Phila. 'Ballet Doctor' Starts His Own Troupe

Posted: July 21, 1993

A medical doctor in Center City halfway through his Temple Law School degree officially launched a third career this month - as impresario - when he presented a troupe of Russian ballet dancers in Cape May.

The program - Pas de Deux: An Evening of Classical Ballet - features top- tier ballet dancers formerly with the Kirov, Bolshoi and other Russian troupes, who have been under Keith J. Keefer's protective wing for two years now - many living with him, others working in U.S. companies largely through the doctor's efforts.

The Cape May performance was their first under Keefer's management, in an ambitious five-city tour that reaches Philadelphia tonight and tomorrow at the Annenberg's Zellerbach Theater and will conclude in Baltimore on Aug. 11.

Call it ambitious because, as Keefer freely admits, until two years ago, he knew "absolutely nothing" about running a dance company, "although for the last two years I've spent every day with ballet."

Keefer, 36, a bachelor, is chairman of Friends of the Russian Ballet Inc., which was founded two years ago to rescue members of the Donetsk State Opera and Ballet Company from the Ukraine. The dancers had found themselves stranded in Philadelphia when expected bookings did not pan out.

Why does a medical doctor-cum law student want to run a ballet company?

Keefer is eager to tell the story but sounds more than a little harried when he answers the telephone. Every free moment, he explains, he is taking ticket inquiries for the performances, which have not been selling that well.

"This is the middle of the tour, and I'm hoping to recoup our losses." The stands in Cape May, then in Asbury Park, came amid the brutal heat wave earlier this month. "The performances went well but ticket sales were terrible, which I blame on the weather; it was so hot nobody wanted to come out.

"Up until Monday in Philly, I was in a panic, but now the phones have started ringing," Keefer says.

For the last two years he has supported 16 dancers, half of them sharing his Center City townhouse, the rest living in his medical office; Keefer is a general practitioner. The cost of feeding and clothing dancers is only the tip of the iceberg, because Keefer also uses his medical income to fly to Moscow to bring dancers' families to the States.

And there are the artistic expenses - costumes, rentals, salaries - involved in getting ballet on stage. "All of my doctor salary goes straight into ballet," he says.

Keefer describes the programs tonight and tomorrow as "greatest-hits-type performances. I've hired Valery Parsigov, who teaches at the Kiev School of Ballet, to create the program, and he's doing a wonderful job." Parsigov won the Nijinsky Prize in 1964.

Alexei Borovik, a dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet, has choreographed a Romeo & Juliet for the troupe, which is giving the piece its premiere. The dancers also are giving the local premiere of a pas de deux from Robin Hood, created by Ballet Theater Pennsylvania; the music is from Puccini's Tosca.

How did Keefer get into the ballet business? "When I first opened practice two years ago, in the lobby of my office on Fairmount Avenue, I saw all these people speaking a foreign language. I asked the landlord who they were and he told me they were Russian dancers who were using a room upstairs.

"The next day, the landlord appeared, and told me they'd been stranded here, with no money and some were sick and would I see them?

"So one came down to my office with a broken ankle, and another one with a cold, and the next thing I knew, I was taking care of the whole troupe on a daily basis. And then I was having them over for spaghetti dinners. And they grew to trust me and I grew to love them."

He has still not figured out exactly why the group was stranded here - an experience that happened once before, four years ago, when they were left high and dry in Baltimore. "There are so many different stories. . . ."

The upshot is "I was the only person they trusted and they asked me if I would be their manager. I was in law school so I knew a little something about contracts," says Keefer, who now plans to use his law degree in matters of artistic immigration.

Of the 22 original dancers, 16 decided to stay with Keefer: "I made visas for them, got jobs in American companies. I've got dancers in Boston, in Tulsa, in Fort Worth," he says.

"I'd call the Chamber of Commerce in a city, say, 'Do you have a ballet company? . . . Really, it was quite easy. Within six months, mainly, I'd got jobs for everyone."

Success breeds sucess. Literally. The Russians he harbored told others overseas, who arrived at his door.

Today he is responsible in varying degrees "for 40 dancers, though not all live with me, I'd commit suicide," Keefer says, laughing. Not all the dancers are Russian. "Fifty percent come from the Bolshoi and Kirov, but I have dancers from Venezuela, from Chile, from Israel, you name it. And I have their

families. . . ."

Last month, he went to Russia to help a dancer whose family wants to emigrate. "I wanted to get his wife and baby out so he would be happy on this tour. The lines at the American Embassy are too long, too dangerous for a woman and baby to stand in," Keefer explains. "Everyone is so desperate, so angry and hungry in Moscow now.

"I took my dancer as a translator and the very first night we got there, he was jumped and put into the hospital."

Considering Keefer's efforts for his Russian friends, you might expect that he gets a lot of cooperation in his crowded townhouse. Asked if the dancers help him cook or clean, he says: "You jest! I cook, I clean, I'm papa. They call me Papa."

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