It was a zoo, literally, Wednesday night at New York City Ballet’s spring gala, where resident choreographer Christopher Wheeldon unveiled his new work “Carnival of the Animals,” a fantastical piece about a young boy trapped in the Museum of Natural History overnight. His neighbors are turned into bobbing chickens and strutting roosters. His librarian becomes a sylphlike mermaid. The boys on the wrestling team morph into jackasses, while his elegant aunt becomes a swan.

“It’s all about unlocking the inner child,” observed the youthful Wheeldon as a sea of women in brightly colored gowns swooned over him at the dinner following the performance. “Somehow mine always seems to be on the outside.”

This story first appeared in the May 19, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Wheeldon’s whimsical touch cast its magical spell over the 875-strong crowd including ballet master in chief Peter Martins, who previewed his new ballet “Guide to Strange Places,” Joy Henderiks, Tara Rockefeller, Alba Clemente, Marcia Mishaan and Maria Bartiromo, who packed into the auditorium’s mezzanine and raised $1.4 million for the company.

And which creatures did the distinguished guests most identify with?

“The turrrrrrrtles,” purred Fé Fendi, who landed the most bold-faced names at her table: “Chicago” director Rob Marshall, HRH Infanta Elena of Spain and her husband, the Duke of Lugo.

“I loved the swan,” said the Infanta, looking, well, regal in a Christian Lacroix gown. “I used to dance, you know.”

Anne Bass liked “those hens and roosters,” as did Helen Schifter, while Anh Duong went for the mermaid. “I thought she was sexy,” she shrugged. And Jeff Klein? “The swan,” he said. “Oh, and the wrestlers.”

After dinner, the crowd let loose on the dance floor, where the evening’s most adorable couple, NYCB principal Charles Askegard and his wife, Candace Bushnell, reigned. As for Askegard, his animal of choice was a foregone conclusion.

“I was the lion,” he said — and growled to prove it.

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