Baryshnikov dazzles the crowd

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For the better part of a century, one of the areas most beautiful parcels of land was home to a sprawling prison complex housing some of DC’s most hardened criminals.

On Friday evening, the former site of the Lorton Corrections Facility in southern Fairfax County played host to scores of local patrons of the arts at a dazzling performance by the worlds greatest-living male ballet dancer.

Mikhail Baryshnikov’s appearance at the new Workhouse Arts Center at Lorton signaled a promising step that the redevelopment of Lorton’s 2,300 acres is well underway. 

It’s a wonderful irony that a minimum correctional facility will become a maximum creative facility, said Baryshnikov, who at age 59 displayed an effortless grace in his performance. This is simply a wonderful and just project. In our turbulent times, every step, every word of an artist should support the arts. 

In 2001, the last prisoners were transferred from Lorton, and a year later, Fairfax County acquired the facility for $4.2 million. The county now leases the compound on a 50-year lease for $1 dollar a year to the Lorton Arts Foundation and has committed $5 million in matching funds over five years towards a gleaming new 55-acre performing and studio arts complex. 

Friday’s event raised $1.3 million towards the $150 million total build-out of the arts complex, proceeds to be split between the Workhouse and the Baryshnikov Dance Foundation. Already $45 million has been raised, most from local private givers. Baryshinkov, an early supporter of the project, has vowed to be involved with its growth and has signed on as an artistic director.

Several years ago we could not have imagined having Mikhail Baryshnikov at Lorton, said Gerald Connolly(D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. “It was a bit of a risk but we believed in the vision. This will become a real center for creativity for Fairfax County.

In addition to rolling meadows, streams and woodlands, the former prison site contains over 300 buildings, many designated as historically eligible.  The rest of the land will be made into parkland and developed into Laurel Hill, a development of mostly million-dollar homes.  

The Lorton Reformatory was constructed in 1916 as a collection of classically inspired, symmetrical dormitory complexes with no cellblocks, walls or watch towers. The brick buildings were built by the prisoners themselves, using bricks manufactured at an on-site kiln complex. In later years, it became known as an outdated and badly overcrowded facility.

The new Workhouse will feature studios, galleries and performance space. The forbidding fence which penned in prisoners is still there, but will soon be removed by construction workers, who have been working to transform the space for its spring 2008 opening.

Over the weekend, hundreds of VIP’s and local arts-givers, garbed in black-tie and formal dresses, got their first peek at the new facility, which Lorton Arts Foundation President John Ariail of Old Town calls a cross between Wolf Trap and the Torpedo Factory.

Among attendees were former Gov. Mark Warner (D-VA.), who pitched in $25,000 from the Collis-Warner Foundation, Sen. John Warner (R-VA) and wife Jeanne, as well as Del. Jim Scott (D-53), Supervisor Elaine McConnell (D-Springfield), State Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-Alexandria), and Supervisor Gerald W. Hyland (D-Mount Vernon).

Baryshnikov gave a 15-minute retrospective performance against a backdrop of grainy black-and-white films from earlier days as a ballet dancer. This really was theatre in the raw, Ariail said. This was a performance as good as any in the world, and foretells only good things to come here.

Afterwards, the 250 guests who paid $2,500 apiece for the honor  filed out of the old prison gym and into a massive tent with candelabras and a four-course dinner prepared by celebrity chef Cathal Armstrong of Old Town’s Restaurant Eve, which closed for the evening. After dinner, Dr. Tracy Fitzsimmons of the Shenandoah Conservatory presented Baryshnikov with an Honorary Doctorate. “You’re a great artist and teacher,” she said. Youre right on point with our mission.

Former Old Town resident Katie Couric lunched with old friends at a sidewalk table at Landini Brothers in Old Town Tuesday. Couric, the $15-million-per-year anchor of the CBS Evening News, once lived in an old restored tobacco warehouse on Swift Alley. Couric was proud of the 18th century home, which was pillaged during the War of 1812 and inhabited by Union troops during the Civil War. Couric moved into the house in 1989 after marrying lawyer Jay Monahan, raising both her daughters, Ellie and Caroline there before moving to New York in 1998 after her husband succumbed to colon cancer. On Tuesday, Couric, dressed in a snazzy black dress, showed up in a town car at Landini’s and sat at a table across from her old home and reminisced with three friends.

National Harbor was very much on the minds of the city’s 300 top merchants and tourism officials, who came together for lunch Thursday at the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association’s Annual Meeting at the Embassy Suites Old Town. Stephanie Brown, the ACVA’s newly-inducted president and CEO, spoke of the $180 million being invested in Alexandria’s hotels in the last year which of course does not include the $2 billion being invested across the river at National Harbor.

These improvements will make us more competitive, Brown said. And they raise the bar for how many heads are needed to fill those new beds.  Brown said the city across the river will feature a total of 4,000 guestrooms, anchored by the largest convention center on the east coast, nearly equal to all of the rooms offered by Alexandria’s 21 hotels. Mayor William D. Euille, who visited Sweden and Scotland this summer, said he saw crowded airports and had heard reports there of surly service. Cities like ours need to be more business-friendly,” he said. Tourists and business travelers cant be treated like a piece of luggage.

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