By Janet Anderson
When the Pennsylvania Ballet held its third open audition of 2012 on Saturday, Aug. 18, in its East Falls facility for its new School of Pennsylvania Ballet, the youngsters who showed up could not have been more poised. The girls who would be using pointe (toe shoes) wrapped their toes with cotton just like any full-fledged ballerina before pushing their sore feet into the pink satin slippers that are the very emblem of classical ballet. (Although it is a little uncomfortable, the cotton helps sore toes, just as it does for grown-up ballerinas.)
The young dancers included numerous boys as well as the wide-eyed little ballerinas in their leotards.The poise of these youngsters, both boys and girls, bodes well for their future as dancers. One young man told me he had spent a year with the Boulder Ballet in Colorado.
When I asked the children about their presence at the audition, their replies tended to run along the lines: “I just love doing this.” “Why?” I asked. “Because I feel special.” This tended to come from little girls.
When I talked with Bill DeGregory, the school’s director and overseer of the auditions, he said he was “very pleased by the large turnout as a lot of would-be young dancers had been pulled from the schedule because the parents were not very excited about the East Falls studio.” This was a needless concern as the ballet school will be in the company’s new headquarters building on North Broad Street in January, 2013.
Of the 57 area children who applied to perform in this tryout for ballet school pupils, 14 were no-shows, and 21 were selected for the school by DeGregory and Arantxa Ochoa, both former principal dancers with the Pennsylvania Ballet. Of the 57, seven were from the Greater Chestnut Hill area. In two earlier auditions in April and June, 46 young people from our area auditioned.
Arantxa, who is originally from Spain, is retiring as a ballerina in October. Her final performance will be “Giselle,” and then she will be in charge of children’s training at the new school. She says she particularly likes to work with the children who find the dancing difficult. “There is nothing more satisfying,” she said, “than to work with a child who’s having difficulty and then to see their pride and joy when they get it right.”
It has been 20 years since the Pennsylvania Ballet had its own school. This is a part of the ballet world that most people don’t really understand. With your own school, a ballet company can train young dancers to use the body lines and lyricism that suits that particular troupe. If you know New York City Ballet and its repertoire of swift, linear and often downright terrifyingly angular movements and perilous balances, then you already know that every ballet company has its own physical presentation.
Because Pennsylvania Ballet is an off-shoot of the New York City Ballet, the Pennsylvania dancers are all well trained in the late George Balanchine’s linear and technically challenging choreography. However, it is also the case that under artistic director Roy Kaiser (a resident of Erdenheim), the Pennsylvania Ballet also performs the more lyric choreography of Jerome Robbins (of “West Side Story” fame), among other styles. It is a blend of New York City angularity as well as movement suggesting emotion clarifying the story line if there is one. There is no right or wrong in these subtle but important technical details.
Ballet is not just a pretty tableau on stage of dancers using their bodies to tell stories or physically demonstrate emotion. However, most audiences relax and soak up the beauty of the movement, even if they can’t really understand what makes this magical blend of movement and story so effective.
When the Pennsylvania Ballet’s new headquarters building on Broad Street is completed this fall, its new school of dance will be an important part of the big troupe. Here will come the young dancers who fill out character ballets; think “Nutcracker” or the happy villagers in “La Fille Mal Garde.”
The growth and sophistication of the Pennsylvania Ballet is a theatrical miracle for those of us who were around when the troupe practiced over at the Assurance Building on Kelly Drive using barres set up here and there in vacant offices. But it worked. When the company was too short on cash to support the troupe, Kaiser and company launched a local fundraiser called “Shut Up and Dance,” and this also worked. Then came the financial drama when the coffers were empty, which led the company to put on an on-stage fundraiser that miraculously put almost a million dollars back into the company’s pocket.
The company currently plans to construct the Louise Reed Center for Dance, a $17.5 million space for studios, offices and the new school, at 321 N. Broad St. on the Avenue of the Arts. For more information, visit www.paballet.org or call 215-551-2379 or 215-551-7000.