David Koch Toasted by Caroline Kennedy, Robert DeNiro

David Koch
David Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries. American Ballet Theater, which celebrates the opening of its 70th anniversary season tonight, will honor Koch and his quarter century of service on its board. Source: Koch Industries via Bloomberg

Billionaire David H. Koch earned degrees in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology but fell in love with dance at the Boston Ballet.

He moved to New York and began building his fortune through Koch Industries Inc., the oil and chemical holding company started by his father, Fred C. Koch. He made generous gifts to New York’s American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet while confining his own fancy moves to other venues.

“The only dancing I did was at the discotheques,” said the 6-foot-5 Koch by phone from his New York office, who also set a scoring record on MIT’s basketball team. “I was a very good disco dancer. I say that I learned disco dancing at the wrong places.”

He also became a fan of other New York cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera, though his first love remains ballet.

“I’m so used to seeing these incredible athletes who jump and pirouette onstage, and that’s what I miss when I see opera,” Koch said.

ABT, which opens its 70th anniversary season tonight, will honor Koch and his quarter-century of service on its board. Robert DeNiro, Isabella Rossellini and Caroline Kennedy are among the 970 guests expected. They’ll dine on pan-roasted baby chicken, gnocchi, mushrooms and Swiss chard under a tent next to the Met opera house.

Kennedy, Blaine Trump and First Lady Michelle Obama, who will not be in attendance, are the gala’s honorary co-chairwomen.//

The evening will feature excerpts from “Sleeping Beauty,” “Swan Lake” (Act III) and Twyla Tharp’s “The Brahms-Hayden Variations.”

Company Deficit

Koch said he has given $500,000 a year in donations and millions more to help fund individual ballets. The ABT reported a deficit of about $882,000 in 2009 on a budget of $37 million. Koch gave a matching grant of $2.5 million for ABT’s $5 million production of “The Nutcracker,” which it will present in lieu of a fall season. So far, ABT has raised $1.7 million toward that goal.

“’The Nutcracker’ is the ballet that keeps on giving,” Koch said. “It’s been the money maker for the New York City Ballet.”

Koch, who ranks 24th on Forbes magazine’s 2010 list of billionaires with an estimated worth of $17.5 billion, also supports other cultural institutions in New York. He gave $100 million in 2008 to modernize and spruce up the David H. Koch Theater at the Lincoln Center, the home of the New York City ballet and opera. He created the David H. Koch Dinosaur Wing at the American Museum of Natural History. In April, he made a gift of more than $10 million to renovate the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s plaza and fountains.

A prostate cancer survivor, he gave $1 million through his David H. Koch Charitable Foundation in 2008 to New York- Presbyterian Hospital for prostate-cancer research and about $1.7 million to the Prostate Cancer Foundation in Santa Monica, California.

Tax Increases

Koch said he’s concerned about the impact of U.S. federal tax increases on future charitable donations. Next year, income-tax rates for the highest earners will go up to 39.6 percent up from 35 percent, and the capital-gains tax will rise to 20 percent from 15 percent.

“Those increases will be detrimental to wealthy people to give to nonprofits,” he said.

His commitments to ABT and other nonprofits will continue, Koch said, and he’s grooming a future ballerina in the Koch household. His 9-year-old daughter, Mary Julia, takes lessons at the School of American Ballet in New York.

“She’s constantly doing pirouettes and poses at home,” he said. “I love to see her go to the ballet. She’ll stand up in front of her seat and imitate the dancers.”

(American Ballet Theatre’s gala is tonight at 6:30 p.m. at the Metropolitan Opera house at Lincoln Center. Tickets are $1,500 to $2,500 with dinner and $28 to $150 for the performance only. Information: +1-212-362-6000.

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