Philadelphia is only 100 miles from New York City. But it has taken 22 years for the Pennsylvania Ballet to return to the dance capital that has fondly embraced it in the past. From November 14 to 18, the company will perform at New York City Center with a savvy repertory that reflects the spirit of the company's history.
Why such a lengthy absence? The costs of touring have soared over the last 15 years. What's more, a revolving door of directors prior to 1994 made a focus on home seasons at The Academy of Music a priority. But Roy Kaiser, the current Artistic Director, thinks a sturdy thread has always woven its way throughout the life of the Company in a way that veteran New Yorkers still remember. "Even though we are a company with a ranking system with corps de ballet, soloists, and principal dancers, there has always been a wonderful sense of ensemble, no matter what we were dancing," says Kaiser. "It adds a special dimension to the Pennsylvania Ballet."
Founded in 1963 by Barbara Weisberger, a champion of the development of American ballet who worked closely with George Balanchine (she was his first child pupil in 1934 and sat under the piano while he choreographed the classic Serenade), Pennsylvania Ballet has adopted Balanchine's style and ballets as the backbone of its esprit de corps. Fully supportive of Weisberger's efforts, Balanchine generously gave the company the rights to many of his ballets.
The first Balanchine piece the Company acquired, Concerto Barocco, will be performed on Program B during the fall City Center season. (This masterwork, set to Johann Sebastian Bach's Concerto in D minor for Two Violins, also marked Pennsylvania Ballet's debut at City Center in 1968.) Program A will include Serenade, the signature Balanchine work to which the Company has given its own ensemble identity.
Alongside the aqueous Serenade, the Company will feature Matthew Neenan's fiery Carmina Burana, set to Carl Orff's lusty choral music based on 13th-century poems and songs. Pennsylvania Ballet became closely associated with choreographer John Butler's Carmina Burana, which adhered literally to much of the score's text about life's wheel of fortune. Second only to Balanchine's The Nutcracker in the tally of performances, Carmina Burana has always been a company draw. But Kaiser felt a new spin was needed for the ballet in the 21st century. "Dancers are different today, more technically capable," says the Artistic Director, who commissioned Neenan to create the current version. "I've always liked Matthew's choreography because of his sense of musicality and the way he puts his own stamp on the use of classical ballet vocabulary. Matthew studied the text of Carmina Burana but didn't follow it literally. Instead, he used it as inspiration."
Program B features another Neenan work, As It's Going, choreographed to six chamber pieces by Dmitri Shostakovich. The title derives its name from a 1907 poem by Anna Akhmatova, "And As It's Going," which the composer used to give hints of the repression of the Stalinist regime that artists like he and Akhmatova found stifling. "This is a big ensemble piece that captures the essence of the Company," says Kaiser.
Aiming to showcase the troupe's versatility, Kaiser chose Val Caniparoli's popular Lambarena, a ballet that combines traditional African rhythms and melodies with passages from Bach. "It would have been obvious to do classical steps with the Bach, and ethnic movement with the African," says Caniparoli. "But the score is a marriage of these two kinds of music, and I wanted the choreography to be the same thing. I wanted to show that you can do either kind of movement to both kinds of music."
To ensure that the dancers caught both the correct spirit and the grounded quality of the choreography, Kaiser brought in African dance specialists to teach classes to the company dancers, who learned to loosen up their hips and use their backs and arms more fluidly. Pennsylvania Ballet's performances of Lambarena mark the first time the piece has been performed in New York since San Francisco Ballet danced it 12 years ago.
Since his tenure began, Kaiser has infused the repertoire with ballets by Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, and Paul Taylor, among others. In 2004, the Company premiered a much-heralded version of Swan Lake by Christopher Wheeldon that placed the ballet in a Degas-like setting. But an impressive repertoire is nothing without the dancers capable of pulling it off.
So how has he assembled such a splendid group? "Beyond a clean, classical technique, I look for dancers who demand my attention," says Kaiser, who performed with the Company himself from 1979 to 1992 before taking the director's reins in 1994. "That means someone who can move beautifully, eat up space, cover ground, and demonstrate an interesting musicality in the phrasing of combinations. And all of the dancers have something very specifically unique about them."
Joseph Carman is a contributing editor to Dance magazine and the author of Round About the Ballet.