In the waning days of 1960, the country was poised for a new dawn. There was a renewed fervor for the arts, and building an American ballet tradition was a key facet of the agenda. During a colorful conversation at a cocktail party hosted by Lincoln Kirstein, the co-founder of New York City Ballet, the idea to found a ballet company in Philadelphia was crystallized. "Balanchine said to me 'We must have more ballet companies in this country'," recalls Pennsylvania Ballet's founder Barbara Weisberger. "My reply," she continues, "was 'Mr. B, if you're really serious about this‹Philadelphia is the place'."
The ebb and flow of history would follow Pennsylvania Ballet through periods of prosperity and hardship, but the Company's commitment to class and artistry has never wavered. Over the past four and a half decades, the Company has cultivated a diverse repertoire that includes 127 classic and contemporary works, among them 33 jewels from the Balanchine collection.
The 2008-2009 Season marks Pennsylvania Ballet's 45th Anniversary, and Artistic Director Roy Kaiser has announced an ambitious lineup that celebrates classicism and challenges convention‹three mixed repertory programs featuring some of ballet's biggest names, two romantic classics that have captivated audiences for centuries, and one dazzling production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker.
"It's very satisfying to perform classic works from our repertory while bringing new work by emerging international choreographers to audiences in Philadelphia," says Kaiser. "Our dancers have been performing at a high caliber, and I'm confident this season will allow their artistry to shine through."
Balanchine & Beyond
The Company opens its 45th Anniversary Season October 29 to November 2 with Balanchine & Beyond, a program that honors the Company's Balanchine heritage while venturing beyond traditional ballet boundaries. The pageant of pastels and precision begins with Balanchine's Ballo della Regina, a 17-minute tour-de-force of prodigious variations and ballerina bravura that merits its translation, "Dance for the Queen." Last performed by Pennsylvania Ballet to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Balanchine's birth, Ballo della Regina is classical ballet in its purest form, set to music from the original opera production of Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlo.
Contemporary Italian choreographer Mauro Bigonzetti explores the inter-relationships between joy and light, romance and lyricism, geometric forms and abstraction while adhering to classic technique in Kazimir's Colours. Inspired by Russian painter Kazimir Malevich and set to Shostakovich's Concerto for Piano, Trumpet and Orchestra, Dance Magazine called Kazimir's Colours a "swift and sparkling work" at its premiere by the Stuttgart Ballet in 1997.
In contrast to the spotlight that shines on the female lead in Ballo, Twyla Tharp's Push Comes to Shove is a tip of the hat to the male soloist's struggle to navigate a world that demands structure. Tharp pushes through the barriers of ballet, shoving modern dance to center stage in her signature style. Created for Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1976, this is one of the dance arena's most widely recognized cross-over ballets. "There are things in Push Comes to Shove that stay fixed in the mind as almost more classical than the classical, for they underline the daring of ballet without blunting its elegance," noted Joan Acocella for Dance Magazine in 1989. "Tharp made ballet beautiful in a new way, tough and cool."
Love & Longing
No one personifies cool more than legendary crooner Frank Sinatra, to whom Tharp pays tribute to in Nine Sinatra Songs. Nine couples command the stage in elegant ballroom attire, and explore the complexities of relationships in dazzling dances set to timeless hits like "Strangers in the Night," "That's Life" and "My Way."
The theme of Love & Longing also presents itself in Peter Martins's Fearful Symmetries. The title, of both the ballet and John Adams's pulsating score that accompanies it, is taken from the William Blake poem "Tyger" that warns when passion is in play, reason must resign. The ballet is a complex and relentless exercise in contemporary movement that leads to a high impact ensemble finish.
At the Merriam Theater from February 11 to 15, this electrifying program includes a world premiere by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, a versatile choreographer that has created works for the Scapino Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, and the Royal Ballet of Flanders, among others, that are largely concept-driven and explore human relationships.
Tango with Style
Pennsylvania Ballet invites you to Tango with Style in an evening of premieres at the Merriam Theater, May 6 to 10. Bathed in white, two couples take the stage for a series of pas de deux in the Company premiere of Peter Martins's Barber Violin Concerto. The piece embodies the lyrical movement of Samuel Barber's inventive work, bridging from an opening adagio to its final scherzo, exploring the dichotomy between classical ballet and modern dance in three movements.
Originally created for the Dutch National Ballet in 1977, Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen's Five Tangos hasn't lost its luster. The seductive score from Astor Piazolla escalates the drama of couples torn between the cool abstraction of ballet and the fiery temperament of traditional Argentinean tango. This program will also feature an untitled work by Choreographer in Residence Matthew Neenan, his tenth piece created on the Company.
The rags-to-riches tale of Cinderella has captured the hearts of audiences for generations. A glass slipper, an opulent stagecoach, a lavish wedding and happily ever after are at the heart of this enchanted production. Gilded with Ben Stevenson's regal choreography, featuring romantic partnering and the laugh-out-loud antics of the wicked stepsisters, Cinderella is a dream come true. Exquisite costumes, spectacular sets and Sergei Prokofiev's sumptuous score complete this charming production, which will adorn the stage of the Academy of Music March 13 to 21.
For a stunning season finale, La Sylphide returns to the Academy of Music, June 5 to 13, after a 21-year absence. Recognized as the oldest ballet in existence, La Sylphide chronicles the fate of a young Scottish farmer who abandons his bride-to-be for a beautiful winged creature. In doing so he offends not only the wedding party, but also the witch who heralds his demise. With its recipe of charm, ethereal delights and a dash of comic relief, La Sylphide ushered in the reign of the romantic ballet and introduced prolonged pointe work into the classic vernacular. Bournonville's choreography exudes the innocence of youth, punctuated with a poignancy that has echoed through the ages.
The season would not be complete without the perennial holiday favorite, George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, at the Academy of Music for its 40th season December 12 to 31. A new production was unveiled last year to record-breaking audiences; hailed "breathtakingly beautiful" by The Philadelphia Inquirer. Balanchine's masterful choreography and Tschaikovsky's enchanting score performed by the Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra with the Philadelphia Boys Choir this is a feast for the senses that will satisfy any sweet tooth.
"I often think maybe this was all a dream," reveals Weisberger, reminiscing about her relationship with Balanchine and the critical early years of the Company. "But then you see it in pictures".
Perhaps you'll just have to see Pennsylvania Ballet's 45th Season for yourself.
To celebrate the 2008-2009 season, call 215.893.1955 or visit paballet.org.
Brooke Honeyford has written about the arts for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is currently the Public Relations Manager for Pennsylvania Ballet.