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. 
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.

Eye On The Arts: 23-Year-Old Ballerina To Dance Dream Roll In The Nutcracker

Videos, Nutcracker, Interviews, 12-13

CBS 3, December 2012
CBS 3’s Pat Ciarrocchi speaks with Company Member Lillian Di Piazza, who will premiere as the Sugarplum Fairy in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker™ this season.

Ian Hussey: Taking athletic abilities to the ballet’s center stage

12-13, Interviews

Philadelphia Gay News, December 2012
In “Nutcracker: The Motion Picture,” the narrator states: “In the language of this dream, in that palace of delight, we spoke with our whole selves ... And my tall Nutcracker Cavalier had eyes only for me, for at least as long as that dream could be.” Well, this week we only have eyes for Ian Hussey, the principal dancer who plays the Cavalier in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of “George Ballanchine’s The Nutcracker.”PGN:I know you’re used to expressing yourself through dance, but tell us a little about yourself.IH:Well, I grew up in Westmont, N.J., and I’ve been training in ballet since I was 9 years old. At 16, I trained with the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Carlisle, graduated from that high school, joined the Pennsylvania Ballet and have been with them ever since. I’m pretty much a Philly guy. I’ve lived in all areas of the city and even growing up I was always coming into the city for dance.PGN:Where do you think you got your artistic bent?IH:I don’t really know. Both of my parents were in business. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, now she’s a medical secretary, and my dad worked as a financial advisor. I think the reason they put me in ballet was because I was really into figure skating. I wanted to be a skater so bad. I idolized Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan, Brian Boitano and Scott Hamilton. As it happened, a friend whose father was working on the house of a dancer with the PA Ballet got free Nutcracker tickets and gave them to my mom, who took me to the show. I was enthralled and my mother asked me if I wanted to try ballet. I said sure, started taking classes and the next winter I was onstage at The Academy of Music in the production as one of the party boys.PGN:That’s amazing! You were clearly talented. Any siblings?IH:Yes, I have an older brother, Colin, and a twin, Eamonn.PGN:I’m guessing you’re an Irish boy?IH:[Laughs.] Oh yes.PGN:No sister? Though I guess that’s a good thing with your last name!IH:Yeah, but my mom is a big Hussey!PGN:[Laughs.] You said it, not me. Is your twin identical or fraternal?IH:Fraternal, but we could easily be mistaken for identical. It was tough growing up: We were best friends and inseparable, but we also fought like crazy people. They called us the Bicker Brothers because we’d fight so much. We shared everything: a room, classes, even friends, and it could get to be too much. And we were very competitive; whether it was playing wiffle ball or basketball in the backyard, we’d always have very intense games that ended up in a fight. As we’ve grown older, we’ve each had different personal lives, but we’re still very close. We talk at least every other day.PGN:So for those people who always think, Man, I wish I had a twin ...IH:That’s so funny. Someone just said that to me yesterday. I was like, “You know, growing up I didn’t think it was so awesome.” I hated it, but now that I’m older I enjoy it­-having that special connection with somebody.PGN:Is Eamonn heterosexual or homosexual?IH:He’s heterosexual.PGN:Any weird twin things?IH:Not really. I mean, I know him. I know how his brain works because it works exactly like mine. So if my parents were having issues with him and said, “I don’t understand why he’s doing that,” I always knew why he was doing that. I get him. Totally ... but nothing like being able to feel his pain or anything telepathic.PGN:What did you like to do other than play wiffle ball?IH:Lots of sports. We played little league baseball, team soccer, a lot of tennis. My brother and I loved to go to the tennis courts and play, though we’d fight there too. We loved anything having to do with sports. We were into the Phillies, Flyers, Sixers, Eagles ... and we were really into playing video games.PGN:So you were a jock, Mr. Hussey?IH:Yeah, I was. It was very difficult because I had to give all that up for dance. When I was about 13, I had to make the decision as to whether I wanted to stay in regular school and play sports or go to Carlisle and study ballet. I’m glad that I chose dance, though it’s still pretty hard sometimes. I’d love to be able to play in the City of Brotherly Love Softball League or join a recreational tennis league but I just can’t. I’m not willing to risk my job sliding into third base. Maybe when I retire ...PGN:Do you have to worry about insurance? Getting sick? I’m guessing most dancers freelance.IH:One thing that is really wonderful about being with the PA Ballet is that we are provided health insurance by the company as part of our contract. Health, dental, it’s all covered, and if we get injured on the job, we can file for workman’s comp, so we’re very well-protected.PGN:That’s great.IH:Yes, you’re correct in that a lot of dancers do live and work as freelancers and they constantly have to audition and look for work and worry about things like health insurance. But with PA Ballet, I’m an employee of the company plus we’re also a part of the American Guild of Musical Artists, which is a union that protects us. It covers opera singers and musicians and other types of musical artists.PGN:I see that in addition to your work as a member of the PA Ballet, you also were a producer of “Shut Up and Dance.”IH:Yes, I’ve been part of the show for years as a dancer and choreographer and production manager. In 2012, I was the producing director. It was hard and crazy and a lot of work but fun and totally worth it. It was one of the best nights of my year. The house was packed and I think we raised, if not more money than was raised before, then darn near close to it. I love the cause and it’s great to be a part of the event. It was an emotional journey and to end it onstage with the dancers behind me and the audience on their feet was awesome.PGN:I saw you did a “Tough Choices” video on coming out. When did you come out?IH:It was difficult for me, being taught by society that being gay was shameful. I was raised in a Catholic family but luckily both my parents were very liberal. I knew if I were to ever come out, I wouldn’t be shunned from the family or kicked out of the house, but it was still terrifying. I knew since I was 13, but I fought it.PGN:You would think being in the world of dance, you’d be exposed to gay culture more.IH:You know what, I was, but it wasn’t until I got older that my friends started to actually come out. Being in the small school environment in Carlisle didn’t help; everyone knew everyone and all their business, so I didn’t want to come out there. I had a girlfriend who I’d been dating for a year-and-a-half and I knew I had to tell her. The video was about the tough choice to tell her and begin to live my life freely and openly. Once I did that, there was no turning back. I told my mom and she was very cool about it. [Laughs.] We were fighting that day so things were already emotional but it drew us even closer.PGN:When did you tell your twin?IH:On Halloween. I don’t even remember why but we were at a Halloween party and he said something about girls and I wasn’t planning on telling him but it just came out. He was awesome about it. He was more mad at me for making him look silly. Over the years when his friends thought I was gay, he’d always say, “No, he’s a dancer, but he’s not gay.” [Laughs.] He was mad at me for making him defend me all those years.PGN:So speaking of your dancing, what are you doing with “The Nutcracker” this year?IH:I am the Cavalier to the Sugar Plum. It’s the best role for a guy in the show. The Sugar Plum Fairy is the lead ballerina and I get to dance with her. I’ve been dancing in the show since I was a kid and have played pretty much every male role in the show.PGN:So does “The Nutcracker” conjure up the holiday spirit for you?IH:Absolutely, it makes you think of Christmastime and families coming to see the show every year. It’s a grueling show to do, especially for the girls, but it’s nice to be in the theater for such a long period of time and to have so many people come see the show. I’m more of a Thanksgiving guy, because we’re pretty busy doing 11-12 shows a week during the holidays, but it’s always a fun time of the year.PGN:What’s the feeling of leaping across the stage in front of a theater full of people?IH:It’s an adrenaline rush. It can be scary, it can be exhilarating, it can be great fun, there’s no one emotion. But for the most part, it’s so much fun, it’s why you do it ... just for the love of dance.PGN:Biggest ballet blunder?IH:Oh, that’s easy. It was in “The Nutcracker” a few years ago. I was doing the Candy Cane dance, which is a part in which the guy jumps through a hoop, like a million times. At the very end, there’s a part where you have to jump up and go through the hoop twice and it’s very difficult. You’re tired from the whole dance and then you have to do this stunt. In this one performance, I don’t know if I slipped or had my weight back, but I landed on my butt with my legs in the air just as the music hit its crescendo.PGN:I see your name connected to Arantxa Ochoa a great deal.IH:She was someone I danced with for many, many years and someone I idolized growing up. She’s danced with PA Ballet since 1996 and just retired last year. She’s a wonderful person and now she’s going to be the principal instructor of the new school.PGN:Do you watch any of the dance shows on TV?IH:No, not at all! I’m a big “Game of Thrones” fan. But I don’t watch a lot of TV. I don’t even have cable; I watch most shows through the Internet.PGN:OK, I admit to watching dance shows, but I like that they show the hard work that goes into dancing. Showing football players and Olympic athletes struggling to do lifts, etc., people see that it’s not for wusses.IH:Oh yeah, ballet is really, really hard. It takes years and years of hard work and dedication to get to where we are and even then, there are many people who put in the time and still don’t achieve the success we have. It’s a grueling process. It’s hard on your body, it’s hard on you mentally, you’re very self-critical and you’re fighting your body every single day. But that’s also why we love it, for the challenge and chance to push yourself. It’s definitely not for wusses. A lot of people think that because someone does ballet that they’re gay, but we have loads of straight guys who do ballet as well.PGN:It seems like the tide is turning: It used to be that men were encouraged to dance — Gene Kelly, Fred Astair, Jimmy Cagney — and then for a minute it became unpopular. But now you have guys like Neyo, Usher and shows like “Glee” making it acceptable for boys to dance again.IH:Yeah, they’re removing the stigma. It’s great.PGN:How about some random questions. The feature I get the most compliments on?IH:[Feigning a Southern accent] Um, prob’ly mah hair. I have a lot of curly hair that people always comment on. Or wait, my eyelashes. I have very long eyelashes, let’s use that.PGN:[Laughs.] OK, they both count as hair. The worst pick-up line tried on you?IH:This guy once said, “You know when I graduate college I’m going to be making over $200,000 starting salary. As an artist, you’re going to need to be taken care of.”PGN:Would you rather travel to the future or go back in time?IH:That’s a hard one, Suzi! I think I’m going to say future. It would be tempting to go back and change things or do things differently. To help my childhood self so he wouldn’t be so damn scared all the time, but I think it would be more helpful to go into the future. It would be fun to see how the world changes.PGN:The family claim to fame is ... ?IH:Cooking. Both of my parents are really good cooks.PGN:I saw that you were reviewed in the New York Times as “the hunky, precise Ian Hussey” and you were voted one of the Daily News’ Sexy Singles of 2011. How cool was that?IH:Very cool. And flattering. [Laughs.] Unfortunately, it didn’t help me in the dating department, but it’s always nice to get a good review in any form. And I’m happy with my life just the way it is.PGN:A fun dancing experience?IH:I got to be in the film “Black Swan” with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. Most of the dancers in the movie are from PA Ballet. It was an incredible experience. I got to work on a movie set with the stars and Darren Aronofsky, who was one of my favorite directors growing up. To see him at work was surreal and when [Portman] won the Oscar it was awesome. It was exciting to be part of an Oscar-winning film.PGN:A fond moment?IH:The final scene of “Romeo and Juliet,” dancing with Arantxa. It was one of the most incredible parts I’ve ever had on stage. It was a part where you really had to bare your soul and she’s such an amazing artist, to share that with her and the audience ... to be in that moment was probably one of the best things I’ve ever done.“George Ballanchine’s The Nutracker” runs through Dec. 30 at The Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. For more information or tickets, visit at >>

Pennsylvania Ballet's N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz

11-12, Roy Kaiser, Interviews

by Jim Cotter
June 2, 2012
WRTI's Jim Cotter speaks with Pennsylvania Ballet Artistic Director Roy Kaiser about the company’s season-ending production at the Merriam Theater through June 3rd.
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