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A Great Journey: Roy Kaiser’s 35 Years With Pennsylvania Ballet

By Julie Diana
28 Jul 2014

Kaiser in rehearsal with Principal Dancer Jermel Johnson
photo by Alexander Iziliaev

“I was 21 years old when I came to Philadelphia,” says Roy Kaiser, Artistic Director of Pennsylvania Ballet. “I came here to see what was going on, because I had seen the Company perform, and there was something about it that really resonated.”

Thirty-five years later, after rising through the ranks from apprentice to principal dancer and then from ballet master to artistic director, Kaiser acknowledges that it has been a great journey. “I’ve been fortunate my whole career,” he says. “It’s been very special to me to be able direct the Company because I have such a history here.” But, Kaiser notes, it is time for change. He recently announced that he is stepping down at the culmination of this 50th Anniversary Season.

Kaiser’s transition coincides with the departure of his longtime colleague, Executive Director Michael Scolamiero. “Our professional relationship was one of mutual respect,” says Scolamiero, who joined the staff in 1997 when Kaiser was already in place as Artistic Director. “I came to the ballet world with virtually zero experience running a ballet company, and he was like a mentor in the beginning, helping me with things.” Kaiser allowed Scolamiero to participate in decisions regarding the artistic and production budgets, and would ask for his perspective before moving necessary funds. “It wasn’t all fun and games, and we had some serious disagreements at times,” says Scolamiero. “But we always figured out a way to get past them and make it work. We had the same goal in mind—for the Company to be strong.”

STRENGTH OF PROGRAMMING
In his tenure with Pennsylvania Ballet, Kaiser added 90 new works to the repertoire including 34 world premieres and 56 Company premieres. “Roy’s commitment to expanding the repertoire and creating new works not only increased the Ballet’s profile, but also led to what I view as the Company’s finest moment under my Chairmanship—the international debut at the Edinburgh International Festival,” says Louise Reed, Co-Chair of the Board of Trustees. The tour proved to be a success, garnering critical acclaim, tremendous publicity, and sold-out performances of Christopher Wheeldon’s Swan Lake, which Kaiser commissioned for the Company in 2004.

“His taste for work is pretty extraordinary,” says Scolamiero, “especially the mixed rep programs in which he’s balancing three different works. They always complement one another, show different facets of what this Company can do, and filling different segments of the audience.” Barbara Weisberger, founder of Pennsylvania Ballet, also commends Kaiser’s ability to create interesting programs and admires the way he has worked to foster young choreographic talent such as Matthew Neenan, the Company’s Choreographer in Residence, and Trey McIntyre, whose new work The Accidental was just featured on the Director’s Choice program in May. “Roy has identified both of them with Pennsylvania Ballet,” she says. “He opened his mind, took some chances early on, and gave opportunities to these young choreographers [before they were established].”

A SENSE OF HISTORY

Weisberger has been impressed with Kaiser from the day he started dancing with the Company in 1979. “He’s very good looking, a real guy,” she says. “He wasn’t showy, but he had a lovely line and seemed very calm. I just liked him and there was no question in my mind that he was somebody I wanted to have in the Company.” Even after her departure in 1982, Weisberger followed Kaiser’s career closely and recommended him for the job of Artistic Director in 1994. “Luckily for me, they chose him,” she says. “His group [including Ballet Master Jeffrey Gribler, Ballet Mistress Tamara Hadley, and William DeGregory, Director of the School of Pennsylvania Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet II] is the last that was in the Company when I was Director. The rest are now my grandchildren.”

Gribler agrees that the history behind the Artistic Staff is a very special thing. They all grew up together at Pennsylvania Ballet, dancing first under the direction of Weisberger and then transitioning into leadership roles. “I’m thrilled that Roy took the position when he did and that we had this 20-year opportunity to take care of this place that we love so much. The fact that we got to do it altogether has been remarkable, and I really thank him for that.”

Principal Dancer Amy Aldridge gets nostalgic when speaking of her time working with Kaiser. She joined the Company just when he was appointed Artistic Director, and she was the first dancer he hired. “He made me feel like I had a place to fit in, and the Company really became home,” she says. “I always thought I would end my career with him. It’s kind of like your dad not walking you down the aisle. I can’t imagine someone else doing it, and I think it will be very difficult.” But Kaiser has confirmed that he will be there to bring Aldridge flowers onstage when she is ready to retire. “He always has a way of making you feel like everything is going to be just fine,” she says.

LOOKING BACK

Scolameiro credits Kaiser for building a strong roster of dancers and for being a successful help with fundraising. “He’s an incredibly loyal individual, and donors really like him,” Scolemeiro says. “He’s very approachable and makes people feel that their views and opinions are meaningful. That’s just the kind of guy he is.” Weisberger says that Kaiser is a gentleman; Gribler describes his friend as being “genuine and real.”Gribler also looks back at his early days in the Company, when he and Kaiser were known to perform parts of Act II Giselle in the Philadelphia underground transit stations. “We were pretty young,” Gribler laughs. “That was often the entertainment at the end of a Friday night, Roy hopping in arabesque in the subway.”

From new dancer to head of the Company, Kaiser has had a remarkable journey at Pennsylvania Ballet. He is especially proud of the newly re-opened School, the Company’s success at the Edinburgh Festival, and how he was able to bring the Company back to New York’s City Center after a more than 20-year absence. “It was a challenge because of dollars, not for any other reason,” he says. “Part of the job is mastering when and how to compromise, and it affects what we’re able to do artistically. You just never have the luxury of having a budget that allows you to fully realize everything you want to do. That was always a struggle for me.”

Kaiser says he won’t miss certain challenges of running the Company, yet he will miss the staff that has worked behind the scenes to make it all possible. “But the dancers are the reason to do this job,” he says. “I would encourage all of them to keep working hard, stay focused on the work, and they’ll have very fulfilling careers.” Kaiser also has a sincere appreciation for the audience, particularly the loyal subscribers who come up to him and say that they’ve been following the company for 20 or 25 years. “How lucky are we?” he asks. “We have a really loyal audience here in Philadelphia that has come to see everything we do, even if it’s not their favorite thing in the world. They support the Company and that’s very special. I hope that they have enjoyed the ride as much as I have.”

*

Julie Diana, a former principal dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet, holds a B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania and writes for various dance publications.





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