Editor’s note: This story first ran in Vail Dance magazine, the official program of the Vail International Dance Festival.
Pennsylvania Ballet is gracefully poised between two worlds: it roots itself in the illustrious work of pioneer and choreographer George Balanchine, while extending the branches of contemporary ballet into diverse repertoire that aims to engage modern audiences.
The Philadelphia-based ballet company makes its debut at the Vail International Dance Festival today, performing as part of the opening night festivities. The company performs Monday and Wednesday as well.
The Pennsylvania Ballet celebrates its 50th anniversary this year as Artistic Director Roy Kaiser continually strives for excellence in every season, and every performance, he presents.
In 1963, Balanchine invited one of his protege, Barbara Weisberger, to open the Pennsylvania Ballet in Philadelphia.
Trained in Imperial Russia, Balanchine emigrated from Europe to the United States in 1933 to co-found with Lincoln Kirstein the School of American Ballet in New York, and after creating a series of short-lived companies, he and Kirstein launched the New York City Ballet in 1948. As the son of a composer, Balanchine received extensive musical training, which deeply informed his skills as a choreographer, making it possible for him to communicate with composers such as Igor Stravinsky and reduce orchestral scores on the piano to better translate music into dance.
“We’ll never see a choreographer like him,” Kaiser said. “He was brilliant at creating a pure reflection of the music. He was a musician as much as a choreographer, and that shows, and that makes the ballets make sense to dancers kinesthetically and makes the ballets very aesthetically pleasing to audiences.”
Though all of the company’s dancers steep themselves in Balanchine style, they each bring “different elements to the table with a lot of different movement qualities ... (resulting in) well-rounded dancers,” said Principal Dancer Lauren Fadeley, who is in her seventh season with Pennsylvania Ballet. And, despite any individual variances, they work together as a close-knit community.
“We all want the company to be the best it can be, and we all work together to get there,” Fadeley said.
The dancers not only encourage each other inside the studio and on stage, but they also spend time bonding beyond the mirrored walls.
“There are a lot of dancers who are my friends, but watching them dance, I still get star-struck,” said Principal Dancer Jermel Johnson, who has been with the company for 11 years.
Blending tradition with innovation, Balanchine’s 425 works offer a diverse body from which the Pennsylvania Ballet chooses annually. “Works by the master, Mr. Balanchine, have always been a cornerstone of this company. They make great dancers for a couple of reasons,” Kaiser said. “They demand technical speed and quickness of articulation, but at the same time they’re also incredibly musical ... they challenge dancers to rise to a new level.”
Fadeley experiences, firsthand, how Balanchine’s choreography brings out the best in dancers.
“It gives you a freedom of movement, but it’s very technical,” Fadeley said. “The tempo’s always right on the edge of being a little too fast, and it’s always using up all of the space ... you take risks with the choreography, making it as big as you can.”
Though Balanchine choreographed his ballets in the last century, he fused modern concepts with traditional ideals of classical ballet. His neoclassicical style still blends exquisitely with contemporary ballet.
Every season, the Pennsylvania Ballet showcases at least one or two of Balanchine’s ballets, and also presents the Balanchine version of the eternal holiday favorite “The Nutcracker.” Then, Kaiser commissions new works for the company, often working with choreographer and co-founder of BalletX Matthew Neenan, and bringing in such internationally renowned choreographers as William Forsythe.
“The contemporary work strengthens the classical ballet and Balanchine technique, and vice versa,” Johnson said. “It (allows for) more variety of style.”
Engaging the audience
At The Vail International Dance Festival, Pennsylvania Ballet’s 36 dancers will highlight Balanchine’s varied works from “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” and the legendary “Serenade” to the “Rubies” section of Jewels. “You get a very broad look at Mr. Balanchine’s work,” Kaiser said.
Since its national debut in 1968 at City Center in New York, Pennsylvania Ballet has been one of America’s foremost ballet companies, known for its passionate artistry and technical virtuosity. During the 1970s, it became the official company of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and in the late 1980s, it joined with Milwaukee Ballet and became the first in the nation to provide year-round employment to its dancers. To this day, it’s the vivacious dancers that bring to life Balanchine’s — and a host of other modern choreographers’ — artistry.
“I try to identify dancers that all have something special to offer beyond technique,” Kaiser said. “I look for dancers that have soul ... and then I feed that by giving them a great repertoire of dance.”
And, within the choreography, the performers strive to find those “small moments” to draw audiences even deeper into their artistic expression. “We’re just a very diverse group of dancers that love to have fun on stage,” Johnson said. “We excel when we have the opportunity to engage the audience.”
From the bottom to the top
Kaiser performed with Pennsylvania Ballet from 1979 to 1992, rising from corps de ballet to principal to associate artistic director, until the Trustees of Pennsylvania Ballet selected him as its first home-grown artistic director in 1994. Kaiser recently announced his intention to retire after 20 years of leading the Pennsylvania Ballet.
Kaiser has stretched the company’s repertoire to include edgy and innovative pieces while still remaining true to its Balanchine base. Pennsylvania Ballet has presented classical dancers in white tutus, as well as boldly colored, spandex-encased duos twisting and floating through space with the airiness of a mobile.
“I have tried to push the company further,” he said, “and create different ways for the audience to experience the work. I honor the tradition and history of the company and the art form (of Balanchine), which influences (my) decisions.”
As with any ballet company, it naturally evolves as dancers come and go; a dance career is a short one, and turnover brings with it new influences, which Kaiser embraces and believes are healthy.
“A company is always evolving,” he said. “You change or you die. You have to keep pushing forward.”
Kaiser’s attitude mirrors Balanchine’s in that Balanchine never stopped pursuing perfection, even after each great accomplishment. At dance connoisseur Lincoln Kirstein’s urging, Balanchine set out to establish American ballet companies that rivaled — and even surpassed — European companies. His reaction to Romantic anti-classicism, the prevailing style in Russia and Europe when he was a dancer, spawned a body of work that emphasized dance over plot, an approach that not only endures, but also continues to touch hearts and souls worldwide to this day. And so Pennsylvania Ballet follows elegantly, yet boldly, in Balanchine’s footsteps, while striving to advance the vision and vitality of contemporary ballet.