Roy Kaiser looks forward and back as Pennsylvania Ballet turns 50

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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.

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Company Member Lillian Di Piazza and Répétiteur Sandra Jennings rehearsing Jewels, choreography by
George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust   Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

~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.

Barbara Weisberger & Roy Kaiser

~ Legacies & legends ~

The company’s lineage with George Balanchine goes back to 1934, when he invited 8-year-old Barbara Weisberger to take his class.  Years later, Weisberger danced for him at New York City Ballet, but “I was not one of his artistic muses,” Weisberger often recalls with sportingly. Instead, he championed her as a teacher and chose her to establish Pennsylvania Ballet in the early 60s, as one of the new regional ballet companies in the US.  She started a school in 1962 and the following year started the company and was the artistic director until 1982.  Even after she resigned over disagreements with the board of directors, Weisberger maintained a unique and valued relationship with the company. 

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.

~  Best of times~

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.

~ The Rep ~

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.

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Company Member Lillian Di Piazza and Principal Dancer Jermel Johnson rehearsing Jewels, choreography
by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust   Photo: Alexander Iziliaev

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.

~ Corps strength ~

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.

School Photos for Web 2

~ Back to school ~

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.

George Balanchine’s Jewels opens at the Academy of Music Oct. 17 and runs through 27. For performance times and complete information about other events check www.paballet.org

 

 

 

 

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