In the early 1960s, America’s dance landscape looked far different from today’s. Instead of a professional ballet company, even major cities might have only a pickup troupe attached to an opera company, or a school run by an aging Russian dancer from the Ballets Russes. Then, in 1963, seven cities won the philanthropic lottery and received grant funding to establish a dance company. Boston and Philadelphia were two of those cities, and this week, their ballet companies cap off their 50th-anniversary seasons with visits to the Kennedy Center. The Pennsylvania and Boston ballets have much in common, starting with their ties to the late choreographer George Balanchine. Here’s a side-by-side comparison:
In 1963, the New England Civic Ballet was one of eight American dance organizations chosen to receive $7.7 million in seed-grant money from the Ford Foundation. E. Virginia Williams had founded her company in 1958 and used the Ford Foundation money to convert her troupe into a professional company. Williams led the Boston Ballet until 1983.
Ties to George Balanchine
Williams had long admired Balanchine’s work and sent her best students to his School of American Ballet. Balanchine also had served as an artistic adviser to the New England Civic Ballet, and it was his recommendation that enabled Williams to receive Ford Foundation funding. Full-length Balanchine works in the Boston Ballet’s repertoire include “Coppélia,” “Jewels” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” At the Kennedy Center, the company’s triple bill will include “Rubies,” the punchy middle movement of “Jewels.”
Low -water marks
The late 1990s were tough times in Boston. In 1997, a corps member who had been told to lose weight collapsed from heart failure, and a coroner’s report said eating disorders may have been a factor. Choreographer Mark Morris withdrew a work from the company’s repertoire, claiming the dancers weren’t up to his standards, and the company went deeply into debt. Artistic director Mikko Nissinen was hired in 2001 and largely turned the company around, but not without controversy. Many dancers left the troupe, including Sarah Lamb, an American who became a star at the Royal Ballet. In 2004, the company was kicked out of its longtime home so that the Wang Theatre could present the “Radio City Christmas Spectacular.” It lost millions when it had to scramble and produce a smaller “Nutcracker” elsewhere.
In 2009, turnaround man Barry Hughson arrived in Boston to serve as the company’s new executive director. Working with high-level donors, Hughson and Nissinen raised $10 million to clear the deficit, renovate studios and recommit to touring — the Boston Ballet had been the first American company to dance in China. Under Nissinen, the company toured 16 cities and five countries, including Nissinen’s native Finland. The Boston Ballet also has become the American outpost for Jiří Kylián, a celebrated Czech choreographer. At the Kennedy Center, nine partially nude dancers in billowing skirts will perform “Bella Figura,” one of its 10 Kylián works.
Boston Ballet II member Albert Gordon won’t be dancing at the Kennedy Center this weekend, but he’ll likely be onstage the next time the company comes to town. Gordon grew up in McLean and trained at the Washington School of Ballet. In 2012, he won a prestigious Princess Grace Scholarship and used the money to finish his schooling in Washington before heading to Boston.
Dancers to watch
Whitney Jensen was a first-year member on the corps when she made the cover of Dance Magazine in 2010. She’s now a soloist and will perform this week in “D.M.J.”
The company concludes its 50th-anniversary season with a trip to New York’s Lincoln Center. Meredith Hodges was named the company’s new executive director on Tuesday, succeeding Hughson, who recently departed to take a comparable job at the National Ballet of Canada.
One night in New York circa 1961, a young dance teacher who ran a dance school in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., was invited to the home of arts impresario Lincoln Kirstein. There Barbara Weisberger met Ford Foundation representatives who wanted to jump-start regional ballet companies. The American city most hungry for ballet was Philadelphia, she told Balanchine that evening. In 1962, she relocated her school, and the following year, she received a Ford Foundation grant to found the Pennsylvania Ballet.
Ties to Balanchine
Weisberger was Balanchine’s first child pupil, and as the story goes, she watched him choreograph “Serenade” in 1934 from underneath a piano. More than 20 Balanchine ballets remain in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s repertoire, including “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which the company will perform at the Kennedy Center this weekend.
The entire company received suspension notices when Weisberger resigned in 1982 after conflicts with the board, and the troupe declined through the 1980s. Former New York City Ballet dancer Christopher D’Amboise took over as president and artistic director in 1990 and resigned four years later, saying he couldn’t sustain the company in the face of budget cuts. But his right-hand man at the time, a former company dancer named Roy Kaiser, was willing to take the job, and he gradually stabilized the company, adding 90 works to the Pennsylvania Ballet’s repertoire. (D’Amboise, for his part, has bounced around as a director, playwright and choreographer and has been a dance professor at George Mason University since 2009.)
If the Boston Ballet boasts of its international touring, then the Pennsylvania Ballet can be proud of its American partnerships. The 1970s were salad years for the company, with frequent tours, appearances on PBS’s “Dance in America” series and a stint as the official company of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. More recent accolades include curating a repertoire that includes works from more than a dozen contemporary American choreographers.
Soloist Lillian Di Piazza grew up in Silver Spring and received dance training at Maryland Youth Ballet with Michelle Lees and Tensia Fonseca. After a year at the School of American Ballet, she joined Pennsylvania Ballet II in 2008 and was promoted to apprentice, then to corps member and most recently to soloist. She’ll dance the role of Titania in “Midsummer” at Friday’s opening night performance.
Dancers to watch
Baltimore School for the Arts alumni Jermel Johnson joined the company as an apprentice in 2003 and rose through the ranks to become a principal. He will dance opposite Di Piazza as Oberon the fairy king on Friday and Saturday nights.
The Pennsylvania Ballet completes its 50th-anniversary season in June with a weekend series anchored by Jerome Robbins’ romantic suite “In the Night.” In July, it’s off to Colorado’s Vail’s International Dance Festival. The company will start its 51st season with a search for a new executive director. Michael G. Scolamiero, who has held the post since 1997, is headed to Miami City Ballet. Kaiser is leaving as well, though he says he’ll stay on until a successor is named.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.
Boston Ballet: Works by George Balanchine, Jirí Kylián and Petr Zuska. June 3-5. Pennsylvania Ballet: June 6-8. Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. 202-467-4600 www.kennedy-center.org