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40 Years of Excellence

A Look Back at Pennsylvania Ballet's Heritage

reprinted from Pennsylvania Ballet's Footnotes, Vol II, Issue 2 by kind permission of Pennsylvania Ballet

In January 1962, Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine co-founders of New York City Ballet, along with Barbara Weisberger met with sponsors at the Center City home of Mrs. Matthew T. (Stella) Moore. They told the sponsors of Mrs. Weisberger's ballet school, "We're hoping that a real ballet company will be built here." A year and a half later, one was.

Mrs. Weisberger, a former student of Mr. Balanchine's, opened the School of Pennsylvania Ballet in October 1962, trained her dancers and selected 19 of the finest and three guest artists to form Pennsylvania Ballet. Under the artistic leadership of Mrs. Weisberger, with Mr. Balanchine serving as Artistic Adviser and New York City Ballet's Robert Rodham as Ballet Master, Pennsylvania Ballet gave its very first performance on July 12, 1963 at the Paoli estate of its first Board President, C. Colket Wilson, III. That performance drew a whopping 800 audience members including W. McNeil Lowry, Director of the Ford Foundation's Humanities and the Arts Program. About five months later on December 16, 1963, the Ford Foundation announced its allotment of the largest sum any foundation had ever given to any one art form at one time -- nine grants totaling more than $7.76 million to "strengthen professional ballet in the United States Pennsylvania Ballet was awarded $295,000.

Pennsylvania Ballet gave its first Philadelphia performance on April 16, 1964 at University of Pennsylvania Irvine Auditorium. The program included Balanchine's "Concerto Barocco" and "Pas de Dix," Weisberger's "Symphonic Variations", and Rodham's "Valse Oubliee."

Over the years, the Company's commit-ment to Balanchine training, style and repertoire flourished, as Mrs. Weisberger continued to use his works as a base from which the Company could grow. In 1964, Maurice Kaplow became Music Director (a position he would hold for 27 years) and Robert Rodham became the Company's full-time Ballet Master. The first subscription series began in October 1964, and the following fall, it presented its first full-length ballet, "The Sleeping Beauty." The Company began touring the country in 1966 and made its New York debut on January 28, 1967 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. That was a turning point in that the Company's national reputation began to be built. The following January, the Company gave its first performance at Manhattan's City Center. The year 1968 ended with the Company's first performances of what would become an annual Philadelphia tradition -- "The Nutcracker."

The Triumphant 70s

The 1970s brought the Company increased recognition, both regionally and nationally. The Apprentice Program was officially instituted in 1970, paving the way for young dancers to train with the Company in the hopes of being invited to join. (Roy Kaiser became an Apprentice in 1978 and then joined the Company in 1979). Benjamin Harkarvy became Associate Artistic Director with Robert Rodham in 1972. Touring became more regular and wide-spread, and in 1974, Pennsylvania Ballet became a resident company of the Brooklyn Academy of Music -- the first out-of-state company to receive that recognition. The Company also made headlines with its 1976 Bi-Centennial commission of "Under the Sun" by Margo Sappington, a tribute to Philadelphia artist Alexander Calder, which brought the artist to town just two weeks before his death, at age 78, in May 1977.

The Company appeared for the first time on the nationally broadcast PBS special "Dance in America." Just three months later, it was featured in a cover article on "The Culture Boom" in U.S. News and World Report as an example of a "ballet success story." The decade of the 1970s ended with the Company's debut performance at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. on December 4, 1979.

Changes in the 80s

The Company was not only hitting home runs on stage, but off stage as well. In August 1981, the male dancers played the U.S. Navy team in a softball game to benefit Easter Seals and won, 13 to 6!

In September 1982, Robert Weiss became Artistic Director, Pennsylvania Ballet Principal Dancer and Ballet Master Dane La Fontsee became Associate Artistic Director, and New York City Ballet Principal Peter Martins served as the Artistic Advi-sor. Under this new leadership, the Company celebrated its twentieth anniversary in June 1984 with a gala performance and masked ball attended by Rudolph Nureyev and Suzanne Farrell, and emceed by Bill Cosby.

In 1987, the Company made huge strides in its development by announcing a joint venture with Milwaukee Ballet, and unveil-ing a new production of "The Nutcracker" which incorporated Balanchine's first act. In addition, as part of the nationwide celebration of the 200th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, Pennsylvania Ballet entertained international dignitaries with a "Stars and Stripes Gala," with Gene Kelly serving as Honorary Chair. The all-American program included Balanchine's "Stars and Stripes" and "Who Cares?", as well as Eugene Loring's "Billy the Kid." In 1989, Pennsylvania/Milwaukee Ballet was featured on PBS' "Dance in America" again, this time in Peter Martins' "La Sylphide." The joint venture was terminated shortly after that.

From the 1990s to Today

The 1990s brought another change in artistic leadership when Christopher d'Amboise was appointed Artistic Director. In the first program of the 1990-1991 season, the Company premiered his "Franklin Court," a tribute to Benjamin Franklin with scenery designed by Philadelphia architects Robert Venturi and Steven Izenour. The following March, plagued by financial difficulties that threatened the closing of the Company, Pennsylvania Ballet embarked on a public "Save the Ballet" campaign. Over one million dollars was raised in two weeks. The Company was back and thriving once again.

In 1994, Roy Kaiser was appointed Artistic Director making him the first one in his position to rise the ranks of the Company -- from Apprentice, Corps de Ballet, Soloist and Principal Dancer to Ballet Master, Associate Artistic Director and finally Artistic Director.

His first charge to take the Company to the Kennedy Center, where they performed Balanchine's Serenade along with two new works, d'Amboise's "The Golden Mean" and David Parsons "Mood Swing." Throughout his still-active tenure as Artistic Director, Mr. Kaiser would continue to bring Company premieres and newly created ballets into the repertoire. Under his leadership to date, Pennsylvania Ballet has acquired 24 Company premieres including "Petrouchka," "The Sleeping Beauty," Agnes de Mille's "Rodeo," Paul Taylor's "Company B," Lar Lubovitch's "Waiting for the Sunrise," John Cranko's "The Taming of the Shrew," and Alvin Ailey's "The River;" 21 new works have also been created by such renowned choreographers as Trey McIntyre, Kevin O'Day, Alan Hineline, Kirk Peterson, Christopher Stowell, and Matthew Neenan.

While Mr. Kaiser helped move the Company forward with the addition of these new works, he also helped ground it in its roots by selecting an artistic staff with the same homegrown back-ground as his. In 1995, when Principal Dancer Tamara Hadley retired from the stage after 20 years, he appointed her to become Ballet Mistress. Principal Dancer Jeffrey Gribler remained Ballet Master (a job he had held since 1987) and continued to do so after his retirement from the stage in 2001 after 26 years. Mr. Kaiser appointed Principal Dancer William DeGregory to Director of the newly-formed Pennsylvania Ballet II shortly before his retirement from the stage in 2002 after an unprecedented 27 years. With more than 20 years together in the trenches, this artistic staff shares the same experiences and is personally invested in the Company's success.

What will the future bring for Pennsylvania Ballet?

"My hope is that the Company will continue to grow in size as well as in terms of the repertoire that we master," says Kaiser. "By con-tinuing to bring in new works by important choreographers, we are able to offer the best in ballet to our audiences, and maintain our position as one of the top companies in the nation."

Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt.

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