Ballet back on its feet And its money and ambition are turning heads.

Posted: January 27, 2008

For a decade or more, no company on the Philadelphia arts scene dramatized institutional failure more spectacularly than the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Even in the years after a frantic save-the-ballet campaign kept it from closing down in 1991, the company defaulted on its mortgage for a building it had come to call an "albatross," vendors were left in the lurch, the front office became a revolving door, the repertoire was often recycled.

But it appears that the 44-year-old Pennsylvania Ballet has taken an enormous leap - a financial and organizational grand jete - that will force culture vultures to find a different benchmark for failure.

The first new Nutcracker in two decades, with new sets and costumes, closed Dec. 31 after taking in a record $2.42 million, while philanthropy covered most of the cost of mounting the production.

Balanced budgets have returned, even as they have doubled in a decade to nearly $12 million a year. The line of credit that once allowed the ballet to meet payroll hasn't been touched in 18 months.

In November, the company of 40 dancers put a full program in front of New York audiences for the first time in more than 20 years.

And in perhaps the biggest outside affirmation, the Pew Charitable Trusts in June readmitted the group to its Philadelphia Cultural Leadership Program with a $300,000 grant over two years - not a huge amount but, because eligibility requirements are so stringent, a large and public vote of confidence in the way the company is being managed.

"They've really turned their situation around and created what is one of the premier regional dance companies in all of America. It really is," said Lois Welk, director of Dance/USA Philadelphia, a dance-industry service and advocacy organization.

Not only has the ballet achieved a peace and stability few, if any, predicted - but also real ambition has returned.

Each season has brought new works by choreographer-in-residence Matthew Neenan and outsiders such as the internationally adored Christopher Wheeldon, whose Carnival of the Animals will be performed by the company in June. A string of new productions built by the ballet in the last few years will continue. There are plans to open a school to fill the gap left in 1992 when the ballet split from the Rock School for Dance Education.

And fund-raising has quietly begun for a new $17 million headquarters at 323-31 N. Broad St., just north of Vine. The five-story center - a mix of new construction and renovation - is to be capped by a 3,500-square-foot studio large enough to replicate the danceable portion of the Academy of Music stage. The ballet hopes to open the building in late 2010. (The "albatross" at Broad and Washington was sold to the Rock School.)

Endowment will be part of the campaign to raise money for the building. The ballet's endowment, a few thousand dollars five years ago, today is $3 million. No official goal has been set, "but we really need to be at $7.5 million to $10 million in these next few years, and I think that's a doable target," said Bruce Eckert, ballet board chairman and insurance executive. Can anyone imagine plans at this level of aspiration at any other point in the ballet's last two decades?

"I can't," said Roy Kaiser, a former dancer who has been at the company "since dirt" (1979) and now runs it. "When I first took over as artistic director, we couldn't build anything. We were in such bad financial shape, everything we did was begged, borrowed or stolen, or rented at a very negotiated rate, just so we could put on a season. Now we're doing huge-ticket items."

Those items, and smaller productions, earn their keep: The ballet builds its own sets and costumes and leases them to other companies.

How did an organization given up for dead achieve its remarkable turnaround? For one thing, most of the board, staff and dance troupe is new in the last dozen years. During that period, after years of turnover at the top, Kaiser and executive director Michael G. Scolamiero have endured - and formed a close relationship.

"I've followed them for a long time," said Peggy Amsterdam, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, "and I think Roy and Michael have really shown how an artistic and managing director can work to make a company successful."

They and the board decided not to cut their way to prosperity, which had been tried before.

"We did not go from point A to where we are now by cutting weeks and cutting dancers and reducing the number of programs and trimming the budget. We did just the opposite," Scolamiero said. "We had slow but steady growth. . . . We eliminated our debt. We built huge productions with Swan Lake and Nutcracker."

The recent Nutcracker success, he said, "proves to the larger community that it's another step we've taken in turning the organization around."

"They've got the wind at their back," said Rebecca W. Rimel, Pew president and chief executive officer. But "they are embarking on a capital campaign, which is the hardest and most treacherous course for an organization. You may be able to build it, but being able to afford to operate it really requires enormous discipline."

Randy Swartz, artistic director of Dance Affiliates, lauds the turnaround. It's a "good, solidly professional ballet company that we can be proud of having in our midst."

Still, he said, it has conservative programmers, and lacks the national recognition of companies in Miami, Houston and San Francisco because its touring is so limited.

"The true test is going to come when they are not in a transition mode . . . and they are fully functional," said Swartz, who has presented dance in Philadelphia since 1972. "Then we'll see where they go artistically." The ballet would like to increase touring. And now, with successes under its belt, it has new productions in various stages of development. Scolamiero's list:

"We have a dream of building . . . I'm Old Fashioned, a Jerome Robbins ballet. We're looking for a partner. We are thinking already of our 50th anniversary, which is six years down the road. Roy and I are thinking it's the time to really commission something major for the company. . . .

"We have Balanchine's Rubies in our repertoire, but we've never done Emeralds and Diamonds, and I think Roy would like over time to take all of those into the rep and perhaps have them newly designed and present them in the 50th year. . . . Some more Tharp, some more Robbins. I think he wants to do Glass Pieces. . . . Some new full-lengths. I think there is a dearth of really high-quality, affordable, full-length ballets."

Big talk, perhaps. But five or six years ago, the company couldn't dream of performing in New York; its appearance at the 2,750-seat City Center in November was the first time it had a full-program presence in New York since 1985. Now that city is considered part of the core mission, at least every few years.

"In our long-range plan we have as one of our goals - our first goal, in fact - to preserve the company's national identity and enhance its international image," Scolamiero said, "and the only way you remain visible in the national dance picture among audiences is to perform in New York and, to a certain degree, Washington."

"We had a number of trustees who said, 'You can go to New York. Just go to the Joyce" - a theater with only 472 seats. "But Roy's feeling was that this company was at a different level, and if we really viewed ourselves in the league of the Joffrey and San Francisco and Houston and others, we belonged at City Center."

Kaiser said that after the New York dates he had received solicitations from dancers, choreographers and set designers who wanted to work with the Pennsylvania Ballet. "There is a lot of interest," he said. "It makes attracting dancers much easier."

Said Scolamiero: "It's huge for recruiting, it's huge for the company in terms of its national profile, and I think it's important for funding as well."

New York cost the company $750,000. Ticket sales and philanthropy each covered a third; the rest came out of the annual budget.

Though board chairman Eckert wasn't thrilled with the loss, he said he'd do it again.

"I think we need to be in New York. We can't wait another 20 years."

How does the company feel to the dancers these days?

Said Jeffery Gribler, who danced with the company for 26 years and is now ballet master: "It really has been pretty consistent as long as I've been here, as far as the artistic work and the work in the studio and how we deal with each other. That all feels the same.

"What feels completely different is that we might actually be around for a while."

Contact culture writer Peter Dobrin at 215-854-5611 or pdobrin@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/artswatch.

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