one ever could have dreamed of, New York stood defiantly in a place that no one, no terrorist, could take away. Today, we still stand together. We remember together. None of us will ever forget.


We dedicate this to the courageous heroes and heroines who lost their lives in New York City, to the unimaginably fearless passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 who lost their lives in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, and to the inspiring, hard-working victims at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. We are thankful for your bravery and sacrifice. You will always be remembered.

Special thanks to Olinda Cedeno, Susan Jones, Carlos Lopez, Clinton Luckett, Sascha Radetsky, Dennis Walters and James Whitehill.

The writer, Bethany Beacham, joined ABT in 2020 as Marketing Coordinator.