THE DANCING profession abounds in perils--most obviously, the ever-present hazard of physical injury. In addition to the "normal" dangers, though, the Pennsylvania Ballet in its forthcoming engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House will be performing in awareness of an even greater risk--the company will be literally dancing for its life.
In January of this year, in the face of an extreme shortage of funds, the company temporarily suspended operations for two months and dropped scheduled performances in its home city, Philadelphia. An emergency fund-raising campaign was mounted, with the goal of raising $3 million by June 30. (As of mid-March, $1.23 million was in hand.)
In the aftermath of the crisis, which involved considerable administrative reshuffling, the ballet world was shocked by the resignation under pressure of Barbara Weisberger, the founder, nurturer, guiding spirit and, until Feb. 26, the director of the Pennsylvania Ballet. Artistic director Benjamin Harkarvy has remained on board and is overseeing the troupe's current, eight-week national tour that has Washington as its last stop, Tuesday through Sunday.
The possibility of collapse for the Pennsylvania Ballet has vast and alarming implications, not just for Philadelphia, where other major arts institutions also are experiencing severe economic strains, but for the whole realm of classical ballet in this country. The Pennsylvania Ballet is a major company, with an annual budget in the vicinity of $4 million, a complement of 32 dancers, its own orchestra numbering 34 musicians, and a repertory embracing traditional classics, modern masterworks and contemporary pieces in a diversity of idioms.
Since 1974, the troupe has played two annual seasons in New York, in addition to its extensive Philadelphia seasons and countrywide touring. It was founded in 1963, with the help of a massive Ford Foundation "seed" grant and with both encouragement and repertory aid from George Balanchine, whose ballets still form part of the company's artistic backbone. For most of its existence, the Pennsylvania troupe has been looked upon as the flagship of the regional ballet fleet--shining proof that ballet of a very high standard could flourish outside New York City.
Despite the company's continuing artistic progress, the fiscal crisis had been brewing over a long period, exacerbated by administrative troubles--the troupe has had six general managers in 10 years. In January, the board of directors, facing an accumulated deficit of $2.4 million, decided on the temporary suspension: The idea was to forgo immediate cash outlays while trying to recoup losses. All personnel were furloughed, including the dancers, with the exception of a core fund-raising group.
The dancers agreed to rehearse without pay for a national tour, which was to begin in March and was expected to break even financially. In the midst of all this, the board proposed to Weisberger that she take a leave of absence until April 1, and then return with stringently curtailed responsibilities. Her response was to quit.
Speaking by telephone from her Wilkes-Barre home last week, Weisberger was still hurt and angry. "It's painful, of course," she said. "I care about the dancers--they're wonderful and I love them, and I don't want them to suffer from public controversy. But I do feel there's an important issue at stake that goes beyond my personal situation, the Pennsylvania Ballet, and even dancing--it affects all the arts in this country.
"The board's offer left me no dignity or principle; it deprived me of my life and livelihood. I was the artistic leader, and they wanted me to be a club lady--it was a tremendous insult. But beyond this, for years we had had a constructive partnership between artistic leaders and management. Now these people in charge think of the whole enterprise as bricks and mortar; they might have wonderful management, but of what, for what? Unless artistic leadership functions to determine artistic goals and mission, what's the point?"
Harkarvy, who was himself engaged by Weisberger in 1972 after an already distinguished career as a choreographer, teacher and founder-director of the Netherlands Dance Theatre, is fully cognizant of the company's debt to Weisberger: "It's her achievement," he said in an interview here last week. "She founded the company and built it." His own primary concern at the moment is insuring its future existence in a form that will vindicate its past and the legacy of Weisberger. Harkarvy concedes the suspension was a necessary step. "There was no money, and our fund-raising was jeopardized. In order to make a future, it was awful, but we had to stop."
"The problem hasn't been the product, though--we've never been in better artistic shape," he says. "The problem has been in how the product has been sold; it was only a minimal effort." Harkarvy feels strongly, however, that cutting back on the scale of future operations--reducing the size of the company, eliminating new productions, scuttling the orchestra--would be a disastrous tactic. "What would be left wouldn't be the Pennsylvania Ballet, and we couldn't keep faith with subscribers who look to us for artistic excellence. It would, moreover, be unconscionably costly--the current repertoire would have to be drastically restructured."
Harkarvy is "optimistic" at the moment, because the newly appointed president, Charles H. Rannells, and the board appear to agree with his objectives. A progress report summarizing a plan of future action stresses that "the company's current financial situation is due not to extravagant production costs but rather to a history of inadequate earned and contributed income," and as "top priorities" the plan calls for "dramatic improvement of both marketing and fund-raising efforts."
"The big 'if,' of course, is the success of those fund-raising efforts," Harkarvy says, "and everyone in the company is, understandably, terribly nervous about it. We'll know by the June deadline. But I'm very encouraged at the moment by the thought that we won't just be in a holding pattern, that we'll be moving ahead, making the company better, particularly on the creative front. Part of the plan for next season is increased choreographic activity--that's a major point of hope for me.
"In the meantime, the spirit of the dancers is tremendously inspiring. A lot of them had offers to go to other companies during the hiatus, but they all stuck it out--not one left. Whether they can weather any more such storms in the future is a difficult question, but it's obvious they've got a remarkable sense of commitment to each other and to the company. And they've been performing brilliantly--the reception of both the public and the press on this tour has been a great boost to our morale."
The company's Kennedy Center repertoire consists of three contrasting programs. The first is the full-length comedy classic "Coppelia," in a version new to Washington, staged for the Pennsylvania Ballet by Petrus Bosman and based on the Royal Ballet production. "Jose Varona's decor is spectacular," Harkarvy says, "and the production has a wonderful feeling of intimacy and fairy-tale enchantment."
The second program testifies to the company's range, moving from Balanchine's "Square Dance," to Peter Anastos' satirical spoof on the neo-romantic style, "Yes, Virginia, Another Piano Ballet," to Harkarvy's own unusual staging of Act II of "Swan Lake."
The final program, emphasizing contemporary ballets created expressly for the company, is a new version of the troupe's recent, enthusiastically received tribute to women choreographers, and includes "Galaxies," by Minnesota Dance Theatre director Loyce Houlton; Senta Driver's "Resettings," to music by Henry Purcell; and Margo Sappington's "Under the Sun," inspired by the mobiles of Alexander Calder--all three ballets will be receiving their Washington premieres.