Pennsylvania Ballet's Long-time Artistic Chief Leaving

Roy Kaiser, Features

By Peter Dobrin, The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
Roy Kaiser, Pennsylvania Ballet's artistic director for two decades, is stepping down. The former dancer, who started his career with the company 35 years ago, will stay on until a successor is found.
 
A search committee will be assisted by outgoing Kennedy Center president Michael M. Kaiser (not related), who is also the author of a plan designed to raise the ballet's artistic and institutional ambitions.
 
Roy Kaiser, 56, joined the company in 1979, and danced his last role - Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet - before becoming full-time ballet master in 1992.
 
Kaiser said that he looks forward to being able to accept invitations to work on projects elsewhere, and welcomes the lifting of the responsibilities of running a company often hobbled by financial challenges.
 
"One of the things I am proudest of is that we were able, even through difficult times, to find ways to maintain our creativity and develop new work and bring in new work to the company," he said. "That's what keeps the company alive, what keeps it a living, breathing entity."
 
The ballet's five-member search committee, chaired by board member David F. Hoffman, meets Thursday in person for the first time, and hopes to have a new artistic head named by the fall. The criteria will be developed by answering certain core questions - not only who is available, but also, does the ballet want to hire a choreographer or curator? Should a new chief have a background in Balanchine, the basis of the company's repertoire? Elder statesman or stateswoman, or rising star?
 
Executive director Michael G. Scolamiero said his hunch would be that the search committee would seek someone familiar with the work of Balanchine, and find a curator rather than a choreographer. "But you just don't know the answer. The search committee is just beginning to look into what the ideal traits and characteristics of the next leader will be," he said.
 
Balanchine, he said, "is such a huge part of our history and heritage, I would be very surprised if that was not to continue, though maybe not to the same extent. We are going to Vail [International Dance Festival] in July because of Balanchine, we were invited to the Kennedy Center for our 50th anniversary because of Balanchine. Certainly the works of Balanchine have advanced the reputation of the company unlike any outside of New York City, and we are very proud of that."
 
Kaiser, unlike his predecessors, was not a choreographer - he took over from Christopher d'Amboise - but rather a curator of the company's traditional storybook creations, such as The Nutcracker, and cultivator, as with choreographer-in-residence Matthew Neenan. During his time, the company added more than 90 works to its repertoire, including 34 world and 56 company premieres. Pennsylvania Ballet has also traveled widely, to City Center in New York, the Kennedy Center, and Edinburgh International Festival.
 
Named interim artistic director in 1994 and to the post permanently a year later, Kaiser came to ballet relatively late, at 17, after an early start as a tap dancer. At 21, he moved to Philadelphia from Seattle and San Francisco, to study at the school of the Pennsylvania Ballet.
 
"I remember saying to my father that it was going to be an interesting year," he said. "And I never left."
 
Read on Philly.com >>

Roy Kaiser looks forward and back as Pennsylvania Ballet turns 50

Features, Interviews

by Lewis Whittington for The Dance Journal

Pennsylvania Ballet launches its 50th season this month with the celebrations, reunions and gala performances, but the company has already been leading up to the milestone with other projects that point to a new era. Among many new projects, the company relocated its offices and studios on North Broad Street,  they have been touring more and perhaps most auspicious of all, they have re-established their own feeder classical ballet school.
For the moment, though it’s business as usual, as Pennsylvania Ballet prepares for the season opening run of George Balanchine’s iconic ballet ‘Jewels.’ In the first of a three part series, Roy Kaiser, discusses Pennsylvania Ballet’s plans going forward and reflects on his two decades as artistic director.  A week before opening night, Kaiser was in morning company class observing the dancers’ every jete and turn, with laser-beamed concentration. At the end of the session later he moved though the building, stopping to talk to staff members and took a breather to talk about the company. 
MR. B’S CROWN ‘JEWELS’
Dance Journal: ‘Jewels’ is usually done by companies with a much larger roster. Did it give you pause?
Roy Kaiser:  Up until this season. (he laughs) but yes, every standing dancer is in it. But we’re all covered and really fine with it now. All of the dancers most nights will be doing at least two sections, so it stretches us that way. But, it’s incredible choreography and a musicality that drives our dancers.
Within a couple of days of coming back from summer break, I have to say they looked so good, not sure they felt good, because of the workout, but the entire company is performing at a high level. Of course, that just builds throughout the season.
Dance Journal:  This ballet seems like an artistic statement at this point. The choreography covers a lot of neo-classical ground and requires such refinement even within the Balanchine aesthetic.
Roy Kaiser: I’ve wanted to do this ballet for many years. Yes, it’s completely unique… a cohesive evening of three ballets with no narrative… as only Mr. Balanchine could conceive. With distinctive costuming, which wasn’t the case with a lot of his work.
The ballet represents three parts of Mr. Balanchine’s life- ‘Emeralds’ a bow to romantic French ballet with lush beautiful movement. ‘Rubies’ with the Stravinsky score, you see his American influences in the pace and it’s almost jazzy at times…use of hips, for instance, that you wouldn’t see in classical. ‘Diamonds’ a nod to his Russian roots, a big Imperial Russian gorgeous ballet with a principal couple and soloist and huge corps de ballet.   
Dance Journal: You worked with stagers from the Balanchine Trust?
Roy Kaiser: Yes, Sandra Jennings and Merrill Ashley are here. Sandra used to be on the staff here and she does most of the Balanchine ballets that we stage here. She knows the essence, I think, of what his works need to be. And then Merrill Ashley coached the principals on ‘Diamonds.’ It’s is another wonderful experience for the dancers because she worked directly with Mr. Balanchine, when she danced in that role and she can impart so many things about his intent, rather than just teaching the steps.
Jewels also boast orchestral grandeur with the ballet scores by Peter Illich Tchaikovsky (Diamonds), Igor Stravinsky (Rubies) and Gabriel Fauré (Emeralds).
Dance Journal: The music in Jewels has such range. So many dancers have noted how well ballet conductor Beatrice Jona Affron works with them.
Roy Kaiser:  Absolutely, Beatrice our conductor has been with me since I started my tenure as director. She’s such an astute musician and has a real sensitivity to what the dancer need. The conductor drives it once the curtain goes up and to me she has a beautiful sense of when she needs to push dancers and step back and let the dancers take it.
Dance Journal:  By now, generations of PB dancers still maintain a special bond with Barbara Weisberger. What has her ongoing relationship with the company meant to you?
Roy Kaiser: Throughout this season, I wanted to pay tribute to Mr. Balanchine through his choreography, but also his importance to the early years of the company and his support of Barbara Weisberger in those early years. He gave her ballets and let her use his dancers when she needed them.
I had the honor to give Barbara an award last summer at Dance/USA and I thought about how our relationship has changed over the years. She brought me to Philadelphia when I was a kid. She was one of the first people to tell me that I had what it took to have a career. She was my director and teacher at that time, so an indelible influence on my career.
Once I became director, naturally, the relationship changed. She’s not an official advisor, but I’m always curious about her views about us and throughout the profession. And she’s gracious sharing her thoughts and she’s a forward thinker. She was in 1963 and she is today. She was certainly supportive when I started to run the company. Today I think of her as a trusted friend and still a mentor. 
The artistic team at Pennsylvania Ballet includes goes back to the Weisberger era, with three former principal dancers- Ballet mistress Tamara Hadley, ballet master Jeffery Gribler and William DeGregory, director of Pennsylvania Ballet II, the apprentice training company and also heads the new school.
Dance Journal:  What has it been like to have some of your dance colleagues still with the company as part of your creative staff?
Roy Kaiser: How lucky for me to have an artistic staff with Tammy, Jeff and Bill. They were already established dancers here when I arrived. They are all three so different and have admired what they share for the dancers now is an incredible amount of knowledge of the art form. They have direct links to the history of this company.
Every ballet company has a personality, even though it’s not something tangible, sometimes you can’t point to directly what that is.  The personality develops by from the people who are working with the dancers every day.
Dance Journal: Looking back from your perspective as a former dancer and nearly 20 years as artistic director, what was the hardest period for you? 
Roy Kaiser: I don’t believe in hard times. I believe in challenging times. Challenges open up solutions. One of the biggest challenges of this job and probably for many arts organizations is when things get tough financial the knee-jerk reaction is to cut back. Not do that certain ballet or cut performances- repeat a lot of things. Not continue to push forward, I’ve done that a couple of times and now learned that it’s not the way to go. The opposite is true, the tougher times get, you have to invest in the product and create exciting programming and market it. This I’ve known for 20 years, you’re never stagnant as an arts organization. You’re either gaining ground or loosing ground, so there is only one direction to go.
Not long after Kaiser was named full artistic director in the mid-90s, Michael Scolamiero became executive director. During this period, the fiscal standing of the company improved so much that they were one of the few solvent ballet companies going into the millennium.
Dance Journal: Then 2008 had to be hard, when every arts organization was dealing with fallout from the economic meltdown.
Roy Kaiser:  Yes, it was hard for everybody. I really wasn’t worried to an extent, because this company has closed twice and everybody thought that was it. And we came back better than ever. I think ballet companies in general are very resilient and we know how to be creative to achieve goals. Ballet companies believe so much in what we are doing there is no other option. I don’t get myself brunched up over things like that. It’s stressful and you can’t ignore hard times, but I don’t ever think the sky is falling.
Michael and I work very well together. It’s unusual for an administrative head and artistic head to have worked so closely as long as we have. Part of that success is that we understand when to yields to the other. We know our specific responsibilities. If we disagree, we know when to yield to each other. It goes back and forth. Even if we disagree we know we each other cares mostly about the company.
For various reasons Kaiser feels that “All parts of out repertoire are important. The classics are classics for a reason.”  And he has to balance the preserving classical works with new trends in ballet.
Dance Journal: What are your goals with programming? What are the factors that go into it?
Roy Kaiser:  We’re the only large ballet company in town and I feel responsible to our audience. We have a very split audience. I have people who just love the more the classical ballet, just throw pointe shoes and tutus at them and they are very happy.  Then I have other audience member if they see a tutu, they want to run. And then there is a large segment of our audience, our subscribers who are open to everything we throw out there. We love them.
Dancers learn things by doing full evening classical work that they can’t learn any place else. And equally important, now, is to expose dancers to new choreographic voices. I nurtured Matt Neenan’s work here and will continue to do that. And also look for other work that is appropriate for this company. Matt really challenges himself and not to repeat things.
The Balanchine rep that we already have and there are other Balanchine works that I want to acquire for the repertoire. What I try to do any given season is cover all of those bases, with extraordinary work. I’m not going to do something for the sake of it. I want to fit in and be really great. When you are commissioning work there is risk, I want to put as many pieces of the puzzle together that point to success and give it the best creative chance.
Pennsylvania Ballet will be able to take the pulse of audience reaction at the October 20 performance with a mix of classical and contemporary work.  
Roy Kaiser:   The idea was to do a free performance as a gift to the city. Many former dancers will be here and we’ll do something special with them. We’ll be paying pay tribute to Barbara. The anchor on that program is Diamonds and there will be a lot of surprises.
As soon as we put them up as free tickets within an hour, they were gone. We started to talk to WHYY the possibility of filming and PBS is in the mix and they will film this performance and interviewing key people. And there will be a nationwide broadcast in a few months.
Dance Journal: The corps had particularly strong performances last season leading up to the 50th.
Roy Kaiser:  Yes, they have had a strong year. I hire dancers who are very much individuals, with their own personality, and bring different aspects of their personality…but I expect them to have a strong sense of ensemble. It’s more with the ladies than the men, given the repertoire. Whether it’s a dancer who joined the company last week or someone who has been here nine years, they find this place where they display that.
Dance Journal:  ‘Artifact Suite’ was especially demanding using the whole company, as in Jewels and it was a hit with audiences.
Roy Kaiser: It was really interesting for me to watch ‘Artifact Suite‘ develop onstage. The first night I thought that they were really good. Then I saw the second and third performance there was such a different level, to my eyes, from the first performance.  And I believe that what it is that every person onstage was breathing together and thinking like one unit. There is no way to force that beforehand, and actually, I think these dancers do that all the time.
That was the third work of his that we have. I’m looking at other ballets of his that I think would work well here. I would love for him to do a new work for us. The experience working with Bill was a growing experience for the dancers.  He gets a sense of the personality of the company, and customized the choreography with particular dancers because he was interested in their ideas.
Dance Journal:  How do you think the new school will impact the company?
Roy Kaiser:  I’m thrilled we have been able to reestablish the school. In a few years, we’ll have dancers who have trained here for several years and will be able to join the company. We won’t be able to absorb every dancer, but they will be well prepared to join other companies. I didn’t realize how much was missing, until we had this dynamic back. Just to see the interplay between the young dancers and the professionals.
It’s very inspiring for the students, but equally inspiring for the professionals, to see those young talented kids. We’ve got a high level of talent at the school, which I’m thrilled about. To see them at 9 or 10 to have this focus, drive and desire. And to see their understanding about what it is all about- not becoming a proficient robot, but the soul that goes along with that technique. Many of them get that already, you can see it just watching them stand at the barre.
 

Body Language

Features

By: Beth Kephart
The Balanchine Trust repetieurs are in the house- Merrill Ashely and Sandra Jennings, two once and always prima ballerinas. They have George Balanchine's work in their blood, an intimacy with the great choreographer's steps, an almost-secret knowing of how his ballets carry song.
It is noon, a warm day in October. In Stuido A at the Louise Reed Center for Dance on North Broad, Ashley and Jennings are bringing the Balanchine traditions forward- urging the Pennsylvania Ballet corps to circle thier arms, extend their legs, hold very still, attend more acutely to the Tchaikovsky score.
In knitted leg warmers, the dancers listen. In sheer skirts and velvet leotards, in torn stockings and scuffed pointe shoes, on their toes and on the back of their heels, in the middle of the room and there, beside the barre. Jeffrey Gribler, ballet master, and Tamara Hadley, ballet mistress, are having a conversation, and now a young dancer with a question gets a quick lesson in a series of steps, and now Ashley tells Martha Koeneman, who has been the ballet's solo pianist for 40 years, to begin at the scherzo again.
Sixty seconds of "Diamonds" is danced.
Ashley, wearing a blue sweater over black Lycra pants and shirt, claps and suspends the song.
Something is wrong, she says, with the diagonal.
"Diamonds" is the third act in the Balanchine ballet called Jewels- the final extravagance in the program that will open Pennsylvania Ballet's 50th season Thursday. It is a fitting selection for a ballet company that, in 1963, was formed by Balanchine protegee Barbara Weisberger and has danced Balanchine's ranging repertoire ever since. Jewels is a complex ballet. It is said to have no plot. It rises from a facination with glittering stones.
Beyond the Louise Reed Center, which fronts the quiet alley of Wood Street, the world rushes by. The impatient cars on the Vine Street Expressway. The boys of Roman Catholic High in their purple shirts. The nurses of Hahnemann Hospital getting some air, a student late for something at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the pinkened hair and caps of tulle and shirts and motorcycle escorts of the Susan G. Koman Three-Day walkers.
But here, in this hour, the dancers of Pennsylvania Ballet are immune to all that. Their world is this studio-tall and brightly lit, a bank of mirrors in the front, Koeneman's piano to the left, a ballet master, a ballet mistress, two repetiteurs.
Into all this now step Julie Diana and Zachary Hench, the principle dancers for whom the corps quickly parts. Diana and Hench are lithe and light. They dance without pretense, gentle toward each other, leaning in to learn from the repetiteurs, who are saying something about the necesary quickness of one step, about the backward glance over a shoulder, about the velocity of spins.
Center stage and central, Diana and Hench draw lines that seem (though they cannot be) effortless. Diana is muscle and porcelain skin, black hair. Hench is charming, attentive, his hands on her hips, a word or two to a younger dancer confused by the placement of a foot.
Two hours later, Diana and Hench, who are married and the parents of two young children, will take the floor in Studio C- alone save Ashley, Hadley, and Koeneman. Ashley has removed her blue sweater. She will, over the course of this hour, dance, too- show Diana what she means when she speaks about the agitation of feet and oppositional tension, about running the circle small and then running it big but not taking it too far across the floor.
"Hit your arabesque here," Ashley will say. "Turn here. Watch him. Don't let him catch you- not yet." Yes, yes, we can se your face far longer now. Yes. This is very good."
It's the little things, Ashley says, that must be mastered now. The smallest details, the nuances. She encourages Diana to experiment with her arms, to use her back as a hinge, to take smaller steps. She sympathizes with Hench- the rapid tempo of the song, the athleticism required at the end of a sequence for which even this large room is too small. Diana and Hench are intelligent dancers- unafraid to ask, quick to assimilate, capable of laughing at themselves. Ashley is empathetic, generous, transparently wise. Theatrics and technique are her stories.
It is exhausting, Ashley tells Diana and Hench. It is beautiful, she assures them. It must be a little more like this. A curl has escaped from Diana's bun and spirals partway down her forehead. Out of breath, in the fourth hour of rehearsal, she works the sequence again.
There is sun falling through the clerestory. The sound of a piano in a rehearsal room. There are the repetitions this repetiteur requires, the heat in Diana's face, the rasping breaths at the end of the sequence. The hard work is hardly done, and Hench begins a succession of leaps around the room- his body upright, his hands full of grace. his legs scissoring open, scissoring closed. When he is done he stands by the barre, clasping his hands to his knees, breathing hard. It is his wife's turn now for a solo run, and she summons all her beauty and turns.
At the barre, Hench looks up and watches his wife spin and blur. The charm in him becomes the way he looks at her- a lucky man in their world.
 
 

Dancing Forsythe's Dances: from outside in and inside out

Features, 12-13, Behind the Scenes

by Dr. Linda Caruso Haviland

 

PART I: FORSYTHE AND HIS WORK

PART II: THE DANCERS' VOICES

 

Part I    Forsythe and his work: From the outside in

In 1963, half a century ago, the fledgling Pennsylvania Ballet cut its teeth on the work of the revolutionary choreographer George Balanchine, dancing the first of over thirty of his ballets that would come to form the spine of its repertory.  While audiences elsewhere may have been puzzled or vexed by this choreographer's innovations, Philadelphians, from the very beginning, were raised on Balanchine's extensions of the ballet vocabulary. We watched and learned as his choreography dynamically sculpted a powerful geometry in both the human form and the form of the dance itself, cutting through the last remnants of 19th century ballet and bringing it into modernity.  What better audience, then, to receive or company to perform the ballets of a contemporary visionary, William Forsythe.

William Forsythe, simply put, is one of the more important choreographers working in the 21st century. Europe knows him, the US is catching up, and Pennsylvania Ballet, having first performed his work in the 1980s, is in the forefront, again, of training dancers to perform, and audiences to see ballet, anew, in his trail-blazing work. Like Balanchine before him, Forsythe has literally turned ballet on its head without missing a beat or diminishing its power as an art form.  Forsythe acknowledges Balanchine's influence, including their shared confidence in the sheer beauty and power of dance on its own, in and of itself.  They share, as well, the use of measured space and counterpoint to provide both visual and aural clarity, a great affection and respect for dancers, and a willingness to stretch the ballet vocabulary and canon to the edge of possibility, not for the sake of vacuous virtuosity, but to explore the full capacity of the dancing body.  The two choreographers have each drawn differently on the same genetic material of stripped down, complex, brilliantly inventive movement and form, but the work of each also embodies a distinct but insatiable curiosity about what dancers can do and what ballet can be . . .or become . . .

Like Forsythe, Balanchine's work emerged from a set of influences particular to his life both here and abroad.  His innovations are too numerous to list but range from the very specific—the particular use of the tendu or stretched foot to initiate action, the distinct placement of hands right down to the fingertips, the pelvic thrusts and flexed feet . . .to the global—the play of counter balance in the pas de deux, the promenades and pirouettes inverted, distorted or compressed, the encouragement towards bigger and faster, all the while maintaining a distinct sense of 'cool' and, always, his supreme musicality.  His impact on both the look and dynamics of ballet is so widespread and his style is so ingrained in us as the exemplar of ballet that, while still spellbound by his work, we barely recognize the revolutionary aspect that once excited or confounded audiences.  But, then, along came Forsythe, building on Balanchine as a baseline and further extending his radically beautiful vocabulary.  Together with a generation of young dancers who matched him nerve for nerve, Forsythe surprised us, revealing ballet's potential to recreate itself once again.  Roughly fifty years after Balanchine created works like Apollo or Concerto Barocco, Forsythe created several revolutionary dances that, like the work of very few choreographers before him, are generally considered to have initiated a new era for the ballet genre. 

With the addition of Artifact Suite, Forsythe's three ballets from that period which are now in the repertory of Pennsylvania Ballet frame a particularly important arc in Forsythe's creative journey.  Starting with Artifact in 1984, travelling through In the middle, somewhat elevated and The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, and landing onArtifact Suite in 2004,[i] it was evident that Forsythe was doing ballet, but WHAT was he doing with it?  Or, as some thought, to it?    The pace, scale, and complex gestural dynamics clearly pushed ballet into new technical and aesthetic territories. Yet Forsythe ventured a description of his efforts as just another viable strand, another way to do and see ballet that moved alongside the "normative"[ii] or classical tradition of the art form without necessarily displacing it.  These works are attached to ballet tradition by a strong umbilical cord that twists together the history of the form and his own history within it.  Ballet, he has said, is his mother tongue; it cannot be erased from his body or from his consciousness.  But given his intellectual and motional inquisitiveness and the contemporary cultural and political spaces in which these have been cultivated, neither could ballet remain the same.

While Pennsylvania Ballet is one of few US companies to bodily archive three of his works from this seminal period, any company worth its salt uses Forsythe's In the middle, somewhat elevated as its training ground, its portal into 21st century ballet vocabulary and structure. Forsythe's ballet vocabulary has been described as fractured, incisive, willful, deconstructed, in your face, stuttering, extreme, and exquisite. But words can fix as well as describe and Forsythe refuses to sit still for any categorization. Instead, he watches the dancing before him, always recognizing, as he says, that "it could be otherwise" and continually asking, and inviting us to ask, "what if?"  Apply this question to ballet's preoccupation with balance—"what if?"—or to the carriage and shape of the arms—"it could always be otherwise." Question the lift against gravity and leap into space, and possibilities emerge that are limited only by the physical capacity of human bodies and the daring and intelligence of both choreographer and dancers.

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancers Julie Diana and Ian Hussey in William Forsythe’s In the middle, somewhat elevated. Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.

 

This vocabulary builds towards an overall structure in his ballets that is often dense with motion and gesture and can be challenging to see and absorb. Forsythe complicates beauty. But he trusts our imaginations as well as our perceptual systems, believing that we will discover patterns within the composition. He calculates and stages points of organization for us within the performance, setting them in motion to emerge from the blurs of complexity on stage. To create these moments of clarity and focus for the audience, he often turns to the classical stalwarts of theme and variation and of counterpoint as compositional strategies to help us make our way through these intricacies. 

In his use of theme and variation, Forsythe references Marius Petipa's 19th century classical inventions as well as Balanchine's more contemporary and complicated fugal structures, but he extends these into his own postmodern displacements of theme across the entirety of both the body and the stage. He claims counterpoint as his means to generate and organize movement, using it as a motor in the body itself, riding the torque and fleshing out the vectors as the dancer spirals her way into the ballet épaulement—the counter position of torso against legs—the same contrapossto that Michelangelo used in sculpture to bring marble to life and convey the depth of human feeling, the same contrapossto so loved by the baroque dancers who seeded ballet with its shape and dynamic. But Forsythe also makes  other uses of counterpoint within the larger architecture of his works.  Like Balanchine and others, Forsythe makes visible the structural similarities between poses, gestures, and musical line, often transferring a shape or dynamic from one location to another, in what he calls "isometries." But he notices other congruencies that often go unseen and pushes these "alignments in time" to their extreme so that they play out across all and any levels of space, time and force. "Look everywhere," he urges. Meaning may be found in the consistency of the centuries-old form or in the surprises and interruptions he introduces. In the end, it is about actively watching the dancing, trusting that you and I will make our own sense of it.

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Lauren Fadeley in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. hoto: Alexander Iziliaev.

 

This is new ballet and it exists at this time and in this space, because Forsythe saw that it could happen and that dancers were willing to go along for the ride.  While these important ballets make their way into the bodies and psyches of dancers and audiences in the US, he continues to ask dancers in his new group, The Forsythe Company, to catapult along yet other trajectories.  Founded in 2004 and based in Dresden and Frankfurt, works choreographed on and with this company, such asDecreationHuman WritesOne Flat Thingreproduced, or Yes, We Can't, continue to challenge and engage dancers and audiences alike.  Are they dance? Are they ballet? And what does it mean for ballet if, in fact, we consider them as such?  

But Forsythe's curiosity, voracious mind, and huge appetite for how movement, things, and, perhaps, even life are organized and structured, have led him on paths that are alternative even to his own newer visions of danced work.  With collaborators across many fields and disciplines, he has investigated how elements of a dance might be captured in real or virtual objects that would extend our ability to see or 'read' that dance, long after it had vanished into history.  He has even questioned whether the term, "choreography," could be extended beyond dance to describe or define other actions or categories of events or objects and has created both virtual and material installations that illustrate these and subsequent queries into what form these choreographic objects might take and what might constrain or excite their creative potential.[iii]

But returning to ballet as we know it, or are relearning to know it through his work, it may be surprising that, for an artist whose ballets are so firmly constructed on the various permutations of formal elements within a larger, splendid universe of geometrical space. . .the dance, in the end, is never just about the structure and the steps. It is about the affect, the whole that is larger than the sum of its parts, and about the dancers as interesting and intelligent beings who bring the work alive with both agency and abandon.  It is about humans, like you and me, albeit extraordinarily adventurous and talented.  It is not about transcendence but about being the best that humans can be within the art form—and it is the voice of the dancers themselves that make this most clear.

 

Part II   The Dancers' Voices:  From the Inside out

Forsythe's movement language, perhaps earlier but surely from Frankfurt on, integrated his full-bodied classical technique not only with his own explorations of motional possibilities but also with the movement passions and predilections of his individual dancers, which are generated, as one philosopher has said,  "by that person's use of his own body through the accumulated grooming of a continuous life."[iv]   From dancer after dancer, you hear of Forsythe's rigor and expectations that are exceeded only by his generosity and his genuine desire to motivate each dancer to dance to his or her fullest capabilities. In recalling rehearsals with Forsythe, Brooke Moore,[v] a principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet, explained that Forsythe "can really just pull things out of you that you didn't know you could do" that he encouraged and supported the dancer's desire to discover and achieve her full range of movement potential.  "He has this ability to make us feel so incredible, and to not say no. . .and to keep pushing—pushing us to just explore every aspect of your body in his choreography."  Nothing is taken for granted; nothing is absolute.  After 20 or 30 years of training, a dancer can easily raise her leg behind her in a perfect arabesque, even if she were sleepwalking.  But, says Moore, Forsythe challenges them to "do an arabesque like it's never been done before. . .you are the first one who had ever done this."  "He is," she says, "giving you the liberty and luxury to explore who you are within his steps."  Noah Gelber,[vi] a dancer with Forsythe back in the Frankfurt days and a trusted stager of Forsythe's ballets from this period, echoes this approach in his own teaching which he models on Forsythe's.  It is, as Gelber says, his responsibility to work towards specificity in the earlier days of the restaging process. A consummate dance artist, himself, his choreographic notes are equal parts beautiful and meticulous.  "I have to set very clear parameters to start with—this is what the dance 'is'.  But at the end of the day, it's not about what it 'is,' it's about how they feel it and, as Bill is always saying, it's about how the dancers feel it for themselves. [The ballet] is not a museum piece, it's live theatre, and it's something that [the dancers] recreate and recreate each time, and each time is going to be only as they are in that moment.  [It's about] letting them trust that and getting them to a place where your word is only a catalyst." 

But even the willing must learn to trust and to dare.  Moore, who danced with San Francisco Ballet prior to dancing with Pennsylvania Ballet, has performed Forsythe's work with both companies.  Reflecting on the extremes of balance that Forsythe's work demands, she admits "it is scary because . . . I know where my weight is going to fall but it's just not how I've been trained. . .so it's not natural.  It's not where I want to be. . .but then once I'm there, especially when I'm with a partner, it feels great. It's liberating, you know—how far I can pull myself off.  I'm on pointe and I have only one hand on my partner and I’m leaning the whole way out…  and he has me.  We both have the ability to bring me to the next step or section.  It is scary, but it's fun, it's a challenge…it's a whole new way of working."

Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer Brooke Moore and Company Member Andrew Daly in William Forsythe’s The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude. Photo: Alexander Iziliaev.

 

And the dancer's" whole new way of working" feeds back into Forsythe's choreographic loop. He is an artist who describes himself as 'influenced by the here and now" and whose curiosity is sparked by whoever or whatever is in front of him at that very moment. Put this together with a postmodern refusal to see anything as absolute and you get a reluctance to ever consider any dance work, even a ballet, as a museum piece, fixed or finished into perpetuity.  Remember, "it could always be other." Gelber affirms Forsythe's own self-analysis: "He likes to go with what he sees... he might be very inspired by one particular dancer in the room and say, 'that looks good, let's all try that.'  That's why there are so many different versions. . .Bill was changing Artifact for 25 years. . . In rehearsals, what was fascinating for me, as a spectator, was to see all of the permutations, transmutations that the choreography would go through from day to day until he was happy for that year."

Ballets can and do change over time, intentionally or otherwise.  After conversations about the Balanchine repertoire with one of Balanchine's noted ballerinas, Merrill Ashley, Moore speculated that "everyone remembers things a bit differently" and that despite all efforts to coincide with the choreographer's intentions, there will always be "a slight variation there, or a hair of a difference over here."  In addition, as she points out, the choreographer or stager might introduce slight changes to make the piece work for individual dancers, trying to "make it look best, although with the intention of the choreographer in mind."  Add to this Forsythe's willingness, like Balanchine before him, to change elements of a ballet to keep it a living work of art, and the act of restaging a ballet becomes complex indeed.  And if you have three stagers (Jodie Gates, Laura Graham, and Noah Gelber) plus the choreographer, himself, as was the case with the setting of Artifact Suite on Pennsylvania Ballet, how can any agreement be reached?  Moore gives us a clue when she recalls the strong sense of community that the stagers encouraged in the dancers while setting the work.  Having learned Forsythe work while dancing with two different companies, she was, in both instances, impressed with this emphasis on community.   We were told, "You're dancing for each other.  Yes, the audience is out there and watching you and you are dancing for them, but you are dancing for each other…the connection, the community, the family feel…they always wanted us to incorporate that into [the dance].  Moore even sees this reflected in the choreography of Artifact Suite as well. "In the end of Artifact the group, the ensemble, comes in and we're all sort of gaining strength together. . . It's some sort of force, not an army, but a group, and we're all coming together to be as one."  

This sense of community, of reaching some sense of consensus, although far from perfect unity or concurrence, inflects the teaching as well as the making of the work and the restaging process.  "OK, "says Noah Gelber, who eschews the dictatorial, "OK, let us agree to do the arm this way as opposed to another way."  And this same sense of community is, perhaps, what enables consensus among the stagers.  The dancers that comprised Frankfurt, and from whom Forsythe selected a handful to reset the ballets from that period, had learned to work both independently and collaboratively under the guidance of Forsythe.  Because Forsythe had encouraged a process, as Gelber recalled , in which the dance "resided independently and individually in each one's body" there were, and are, likely to be as many minute variations as there are dancers, all bound to the 'steps' so to speak, but with multiple possibilities of slight divergences.  When staging the work, Gelber, teaches the choreography but reminds the dancers that they must remain open.  He tries to "disseminate as much information as possible, so that the dancers are ready for all options. . .and to build in room for the inevitable question mark."  Because the stagers are used to the give and take of collaboration and a shared body politic, when they gather the dancers together in the studio for the first time, "it just naturally happens that we would look at each other and say, OK, you're doing that version, fine.  And we pretty much anticipated the places where there was going to be a need for consensus. . . and it happens."

And what "happens" has changed the way that dancers dance and audiences see the ballet.  Other top ballet companies in the US perform Forsythe ballets, but Pennsylvania Ballet is one of the few that holds multiple danceworks demarcating this groundbreaking historical shift in ballet.  Having honed its skills and aesthetic on a Balanchine repertory that is one of the foundational precedents for Forsythe's work, it is both natural and important that this company serves as a corporeal archive, a living history of Forsythe's significant ballet choreographies.

Artifact Suite provides the dancers of Pennsylvania ballet with possibilities to stretch both their ideas about and their performances of ballet. They can, as Gelber noted, "access their intellectual processes" as well as "the sheer physicality" of the work."   With the other Forsythe ballets now in repertory, Artifact Suite provides us, as audience, with a full-bodied experience of a monumental period in ballet history.

But like the best Balanchine work, these works are not dated and, despite the inevitable urge that other choreographers have had to incorporate this new 'style' or approach into their own work, Forsythe, as does Balanchine, remains a unique talent.  Artifact Suite is a vital inclusion in the repertory. Although an "artifact", it is not a relic. Rather, in each performance we re-witness a turning point in ballet as the dancers experience history incarnated in their bodies. But we also see brilliant, in-the-moment dancing that continues to be a point of instigation, challenging dancers to perform superbly and audiences to see ballet with fresh eyes and an open mind. Forsythe's ballets remain dynamic exemplars of the form, speaking to us across time and connecting us to now.

Dr. Linda Caruso Haviland is a dancer, a scholar, and the Director of Dance and the Alice Carter Dickerman Director of the Arts Program at Bryn Mawr College.  




[i] 1984 Artifact, Frankfurt Ballet; 1987 In the middle, somewhat elevated, Paris Opera Ballet (later incorporated into Impressing the Czar for Frankfurt); 1996 The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, Frankfurt Ballet; 2004 Artifact Suite, Scottish Ballet.

 

[ii] All quotes by William Forsythe are taken from published or web interviews with William Forsythe.

 

[iii] “Synchronous Objects for One Flat Thing, reproduced,” is an interactive Web site created with Ohio State University’s Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design. http://synchronousobjects.osu.edu/ "Motion Bank" is a four year project of The Forsythe Company designed to provide a broad context for research into choreographic practice. http://motionbank.org/en/   

Examples of Forsythe's installations and choreographic objects can be found on the Forsythe Company's website.   http://www.williamforsythe.de/exhibitions.html(select the English version)

 

[iv] Joseph Margolis, The Autographic Nature of the Dance," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Summer, 1981), p 421.

 

[v] Brooke Moore (principal dancer, Pennsylvania Ballet), taped phone interview, May 14, 2013.

 

[vi] Noah Gelber (former soloist with Royal Ballet of Flanders and the Frankfurt Ballet, Gelber has maintained the responsibility of Choreographic Assistant for 11 different ballets from William Forsythe's repertoire and has staged Forsythe's work on over 30 companies world wide) taped interview, June 1, 2013.

Free to Dance

Features

Every morning of his work week, Alexander Peters leaves his home in Center City for a 20-minute walk to his job at the new Louise Reed Center for Dance a few blocks north of City Hall.
 
The 22-year-old performer uses the first few minutes of walking to clear his head and ready himself for a day of class and rehearsals, most recently for the company’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which he danced two leading roles.
 
Days of strenuous physical and artistic labor have become easier since the company moved to its new headquarters after several years’ temporary residence in a studio complex in the distant northwest Philadelphia neighborhood of East Falls.
 
For Peters and his colleagues, the days of carpool distractions, waiting for buses or trains, long side journeys to the gym and fighting to stay awake on the way home are over.
 
The new building means professionals don’t have to share a bathroom with kids from the company school. Visiting choreographers get a small changing room with a locker instead of a closet packed with company videos, as in East Falls.
 
Most of all, the pressure of commuting is taken off dancers and staff, many of whom live in Center City and don’t drive or even own cars.
 
“The benefit of no longer having to rely on a carpool or a regional rail schedule gives you a kind of independence,” says Peters. “You can do what you want during the day now.”
 
The Louise Reed center, named for a donor and former board chairman, occupies a renovated garage at North Broad and Wood streets that once housed armored trucks.
 
The glass-fronted $17.5 million building is the first phase of a planned complex to include a studio the size of the stage at the Academy of Music, the ballet’s home theater, and a building to house the company’s administrative staff.
 
The project is part of an ambitious slate of goals the ballet lists on its website that includes adding works to the company repertoire, hiring seven more dancers, beefing up the string section of its orchestra and establishing a satellite school in the suburbs.
 
The new center has five studios versus two in East Falls, which frees up  management of space for the artistic staff, but, because the studios are smaller, also constrains performers.
 
Tamara Hadley, a top ballerina with the company from the 1970s through the 1990s and now ballet mistress, favorably compares her light and airy workspace with a dark, wood-paneled studio in East Falls nicknamed “the cave.”
 
When guest choreographers were in residence, Hadley offered them her usual space and “lived in the cave,” she recalls. “I’m not missing that.”
 
The company started working in the new center in January and is still getting to know its new digs.
 
“We all sort of still feel in a transitory state,” Hadley says. “It sure is a breath of fresh air to be in a place of our own that’s not being rented ... it’s so easy to have three or four rehearsals going at once, and it’s impossible to schedule when you only have the two rooms.”
 
On a recent weekday, Hadley worked with three pairs of dancers rehearsing the divertissement pas de deux from the second act of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
 
As the couples moved through the stately adagios of George Balanchine’s choreography in the main studio, a different pair rehearsed some wildly modern moves for “Shut Up & Dance,” a charity benefit, in a smaller room down a hall carpeted in serene gray.
 
While the new center favors diverse rehearsal opportunities, it’s snug at times for the 40-member company, according to Hadley, who with the rest of the troupe eagerly anticipates the planned stage-sized rehearsal space.
 
While they’re waiting — no timeline for the new studio has been announced — dancers feel the pinch.
 
“Even on small steps, I see the dancing is small,” Hadley says. “The boys aren’t able to fly to their capacity to make their jumps. It affects their style and their movement greatly. ... You really have to have space, to feel like you’re moving through air, vast movements, you’re not squished.”
 
The facility has improved life for the company in other ways. The floors, though still being broken in, are not the overly loose work surfaces that applied in East Falls.
 
There, the floors were “too bouncy,” says Hadley. “We had a lot of stress fractures happening. (The old floor) jumps back, and slaps your feet.”
 
The new headquarters offers more resources to prevent and deal with injuries by placing the staff physical therapist in a bigger room with space for more conditioning equipment. The gym at South Broad and Walnut streets where the dancers have company memberships is a 10-minute walk.
 
Centralizing the ballet’s location has paid off not only in time saved, but in the kind of psychological management required by anyone in a creative profession.
 
Peters says the end of carpooling also means the dancers are spending less time anguishing over each other’s experiences, injuries and moods, as frequently happened when they were jammed into cars for twice-daily 40-minute commutes.
 
Now, interactions are on a professional level and produce less anxiety, the performer says.
 
“It gives people more independence, it gives you a fresh perspective on what you’re going to go in and do every day,” he says. “Every person can go in and be fresh every day, instead of letting everything pile up.”
 
Recently at stake for the young artist was the chance to dance both the impish Puck and the stately Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” roles for which he was elevated from the corps de ballet.
 
Of six performers cast in the roles, he is the only one who danced both.
 
Shifting back and forth required more than usual concentration, as when he heard Puck’s music while waiting to enter as Oberon.
 
“ ‘Oh, wait, am I supposed to be onstage?’ ” he recalls thinking. “There was that weird multiple personality going on in my head.”
 
The company will perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” next year at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., which Peters says will allow the company a chance to “revisit” their work.
 
“The steps are already in your body, but you can go out and approach the whole thing differently,” he says.
 
The Pennsylvania Ballet season continues with “Carnival of the Animals” May 9 through 12 and “Forsythe & Kylián” June 13 through 16, both at the Academy of Music. More information: www.paballet.org.
Published by: Bucks County Courier Times, Sunday March 24, 2013Written by Gwen Shift
Read more at phillyburbs.com>>

Dancer Spotlight: Hight Flyer

Features

With two lead roles to his credit, Alexander Peters’ career is in liftoff.
 
Pennsylvania Ballet corps member Alexander Peters is only in his third year as a professional dancer, but his short career has already had more than its share of twists and turns. And while the twists have been surprising—including dancing the lead in two full-length ballets—the turns have been impeccable. “The first thing you notice about him is the technique,” says PAB artistic director Roy Kaiser. “He has one of the cleanest, purest classical techniques that I’ve seen on anyone.”
 
Peters began building that technique early, starting with gymnastics, then following his older sister into dance. Tap and jazz at 7 led to ballet at 10, with one small hitch along the way. “I remember skipping my first ballet class after I found out that I had to wear tights,” says Peters. “I called my mom and had her come pick me up.” Fortunately, he returned, and within a few years, he made ballet his focus. By the time he reached the School of American Ballet, he was a force. He won the school’s coveted Mae L. Wien Award and a Princess Grace Award, among others.
 
After graduation, he headed west to join Kansas City Ballet. He spent the 2010–11 season learning the ropes, and creating the lead in Tom Sawyer. The new full-length was slated to open the company’s new venue, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, in October 2011. But for Peters, another event would come first.
 
He returned home to Pennsylvania for a break and took some company classes at PAB. Kaiser offered him an apprentice contract on the spot and Peters jumped at it. He had long loved PAB’s Balanchine-heavy rep and been a fan of the company since childhood. But there was a lot riding on Peters back in Kansas City. With Kaiser’s blessing, he returned to dance Tom Sawyer—and danced it brilliantly. As Alastair Macaulay wrote in The New York Times: “Tom, marvelously danced by the young redhead Alexander Peters, is life-enhancing.”
 
Ready for the next chapter in his career, he joined PAB in time for The Nutcracker. He hit the ground working, impressing as much with his quiet determination as his natural ability. When he was cast in the title role of Trey McIntyre’s Peter Pan, he was still an apprentice—for a day, anyway. Kaiser watched his first rehearsal and gave him a corps contract. And the role, which included being strapped into a harness and executing moves in midair, was another soaring success.
 
Peters has achieved these heights without, well, notable height. “Technically, I’m 5' 6",” he says. “At first I felt like my height prohibited me from doing things, but it has actually enhanced my career. It’s made me more of an individual.” He adds, “Being short doesn’t have to limit you. If anything, it makes me want to dance bigger.” 
 
One potential difficulty: partnering. Soloist Evelyn Kocak danced opposite him in Peter Pan last spring. “We are roughly the same height, so that posed some interesting challenges for us,” she says. “But he is one of the most focused, hardworking people I’ve ever danced with. He brought a lot out in me. It was very inspiring!”
 
Kaiser sizes Peters up this way: “He’s unique, in size and physical appearance. He has that bright red hair. There’s no doubt who that is when he comes out on stage.” In Peters’ case, he says, that’s a good thing. “He’s tremendously likable. When people see him, they want to follow him, to go down that path with him.”
 
So where will that path lead next? “For Alex,” says Kaiser, “it’s wide open.”
 
 
At a Glance
Alexander Peters
Age: 22
Training: Allegheny Ballet Company, School of American Ballet
Dream role: Male lead in Balanchine’s “Rubies”
Favorite performance: The Gigue from Balanchine’s Mozartiana

 
Published in the April/May 2013 issue of Pointe Magazine.
By: Michael Northrop
Read at pointemagazine.com>>

Secret Health Obsessions

Features

Secret Health Obsessions
Six dancers confess their quirks.

It takes more than training to make a great dancer. What powers those grand jetés? What helps a dancer unwind? Professionals constantly fine-tune their wellness regimens to discover the snack, the roller or hobby that will help them to achieve artistic and technical feats night after night.

REBECCA KROHN
New York City Ballet
Rank: Principal

Power elixir: Low-fat chocolate milk. “I learned about the recuperation powers of chocolate milk from the Olympic athletes. Now it’s my go-to drink after a hard show.”

Pre-performance habit:
A 15-minute snooze three hours before show time. “It’s like hitting the restart button: It gives me a moment of peace so I can focus later.”

Go-to meal:
Kale salad with brussels sprouts and almonds. “I make a big one to last the week and nibble on it all day long. Kale’s so healthy, full of iron and fiber. And it’s really filling, too.”

 
ALLISTER MADIN
Paris Opéra Ballet
Rank: Sujet

Go-to breakfast: Two pieces of dark Côte d’Or chocolate with a praline nut center. “I don’t like to eat too much before the day starts.”

Stress relief:
Bach Flower Rescue Remedy. “I put a few drops under my tongue to calm down and focus. I use it every year before our internal competition for promotion, which is more stressful than any show.”

Favorite R&R strategy:
Using Nexcare cold packs. “I put them on my Achilles tendons for 5 to 20 minutes. It’s the first thing I do in the morning, and I repeat in the evening.”

Power elixir:
Starbucks’ Java Chip Frappuccino, with extra chips. “I can’t get through the day without it. I drop by a Starbucks near the Palais Garnier every afternoon for a venti. It’s my daily sugar boost since we have to watch what we eat, and it’s so filling it also calms me down.”Mental booster: Etiopathy. “I’ve been seeing an etiopath, a type of bonesetter, for four years. He can tell a lot just from someone’s pulse, and he’s articulated things that were unconscious for me. It helps with mental blocks or underlying issues, and it’s like a catalyst—it’s helped me mature.”

 

LAUREN FADELEY
Pennsylvania Ballet
Rank: Principal

Rehydration treat: Frozen ZICO Chocolate coconut water. “I put one in the freezer overnight. It’s a delicious way to hydrate my body.”

Foot release:
Bouncy ball. “It’s a toy, but it does wonders for my big-toe tendon.”

Favorite gadget:
Trigger Point Performance Therapy’s The GRID roller. “It looks crazy, a bit like a tire, but it’s great for rolling out the IT band. I don’t go anywhere without it. When in doubt, roll out everything.”

Favorite R&R strategy:
“Cuddling with Emmett, my 170-pound English mastiff.”

MEGAN ZIMNY GRAY
Dutch National Ballet
Rank: Second soloist

Go-to breakfast: Oatmeal or porridge with raw hemp seeds and chia seeds. “I’m a vegetarian, so I have to find little ways to get protein. The seeds really help with that, and they keep my energy level up.”

Pre-performance habit:
Role-specific mantras. “They depend on the qualities I want to project that night. I don’t share them with anyone; they’re quite personal. But I repeat them to myself to calm my nerves and put my head in the right place.”

Favorite supplements:
New Chapter organic multivitamins and vitamin D (to help her body absorb calcium). “Living in Amsterdam, we hardly ever see the sun!”

Recovery sessions
: Mensendieck therapy. “Whenever something hurts, our company’s Mensendieck therapist looks at my alignment to figure out why. She analyzes how I’m moving to get to the root of the problem.”

JOSEPH WALSH
Houston Ballet
Rank: Principal

Power elixir: Strawberry kombucha. “I drink it before, after and sometimes during performances. It’s alkaline, which is so good for cell regeneration.”

Recovery sessions:
Trigger-point massage. “It manipulates the fascia, which can get in knots from scar tissue. I might cry during the sessions, but I will walk out the office pain-free.”

Go-to snack:
Kale and avocado smoothie. “This is a dairy-free way to feel great. It really improves my stamina. I add chia seeds for extra punch.”

Favorite R&R strategy:
Reading mental_floss magazine. “I love the quizzes. It really pushes you to think, which is great for getting your mind off dance.”

Published in the April/May 2013 issue of Pointe Magazine.
By Nancy Wozny and Laura Cappelle

Read at pointemagazine.com >>

Happy Birthday, Pennsylvania Ballet

13-14, Features

The Inquirer
 
by Peter Dobrin
 
To ring up the curtain on its 50th-anniversary celebration, Balanchine-centric Pennsylvania Ballet will mount its first complete performance of a major gem in the master's crown: George Balanchine's Jewels.
 
Later in the 2013-14 season, it will premiere new works by important contemporary choreographers Trey McIntyre and Matthew Neenan.
 
In a nod to its own artistic lineage, the company will bring in pieces old (Balanchine's Serenade) and new, by former artistic directors Christopher d'Amboise and Robert (Ricky) Weiss.
 
And to satisfy small E.T.A. Hoffmann aficionados and aficionadas, Pennsylvania Ballet will once again dispense magic and bring dolls to life in productions of Coppélia and The Nutcracker.
 
Artistic director Roy Kaiser said he wanted the season to honor the company's heritage - he performed some of these works when he was a dancer - while moving the art form forward.
 
"Many of the ballets [on for next season] molded the company," he said. "On the other side of it, I wanted to show what people can expect to see from the company and look to the future with these two world premieres by Neenan and McIntyre. These are the young men who are creating today."
 
Jewels opens the season Oct. 17-27, at the Academy of Music. The Feb. 6-9 program at the Merriam features the company premiere of Petite Mort by Jirí Kylián to music of Mozart; Jerome Robbins'Afternoon of a Faun (Debussy); Balanchine's Serenade (Tchaikovsky); and the "Pas de Deux" from Margo Sappington's  1976 fantasy on Alexander Calder , Under the Sun (Michael Kamen). John Butler's Carmina Burana (Orff) and Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto - a company premiere - share the bill March 6-15 at the Academy.
 
The Nutcracker is put up on its usual holiday perch Dec. 7-29. Coppélia is given three performances at the Academy on March 8 and 16.
 
On a "Director's Choice" program May 8-11, Balanchine acolyte Weiss is represented by the company's first performance of his Grieg: Piano Concerto, and d'Amboise by his popular Franklin Court(Bach), joining a world premiere by Trey McIntyre.
 
June 12-15, at the Merriam, In the middle, somewhat elevated by William Forsythe is paired with two titles by Neenan: At the border, set to John Adams' Hallelujah Junction, and a new work - his 15th commission for Pennsylvania Ballet.
 
Neenan, 38, the ballet's choreographer in residence, says that at this point he has made few decisions about the work he is to create - only that it likely will be for two to four dancers. Typically, he starts with a piece of music, but he has not even chosen that yet, though he is listening all the time.
 
"A lot of it is intuition. I would say most of it. OK, all of it is intuition," he said. "Music is so important to me, even if there's no music. I've been working a lot lately with silence, and to me, even that's music."
 
He expects to start working with dancers in December, in Nutcracker season. "It's always nice for the dancers to do something else at that time," he said.
 
In a way, the appearance of Jewels completes a long-delayed journey. Of the three acts - "Emeralds" to scores of Fauré, "Rubies" to Stravinsky, and "Diamonds" to Tchaikovsky - Pennsylvania Ballet has performed only "Rubies." A scheduled company premiere of the entire work in 1990 was canceled after artistic turmoil prompted the Balanchine Trust to revoke permission to mount it and other Balanchine works.
 
Kaiser says he believes Jewels was programmed and withdrawn other times because of budgetary reasons. It's a large work, a full-length one without a story.
 
"The musical choices he made are in my opinion perfect, and it's a work that when it was done was successful initially, but it is also very different," said Kaiser. "A lot of people were maybe not such fans of it - a full-evening ballet without a narrative. How do you do that? This is about music and movement and beautiful costumes. Pretty pure."
 
Read at philly.com >>

Surviving "Nutcracker"

Features, Nutcracker, 12-13

Pointe Magazine, December 2012
 
Dancers have a love-hate relationship withNutcracker. For many, it was the first ballet they saw; for even more, it was the first they ever performed. But, despite the nostalgia, December’s relentless marathon of shows takes a toll. If Nutcracker music is starting to make you a little loopy, you’re not alone!  
 
Abigail Mentzer
Soloist at Pennsylvania Ballet
 
 
First roles: Angel and Soldier in The Nutcracker movie with Macaulay Culkin
 
Favorite role: Lead Marzipan and Sugar Plum
 
Performances per season: About 30
 
All-time favorite Sugar Plum: Darci Kistler
 
How do you stay sane during Nutcrackerseason? I sew. It takes my mind off the day. And my gym is across the street from our theater, so in between shows—some Saturdays we have three in a day—I’ll go to the hot tub. 
 
How do you keep up your stamina? I swim laps about three times a week. It loosens up my joints. I always feel much more open and taller afterwards. 
 
What goes through your mind when you hear Nutcracker music in a store? Honestly? Anxiety. 
 
Favorite holiday traditions? Icing my feet! And I love to escape to New York City, because that’s where I grew up. 
 
Biggest Nutcracker nightmare? In my first year doing Sugar Plum, my shoe came off near the end of my variation! I had to do the whole greeting scene with it practically off my foot. I thought nothing could go wrong after that—but the next day, my partner was horribly sick, and in the pas when we did the no-handed fish, he didn’t feel me start to slide down. My belly was basically lying on the floor!
 
Read more at PointeMagazine.com. >>

Pennsylvania Ballet, Behind-the-Scenes

Features, 12-13

Philadelphia Style, December 2012

Barbara Weisberger still speaks fondly of the tree that became known to some as “Barbara’s Folly.”

When the founder and former artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet staged the company’s first production of The Nutcracker back in 1968, the centerpiece was a huge Plexiglas tree, in keeping with Weisberger’s desire for an original and modern take on the story. “I would not have any candy canes or anything like that,” Weisberger recalls—though her desire to also have Plexiglas stalagmites onstage was shot down when her staff pointed out, “[Those could] kill someone!”

That tree serves as a fitting metaphor for Pennsylvania Ballet’s journey with the holiday classic. For one thing, notes Weisberger, since Plexiglas was manufactured by a local company, Pennsylvania Ballet got a healthy corporate donation for that first production.

The pas de deux between art and commerce and between tradition and change runs through the Pennsylvania Ballet’s history with The Nutcracker. The company, which celebrates its golden anniversary in 2013, also marks 25 years this holiday season with George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker—the crown jewel in the canon created by the legendary choreographer and founder of the New York City Ballet. From December 8–30, Pennsylvania Ballet presents 23 performances of Balanchine’s gem at the Academy of Music.

The Pennsylvania Ballet is one of only seven companies worldwide licensed to perform the Balanchine version, which premiered at NYCB in 1954. But like the magical toy itself, there have been a lot of transformations for Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker over the years. Even though Weisberger was a Balanchine protégée and the first child dancer he ever trained—“he was my professional father and I adored him,” says Weisberger—the company didn’t start using his version in full until 1987, after she had left Pennsylvania Ballet.

One thing that remains constant is ticket sales. Though the terms “bovine” and “ballet” are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, few ballet companies would deny that The Nutcracker in any form is a cash cow. Pennsylvania Ballet executive director Michael Scolamiero says that 44 percent of the company’s annual earned income (which includes investments from endowments and revenues from the School of Pennsylvania Ballet, along with ticket sales) comes from The Nutcracker. Last year, the show sold 37,568 tickets, adding $2.175 million to the company coffers. For a company that operates on an annual budget of $11 million and is gearing up for a January move into the $17.5 million Louise Reed Center for Dance—a new facility on Broad Street that brings the administrative, rehearsal, and school facilities under one roof—The Nutcracker provides a lot of fiscal sugarplums.

Given its popularity, one might expect that The Nutcracker also serves as a cultural gateway drug, turning families into repeat annual audiences for the show and into patrons for other offerings. But Scolamiero says that over half the audience for Nutcracker is new every year, and many of them don’t see other shows in the season. “It’s great that there’s this churn, and you get a lot of new faces coming into the theater,” he says. But, he adds, “when the [children] reach a certain age, especially boys, they stop looking at ballet as an option.”

To counter that tendency, the company promotes family matinees for other shows, such as their upcoming production of Balanchine’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in March. For The Nutcracker, the company also offers add-on options, such as teas with the Sugar Plum Fairy herself. Scolamiero acknowledges that patron information captured through Nutcracker ticket sales “is a nice list to take advantage of, but we need to do more with it.”

Changes in choreography and design have kept patrons and artists on their toes over the years. The 1968 version mostly used the Balanchine second act, but the first act was more streamlined and included work by Robert Rodham, a student of Weisberger’s, who created the pas de deux for the Snow Queen and King, as well as the dance of the Snowflakes.

Budgetary concerns played a role in that first Nutcracker. Weisberger felt that the company’s smaller budgets might not allow for the “grand, elegant” Balanchine aesthetic that audiences familiar with NYCB expected. By 1987, then-artistic director Robert Weiss, a longtime dancer with NYCB, decided it was time to go the full Balanchine.

Current artistic director Roy Kaiser, who danced The Nutcracker with the Pennsylvania Ballet every year from 1979–1992 before assuming his current role in 1995, identifies two enduring strengths of the Balanchine version. First, the principal children’s roles are performed by child dancers, rather than youthful-looking adults. Says Kaiser, “It is kind of a children’s story, one told through ballet. The original story [by E.T.A. Hoffmann] is kind of dark, but the way it has evolved as a ballet is as a children’s story, so I think it’s appropriate to have the children in it.” And, adds Kaiser, “The other thing is that Balanchine was such a musician. His choreography came from music. And the [Tchaikovsky] score is just fantastic. Thank God it is as good as it is.”

Ongoing seasonal hits like The Nutcracker also generate high revenues because they don’t require building costumes and sets from scratch every year. But even classics need face-lifts.

In 2007, Pennsylvania Ballet unveiled a new look for the 20th anniversary of the Balanchine Nutcracker, with sets by Canadian-born designer Peter Horne and costumes by Judanna Lynn (herself a former dancer). The focus was on a regional flavor, so Horne’s set suggests a Federal-style mansion familiar to Philadelphia audiences. It didn’t come cheaply—the company spent $950,000 on the redesign, which included 185 costumes. The most expensive costume Lynn designed in the show belongs to Mother Ginger, who wears an 40-pound dress—big enough to accommodate the children who scamper out from underneath it—that cost $10,000. Luckily, that redesign came before the economic collapse of 2008. Scolamiero says, “When we unveiled the new production in 2007, we expected it to do really well that year and then fall back a little, and it did; 2009 and 2010 were a little off, and that’s because of the economy.”

For dancers, a different kind of transformation and stamina is required, since many of them perform multiple roles. Principal dancer Ian Hussey, who has been dancing in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker since age nine, has played nearly every male role. He now dances the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier. “It’s very difficult when you’re doing the third show of the day on a three-show Sunday. It’s mentally and physically tough,” says Hussey. But he also notes “The guys have it a lot easier. The girls have it rough. It’s a lot of dancing, and very grueling.”

For soloist Gabriella Yudenich, dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy is a childhood dream come true. Her parents, Barbara Sandonato and the late Alexei Yudenich, both danced with the Pennsylvania Ballet—her mother was in fact the first dancer hired in 1963—and her older brother danced the prince the first year they did the Balanchine version. “I watched him do it and I wanted to be in the party scene so badly, but I was too little,” says Yudenich. Now, when she dances the Sugar Plum Fairy herself, Yudenich says “The choreography is so breathtaking and the music…. I always go into it feeling fresh. I never think ‘Oh, this again.’”

Weisberger, who has seen The Nutcracker more times than anyone else associated with Pennsylvania Ballet, attributes its enduring appeal to the fact that, though the music is “so familiar and beloved,” the dancing itself transforms with the unique physical poetry the performers bring.

“Unlike other performing arts, even theater, dance is so ephemeral,” says Weisberger. “It’s there, and then it’s not. You can see the same ballet, but it is a completely different thing when you see [a new] dancer.”


Read at phillystylemag.com. >>

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Features