American ballet

There is just no getting around classical form. The Pennsylvania Ballet's morning devotions consist of company class where they put themselves, in tights and leotards which show every muscle, cartilage and sinew, under the watchful eye of Lupe Serrano, head of the school of the Ballet.

Lupe Serrano is tiny, and beautifully formed. She wears a navy blue leotard and small skirt, with pale pink bobby socks folded carefully around her ankles and over her tiny kidskin Capezios. Her posture is perfect, her legs look hard, and only her eyes look older than 20. They are wrinkled, probably from the effort of watching everyone in the mirror as she demonstrates the technique most of them have spent their lives studying. She catches their glances to make sure they are paying attention and then catches their moves as she flies along ahead of them, beautifully, but with a frown on her face.She looks like a martinet, but she is not.

"This was not well handled," she'll say with precision, not anger, about keeping the hip down as the leg swings back. Two apprentices rise up into the air, soaring beautifully, but on a collision course. Looking each other in the eye from a fearsomely close range, they make some invisible muscular shift and pass each other an inch apart.

She just laughs. There's nothing they can do about lack of studio space, which plagues most dance companies but is made worse here by the Pennsylvania Ballet's bad financial situation and the fact that its members keep pouncing through new ballets nonetheless.

But if there's something they can do about their dancing, Lupe will tell them in her low, Chilean-accented voice, in no uncertain terms. Their schooling follows the aesthetics of Benjamin Harkarvy, the ballet's artistic director. He is against "superficial things which are decorative" in ballet technique, such as special tilts of the head, mannerisms which must be undone for different types of choreography.

His idea of classical is the Greek sense of the word -- austere, timeless, un-messed-with. An idea that is as modern as it is ancient. When, as a young ballet student in New York, he took over his teacher's classes for a while, the entire Martha Graham company came to his class. That's a doctrinaire modern company -- feet flat on the floor, no nonsense about elevation or lightness -- but they came for his stringent essentials.

"Classical technique, when it is taught with great purity, and it seems so logical and organic that the body is singing, produces something that is very wonderful and useful," he says. In print that looks very ordinary, but he pronounces "wonderful and useful" with the same kind of relish Julia Child would use saying "rich and juicy."

In class, people pay attention not with relish but with a ferocious detachment, reviewing their own bodies in the mirror, checking them against the tightly coiled Lupe as if they were instruments.Even as the piano clangs out chords of classical music into the bare room and they rise and leap and seem transported through the air, there's a workmanlike intensity. A dancer will touch down from a tour en l'airm like an antelope sniff, and stare fixedly at the sole of his foot. A ballerina will do a chain of turns as light as milkweed across the room, frown, and put her feet down in some position she has passed through, pushing the heels and testing her tendons.

It's as if they were skydivers folding their parachutes for a big jump. They fold them, take them apart, recheck and refold them. Classical technique is the only thing they do without variation, every day, and the day's rehearsal schedule can look like a leap out of the bottom of a plane.

They'll hurtle through the bends and crazy lifts given them by one of modern ballet's wunderkinder, Choo san Goh, and then, perhaps, flutter their arms like the gentlest of wings in "Swan Lake, Act II." At least, those activities take place at separate times on the schedule. But in real life, the same person does several roles. A ballerina who had been carried in a sitting position across the rehearsal room like a dinner by a dancer with oen arm aloft like a waiter, and thrown down twitched rhythmically to Bartok. A few minutes later, she was in the corner while another partner held her waist like a prince and she got off a couple of Black Swan pirouettes, upright and whirling. This involved not only lifting muscles which have been pounding the floor, but also hurtling back to the 19th-century concept that a ballerina was as delicate and magical as a swan.

After a quick yogurt she might run into Peter Anastos, who began his career with the Ballet Trockadero de Monte Carlo, a company that had its own hilarious concept of Swan Lake, all male and on pointe, and who now, with comments like "Girls, are you on Mars?" (to mention only the most encouraging) is choreographing on them -- as the expression goes -- his elegant new story ballet , "Domino."

There is also Frederic Ashton's superbly well-mannered "Lilac Garden" which can become corny if the dancers don't put themselves through emotional wringers. It takes a lot of conviction, for example, to dance a character called "The Man She Must Marry." all of these balletic events, as well as Balanchine's exacting "Serenade" and a piece by Harkarvy called "Time Passed Summer," which is danced to songs by Tchaikovsky and looks like Chekhov in dance form, were performed in a mere two weeks this spring.

They were brought about by 32 dancers, augmented by eight apprentices when necessary. In one of four tiny studios, the black swan, staying on pointe for unending moments while trying not to look as if she's digging her nails into her only support, the prince's middle finger, would be thrown off balance if she so much as winced at the clattering of the light fixtures caused by horders of galumphing Gypsies upstairs in "Domino." Understudies work on their own, eavesdropping on what the choreographer or ballet mistress tells the star, shadowing the stars as they dance but staying out of their way, and then working on it whenever they can.

Harkarvy demands total commitment. "We have to do our work seriously, because that's what we're all there for. And we must be able to laugh." Surprisingly, they are a calm lot. They may even be too calm. No one seems overly thin, for one thing, and sometimes, when Peter Anastos gets extremely didactic, they laugh at him.

Harkarvy looks like the enjoyer he is -- of dance, music, good food, and people -- a round man with a shaved head, never mistaken for a dancer, who has taught since the '50s and founded the Dutch Netherlands Dance Theater. He has small teeth, a rich voice, and an almost delicate way of biting out words, as if he were tasting some gourmet treat.

"The most exciting part of the whole operation is the creation of new work. I feel that we have an obligation toward our own art and I would like to see a choreographer busy at our premises all the time, whether he is with the apprentice company or with the company itself." When a choreographer is busy, the dancers are, too. Producing a new dance is something between acting in a new play and actually writing it yourself. The ideas are the choreographers', but they take shape and substance on the dancers.

While other big companies fall back on the classics or have in-house choreographers whose styles become familiar to the dancers, the Pennsylvania Ballet is a hotbed of new modern ballets done free-lance. Harkarvy keeps the technique clean so the young Turks of the choreographic world, like Choo San Goh , Peter Anastos, and Jiri Kylian can hang their artistic signatures from the wiry limbs of his dancers. He seeks choreographers out, watching their works with a studious, curatorial eye, and offers them a chance to experiment. And they are attracted to the responsiveness bred into the dancers.

"Ben Harkarvy is a real artistic director," says Peter Anastos, who looks and talks a little like a choreographic Woody Allen, horn-rimmed glasses accentuating his deadpan delivery when he tells how other ballet companies wanted nothing to do with him after he left the Ballet Trockadero: "Ballet companies felt that I was going to come in and put all the men in dresses and make them up and put on false eyelashes and run away."

Harkarvy thought the Ballet Trockadero was "fun," but wanted to know if Anastos "had a great deal of craft besides that wonderful eye." The choreography of the Trockadero was very detailed parody of other choreographers -- Petipa, Jerome Robbins, and Balanchine. Behind the hilarity of the men on pointe getting jealous of each other (one of them tossed a prima donna under the piano to get him out of the way) there was a brainy young dance critic at work, making fun of every detail.

Clive Barnes, dance critic then for the New York Times and now for the Post, saw only the men in tutus and said, Anastos recalls, "'This is the most depressing evening I've spent in a theater and these people are dangerous.'" "Subtle and wily, with sudden onsets of dementia," was how, Arlene Croce summed him up in the New Yorker. It was the "wonderful eye" for choreographic detail that attracted Harkarvy.

Curious, he went to see Anastos's first serious ballet. "It was a very lyrical, flowing, romantic work. Filled with sensitivity. And what I liked very much is that he is not a showoff."

Anastos was delighted when Harkarvy asked him to do a couple of works on the company. "He understands so much what I do and he's not afraid to invite the most unlikely people to come and work at the Pennsylvania Ballet. Margo Sappington [who also worked on 'Oh! Calcutta!'] and Choo San Goh, me, Balanchine, the list of choreographers is so disparate and yet somehow the Pennsylvania Ballet has a real face. They are very well-known for modern ballet. That's their forte and they do it very well. . . . The dancers are so accustomed to working in so many different styles, and for me it was very easy to come in and say 'I want this, I want that.' They didn't have any trouble reading me because they have to think so fast and read so many different people that that all worked."

And so the Pennsylvania Ballet now has "Domino" in its repertoire, an alluring little thriller in ballet form. It is also funny. The ballet opens with a girl in a boudoir dressing to go out. She is suddently joined by a group of ballerinas in powder puff costumes who help her, shaking their tutus to dust her all over, to some bumptious powder puff music by the '20s composer Victor Herbert. Two of them turn around and bend at the waist so she can use their rumps for a hassock. She looks pleased, and sneezes. Silly as it is, the powder puffs are a precision team who talk effortlessly around, shaking their tutus in sync and on pointe.

Even in the jokes, clues and ominous foreshadowing are all building up. While the story unfolds there are those little human touches that enliven the best mysteries. Our heroine has been abducted by Gypsies. The Gypsy King grabs her and whirls her roughly around. Halfway through the dip, she relaxes and coquettishly fixes her hair, only to be flung aside. The Gypsy Queen throws herself in his arms, slumping over backward with such forced languor that she is dragged through a turn hanging off his arm as if boneless. In two turns, we get a menage a trois with humor.

"Domino" is just as engaging and richly detailed, if not more so, than a murder mystery. Watching it is as intellectually satisfying as reading. And there are even screams and gasps from the audience when the killer is revealed. Almost unheard of in a story ballet, "Domino" delivers its twisty plot without the semaphorelike pantomime of 19th-century ballet, except for a brief Swan Lake joke Anastos obviously couldn't resist putting in.

It is surprising to only me that all this is happening 100 miles from the dance and sophistication capital of the world, New York. Like other large companies not in New York, the Pennsylvania Ballet refers to itself not as a regional company, but as a national one, and when I said I was amazed at the quality and sophistication of, well, a dance company from Philadelphia, I elicited a wounded cry from general manager Robert Altman: "See! There you are! Why should you be amazed!?"

He admits, though, that "The W. C. Fields jokes ["I went to Philadelphia once , but it was closed."] are still in the back of people's minds." So Philadelphians looking for ballet might just go down to 30th Street Station and get on a train for New York. Philadelphians' pride in the company is directly related to their feelings about their city, he says.

The city is coming around, but the ballet is still up against tough odds. The biggest problem is left over from the late '70s. The Pennsylvania Ballet has just barely survived a fiscal crunch that still has the company limping. It owes $750,000 to Philadelphia banks for loans that covered unexpectedly lean years, as well as back taxes. Impoverished by a number of things, including fuel costs, inflation, and projects which didn't generate the box office money they were supposed to, the company found itself unable to afford payroll taxes and still issue paychecks. It chose to keep dancing, stopped paying the taxes, and ended up owing the Internal Revenue Service $400,000 which it is now paying back on an agreed schedule.

The hard times, as well as a feeling of isolation in Philadelphia, have resulted in a sort of desperate team spirit. the dancers never stopped performing, nor lowered their standards, and even though dancers get paid regularly, other staff members have waited up to two weeks until paychecks can be covered. They are each other's best friends, not to mention some husbands and wives, thrown together as they are by their wacky schedules. They cling to the artistic life in this ugly brown building in the midst of the gray Fairmount Avenue like survivors to a life raft.

Instead of having a reserve to fall back on when costs are above what's expected, "we have a negative endowment," Robert Altman says. He stresses that not paying taxes is a regretted part of the past. The problem is, he says, that "there isn't much difference between being $800,000 and $750,000 in debt" so that even as the company slowly pays back what it owes, the same problems come up. "We're constantly scrambling week to week and month to month," which is hard in a situation where plans must be made a year or two ahead and stuck to, no matter what funds are taken in.

The problem, Altman says, is that the company, like others of its ilk, started small and grew fast. "Companies reach that stage in their growth and development where they're young and growing rapidly, and then they have to make that transition to becoming institutionalized. It was an entrepreneurial spirit that kept them going in the early years, and now they've got to start thinking in terms of [being organized enough to pay] a big payroll."

The entrepreneurial spirit belongs to Barbara Weisberger, who started the ballet school that became the company. Like many ballet company founders, Mrs. Weisberger has been a disciple of George Balanchine, still the reigning genius of American dance. She and Balanchine go way back. At age eight she graduated from her school in Brooklyn to become the first child in Balanchine's School of the American Ballet.

She missed a performing career by taking a detour to college and then married young. When that marriage broke up, she started a school which became the Wilkes-Barre Ballet Guild, then moved to Philadelphia to dance with the opera in 1962. When Balanchine, still a mentor, spoke to her about the need for more professional companies in America, she found herself saying, "Well, if you're really serious, Philadelphia is the place to start," even though she had remarried, was running a school, and raising two children.

She sits behind her desk, an uneaten cinnamon roll that must have been bought about six hours ago at her elbow, and smiles fondly. "And he said, 'Well, we must do it,' "she finishes, in an imitation of Balanchine's Russian accent.

She staged their first performance on a private estate lit to look like a sylvan glade. It was small, but two important people were in the audience, George Balanchine and MacNeil Lowry of the Ford Foundation. Soon after, the Ford Foundation gave a total of $10 million in grants to regional companies around the country to help them move from the category of civic ballets, growing out of the schools of ballet, to regular professional companies. The Boston Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet were among them. The Pennsylvania Ballet got $250,000 over a period of ten years. Without that money, Mrs. Weisberger said, the company would not have been able to take the time it needed to develop artistically.

The Ford Foundation enabled them to leap from civic to professional status. Since then they have gone their separate ways and developed their own styles -- Philadelphia is experimental, modern, and intellectual's dance company, while San Francisco is lushly entertaining and powerfully dramatic, and Boston leans towards traditional ballet with a strong story line.

But they all still dance the work of George Balanchine, artistic director of the New York City Ballet, whom they consider the reigning genius of American ballet. When they came to him for advice, he gave them his dances, free.

"No money," he says, "I just want everybody to dance."

It is Balanchine's choreographic vision which gave American dance its distinctive look -- lean, fast, and athletic. I once asked him to tell me how he changed American dance.

"Not I changed," he said. "There was nothing here." There is now, and it's happening everywhere.

The Ford Foundation grants ended in 1975 and three years later, the crunch hit. Now, says Robert Altman, the company is doing well, except for the debt. "We earn about $2 million [at the box office, on tours, and from the school] and raise the other $1 million and a half," a task made easier in recent years by National Endowment for the Arts matching grants, totaling $115,000 a year. The grants make up a small fraction of the company's $3.5 million operating budget. But they require the company to go out and raise $2 to $3 for every dollar given. And in the eyes of corporations, an NEA grant gives the company a government stamp of approval.

But the debt remains. Now that President Reagan has recommended cutting the NEA budget in half, the financial future is a little darker.

"If we could start at zero, we'd be better off," Altman says. "We hit bottom about three years ago. . . .Just as we didn't get out of the crunch instantly, nor are we going to, we're not going to stop." Though he will not blame the problems on bad management, it would seem the task ahead of the Pennsylvania Ballet is to grow up fiscally. Altman may be the one to bring them around. He spends most of his time talking to creditors, a job he accepts with some irony. At a recent cast party, he was given a birthday cake.When he blew out the candle , he said "I wished for something you'll all be interested in: next week's payroll." He looks forward to a long, slow recovery, but a recovery nonetheless. "Hard times are a good teacher," he says.

Support is coming from an unexpected source -- Philadelphia itself. There is a loyal core of fans who were at the first performance of the ballet and have been coming ever since, says Mrs. Weisberger. And the company enjoys an unusually large subscription audience of 12,000, a sign of faith. Only the New York City Ballet claims more subscribers.

Until recently, Altman says, "If we raised $20,000 or $25,000 a year from the entire corporate community, that was a lot. Now we're raising 10 times that." Why the big change? "We're a part of the community. We've been here 17 years now, which, believe me, in Philadelphia is merely the last millisecond of eternity. . . . We haven't been here 100 years like the orchestra or the art museum [but] people do know that we are here and more and more people have seen us."

The company's new poverty is part of the reason. As fuel costs rise, the Pennsylvania Ballet, which, like most dance companies, hopped around the country in the '70s, finds itself playing in Philadelphia more often -- 90 times this year. "Our audiences are growing here, and this is our home," Altman says. So, though its members rankle at the term "regional," the Pennsylvania Ballet is dancing in Pennsylvania quite a bit.

It is opening night of a program that includes Balanchine's "Serenade" and Ashton's "Lilac Garden." The dancers have finished their last rehearsal and the orchestra is about to start a run-through. Harkarvy supervises the hanging of part of the "Lilac Garden" set -- two panels of black painted with lilacs, which will hang at the sides of the stage. There is one problem -- the lilacs are still wet, and the cloth is wrinkled. There wasn't enough money to pay the painter until the last minute.Harkarvy and the lighting technicians work out a way to light it without many wrinkles showing a Harkarvy mutters about not being able to do anything that costs money, not being able to plan anything or have the proper equipment.

An hour before the opening, I watch the local television news coverage of reaction to the Reagan budget cuts. Garbagemen explained how the garbage would pile up. CETA employees, who would probably be fired, told of less city services. And then there on the screen is Benjamin Harkarvy, explaining how the private sector, which Mr. Reagan had said should take up the slack in cut NEA funds, had been paying a lot all along to match those funds.

Benjamin Harkarvy in person hands me a chicken sandwich. I ask him if he's nervous, this close to the opening. Oh, yes. He knows what can go wrong in an hour. The first time the company performed Balanchine's "Serenade" in New York, he said, a girl sprained her ankle about a week ahead. That was all right, another girl was drafted and trained. On opening night, everything seemed fine. Then, just as the company had gone to dinner and the orchestra was rehearsing (just this time of evening, in fact) two dancers ran up to Mr. Harkarvy in the restaurant. A waiter had spilled scalding water on one of the dancers, and she wouldn't be able to perform. They had brought one apprentice with them. Could she be trained in time? The Balanchine choreography is, to say the least, dicey. The situation was grim. Harkarvy called a meeting onstage.

"They were all standing around in their bathrobes and kimonos. But when I said 'And --' they all stood and raised their hands, absolutely together." (The ballet starts with the ensemble onstage, standing with one hand raised.) He tips his head back, as if this memory relaxes him even with an opening 45 minutes away and the newscasters chatting about financial cuts, and says softly, "It brought tears to my eyes." The apprentice learned the part, too. We sit on his large couch and finish our sandwiches in silence.

"Serenade" does bring tears to the eyes. No matter who performs it (and everyone does, since Balanchine gave it to all the new young ballet companies) the solemnity of the opening always catches me unawares. The curtain goes up and there is a phalanx of beautiful dancers, in blue, each holding up a hand as if to shade her eyes from the moonlight that fills the stage. Perhaps they are saluting. They all put a hand to their brow and tilt their head away from the light. There are so many of them, and they look so serious yet all those arms are so fragile that it is inexplicably moving.

If "Serenade" is about anyting, it's about what happens in ballet classes and what makes a dance. Intellectually, it signaled the beginning of American ballet. Balanchine choreographed the piece when he arrived here from Russia by way of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo in 1934. It is odd, abstract, and beautiful.

That night, the music seemed to come out of the ballerinas, they were so close to it. While violins wove tunes, they twined arms. Their toe shoes plucked the floor with the pizzicatos, and they would suddenly sweep away as if by magic, only to rush into an even more intricate pattern.

Even better, they seemed to have something to do with each other that went beyond doing the same step. At one moment five dancers sank to the floor and tucked their legs underneath themselves. They went down at the same time, but each one made herself comfortable in her own time. They held hands and looked at each other in a comradely way, confident that they would pounce up on just the right beat and fly into some tight toe work, but enjoying a chance to sit down surrounded by such beauty. They luxuriated in it. All of a sudden, they looked rich. After all, they own "Serenade."

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