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Artistic Director Roy Kaiser Discusses Pennsylvania Ballet's New Era

by Lewis Whittington

February 2004

Roy Kaiser has brought Pennsylvania Ballet into a new era. In the ten years I've been covering Pennsylvania Ballet for various publications, I have never once seen artistic director Roy Kaiser say an angry word to anyone. In fact, the worst that can be said of him is that he has sly smile.  

By all reports, he's never even been quick with someone at the office, the studio, or the theater. He is always a serene presence with a ballet company that just a decade ago was going belly up. The former principal dancer, still looking princely at forty-something, maintains a quiet sense of humor and, always, his passion for dance.  

"I came to classical dance late in life, as a teenager, after dancers typically come into it. I was taken by it, the power of it and I couldn't imagine that I would be doing anything else. The first thing that attracted me was the physicality of it. I had no idea that this art form made the kind of physical demands on dancers that it does. And, even as a teenager, I immediately understood the artistic nuances, along with the athletic needs."

Even though his vision for Pennsylvania Ballet is generally acknowledged, Kaiser credits the whole organization -- dancers, artists and administrators -- for piloting Pennsylvania Ballet into its new era. In fact, the company is more secure than ever and has been a solvent organization under Kaiser's tenure for almost a decade. Kaiser leans back with his hands on the back of his head and takes in the panoramic view of the city at Broad and Washington St. from his unfinished offices at the ballet's studios.  

"Everything falls into place in the theater. It has to, doesn't it. The season so far has been satisfying. The energy is there and the audiences are responding. 'Nutcracker' was off, but only by about 1%. Audiences are responding to the way the company is dancing. The energy. 'Dracula' actually went over our projected goals. 

For the first program of Balanchine, I was thrilled to be able to add Jerome Robbins' 'Fancy Free' to 'Concerto Barocco' and 'Four Temperaments' -- works I’ll program on whenever I can. The dancers totally invest themselves in those works. And they are so inspiring to dance…I think we'll be saying the same thing about these works in twenty years."

Kaiser keeps his eye on the artistic goals, his dancers, and choreographers, and his vision is grounded in the realities of running a sizable ballet company in an age when the re-vitalized Philadelphia arts and theater community is growing in all directions.  

Philly is a big sports town too. A few years ago, the company launched an award winning ad campaign at the suggestion of Pennsylvania Ballet executive director Michael Scolamiero, that had billboards and ads of Pennsylvania Ballet showing off their athletic bodies. This was one of the elements that brought greater appreciation for the troupe. He made PAB a vital part of that renaissance, making sure that his company was relevant and exciting, and for the first time, even sexy.

With a sigh, Kaiser, reflecting on his years as AD and in the midst of the 40th anniversary season, said last week,  "It never stops, really, for any arts organization these days.  Problems are the same across the board, whether you are a $100,000 a year company or a $45 million company.  The cultural climate teaches you to continue to fight and find ways to make it work.  There's no such thing as letting up."  And then says with a laugh, "But sales were very healthy last year, for whatever reasons."

Forty years ago, PAB was established by Balanchine protege Barbara Weisberger under the auspices of a grant by the Ford Foundation (and is only one of the two surviving companies that received the seed money). Weisberger used Balanchine's New York City Ballet works as the core syllabus and modeled PAB's Rock School on his techniques.  

She hired Kaiser as a corps dancer in 1979, and he quickly advanced to principal dancer, and eventually, ballet master. In 1994, after a period of turmoil that resulted in a shutdown for the company, he became artistic director. The year before Kaiser took over PAB, the board of administrations had suspended operations for a second time. 

The company was indeed, going six-pack belly up and the short tenured artistic director of the time, Christopher d'Amboise (son of legendary Jacque) launched a "save the ballet" fundraising campaign, which was bolstered by a committed group of dancers and balletomanes willing to do what was necessary to stay alive. The drive worked, symbolically, if not monetarily, but d'Amboise's volatile leadership ended abruptly, setting the stage for Kaiser, who took over as Interim AD. Kaiser still credits d'Amboise for trying new things on the company and handling a transitional time. 

Kaiser brought his vision of a ballet company with complete artistic and fiscal integrity, if they were to survive. He credits Michael Scolamiero as an equal partner in rebuilding PAB from its near collapse in the early 90s. "We wanted a more evenly based structure so we weren't faced with the situation of being broke and not knowing what to do. When Michael began, we immediately worked at gaining stability for the company and building an infra-structure that was both a good business and that feeds all of our artistic goals."

Kaiser's focus was to strengthen the repertory of the company with both full-length classical ballets and works by contemporary choreographers making works for ballet trained companies. He also developed and nurtured choreographic talent within the company and allowed his dancers to pursue other creative goals as dancers. Under Kaiser, the real personality and character of the Pennsylvania Ballet has emerged.

This month PAB will mount its successful production of John Cranko's "Taming of the Shrew" while the dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet are preparing for their annual AIDS benefit show, "Shut Up and Dance," where dancers get to choreograph their own works under the current direction of principal dancer David Krensing.

Kaiser has also developed choreographic talent within the company ranks as well as working with great modern choreographers from around the country. Most notably, corps member Matthew Neenan's Degas inspired "Le Travail" was a highlight of last season, and principal dancer Meredith Rainey's ballet "Slight Shift" was the centerpiece of a stellar modern bill along with works by d’Amboise ("Symposium") and Kevin O'Day ("Col Legno"). The modern bill this spring, "Rhythm & Blues," brings a premiere by Neenan, Peter Martins' "Fearful Symmetries" and Trey McIntyre's internationally acclaimed "Blue Until June."

He has always encouraged his dancers to take on artistic challenges and pursue their careers in different ways. He also was founding advisor to the three-year-old Phrenic New Ballet, started by three company members, whose modern aesthetic is based on classical technique.

Mr. Kaiser has been married to his wife Kelly, who coaches pairs ice-skating teams and teaches ballet, for twenty-one years. The pair met during rehearsal on the stage of the Academy of Music, now home for PAB. Kaiser's father was a Seattle businessman and his mother had a dance boutique in Seattle (Mark Morris used to pop in when he was growing up there, Kaiser recalls). His parents just moved from Seattle to Dover, Delaware.  

The Kaisers have two children, Roy Jr., thirteen, who currently has non-performing arts interests, and Cristina, seven, who belongs to a championship junior basketball league. Three of Mr. Kaiser's four brothers work in the arts. Kevin Kaiser worked for Oregon Ballet Theater and now teaches in Seattle, and Ken Kaiser is also a businessman there. Dan Kaiser runs a ballet school in Dover, and Russell Kaiser is ballet master for New York City Ballet. 

PAB is the largest it has ever been with more than forty dancers, with longstanding principals and soloists, but also with many young dancers coming in the past couple of years, almost giving the ensemble a new face. "The way this art form works, there is a passing along of the intent of steps, and along with that, a passing along a spirit of experience. Young dancers work side by side, and the spirit goes through them and naturally gets passed on."

To cap off this anniversary season, Christopher Wheeldon is choreographing a classical revision of "Swan Lake" in a million dollar production that will premiere at the company’s residence in the historic and newly restored Academy of Music. Kaiser called Wheeldon an "incredibly talented young man."

In his long association with the company, Kaiser remembered times when dancers faced lay-offs and performance stoppages, and he vowed they would never have to face that again. "When the company's problems start to affect the artists' lives, not getting paid or being able to train, my main goal has always been to create an atmosphere that encourages artistic growth -- choreographically, from within, but also creating security for the dancers, that we will in fact be here. Ballet companies are always evolving, so you have to deal with that," he said with a slightly sinister laugh.

Edited by Lori Ibay

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