In the unofficial hierarchy of American ballet companies, a group of troupes from around the country rank just under the two biggest organizations, American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. Right up there at the top of the regional list is the Pennsylvania Ballet. The Philadelphia-based company was started in 1963 by Barbara Weisberger, who was trained by choreographer George Balanchine and used several of his ballets to build the early repertory.
The Balanchine aesthetic remains a central focus of the 21st century Pennsylvania Ballet. His Square Dance is on the company’s Tuesday, October 23 program at McCarter Theatre, along with Jerome Robbins’s NY Export: Opus Jazz and Peter Martins’s Barber Violin Concerto. Pennsylvania Ballet is returning to McCarter for the first time in almost a decade.
To Roy Kaiser, the troupe’s artistic director, the program is as much about music as it is choreography. “Dance accompanying great music — it’s a kind of a theme on this program,” he said during a telephone interview. “Even though we’ll be dancing to taped music, which is unusual for us, each of these ballets has a great score.”
Balanchine set Square Dance to the music of Corelli and Vivaldi. The devilishly fast choreography is classical, yet it follows the forms of a traditional square dance. Originally, a square dance caller accompanied the performances, but Balanchine dispensed with the caller when he revived the work for his New York City Ballet in 1976. “Like so many Balanchine works where there is really no narrative, you just see the music so clearly,” Mr. Kaiser said. “You see every nuance in the music. The fact that it was inspired by traditional square dancing, and the patterns he employs, make it just brilliant.”
The principal ballerina role is “a tour de force,” he continued. “She has to have razor-sharp technique. There is no way you can do this ballet halfway. And for the lead male, the solo he created is extraordinary in its simplicity. It’s an unusual male variation, but it works beautifully. It’s a break. It takes the ballet in a whole different direction.”
Perhaps unwittingly, the Balanchine/Robbins/
Martins program pays tribute to New York City Ballet. It was Balanchine who co-founded the company with arts patron Lincoln Kirstein in 1948. Robbins, a dancer in the company, was soon hired as assistant artistic director, dividing his creative energies between ballet and Broadway. He died in 1998. Before Balanchine died in 1983, he named Martins as his successor in leading the company.
Robbins choreographed NY Export: Opus Jazz in 1958 for a touring company he founded, known as Ballets U.S.A., to music of the same title by Robert Prince. With Pennsylvania Ballet currently made up of very young dancers, this period piece focused on youth is especially appropriate, Mr. Kaiser says.
“I love this ballet. Robbins created it shortly after he did West Side Story, so it’s got that kind of urban tension of that time in the fifties,” he said. “It’s a ballet in sneakers. I like bringing works like this into our repertory, because it’s a great experience for the dancers. Doing a piece like this and working with that vocabulary really informs their classical work and makes them better dancers. You never know what you’re going to discover when you’re working in different types of dance, and it improves them. Plus, it’s fun. And the girls get to take off their pointe shoes.”
Peter Martins created Barber Violin Concerto for two couples – one classical, the other contemporary, in 1988. At the first performance, David Parsons and Kate Johnson of the Paul Taylor Dance Company took the roles of the modern dancers. Each pair first dances alone, and then the couples meet, ultimately exchanging partners and integrating styles. A 2010 New York Times review by Roslyn Sulcas said of the ballet, “The heart of the work is the pas de deux by the ballerina and the modern dance man, in which his faunlike primitivism is tamed by, but also incorporated into, her fluid expansiveness.”
Since its last visit to Princeton, the Pennsylvania Ballet has acquired a new home on Philadelphia’s North Broad Street, currently under construction and preparing for an opening early next year. The company comes to McCarter in the midst of its opening run, at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, of the Romantic-era classic, Giselle.
“We love McCarter because it’s an easy trip, and there is a wonderful audience,” said Mr. Kaiser. “Last time we were there, we felt like we were dancing in front of an audience that sees a lot of dance and was very appreciative. What more can you ask for?”
The Pennsylvania Ballet Company’s performance is on Tuesday October, 23. Tickets to the McCarter Theatre program, which starts at 7:30 p.m. are $20-$62. For information visit www.mccarter.org or call (609) 258-2787.