By Carolyn Kelemen
“I’m the last of the Red Hot Mamas,” Barbara Weisberger chuckles on the telephone from her home in Kingston, a bedroom community in the heart of northeastern Pennsylvania. Only an insider would realize she was referring to a tiny world of dance masters who have made serious contributions to the art form.
To those in the know, few national dance figures these days are more revered than Weisberger, a visionary in the education of classical ballet. She is the founder and director emeritus of the Pennsylvania Ballet and creator of the Carlisle Project where she nurtured choreographers. In her later years, Weisberger brought her vision to Baltimore’s renowned Peabody Preparatory dance department in her role as artistic advisor, a position she still holds.
On Thursday afternoon, June 13, this respected doyenne of dance will receive her Ernie from Dance/USA, a national service organization for professional dance. Presented during the Honors Celebration, part of the Annual Conference being held June 12-15 in Philadelphia, the prize is named for the first recipient, Ian Ernie Horvath, arts advocate, dancer, and founder of the Cleveland Ballet in his native city. He was a friend and associate of Weisberger’s at the Carlisle Project.
“He [Horvath] came to work with me and immediately became interested in the whole idea behind the project,” acknowledges Weisberger, who writes about a collaboration she was involved in with composers, guest dancers, and teacher Marcia Dale Weary, the director of the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. Weisberger writes in a published journal, Thoughts on My Journey, “The Carlisle Project, like many good things in life, happened as a result of several fortuitous occurrences. We asked artists who came to us to stretch, take risks, and not be afraid to fail. We came to a conclusion that ballet choreographers need a noncommercial environment in which to develop their craft.”
Soon after she lost Horvath. “When he died of AIDS at the young age of 46, they named this award after him,” she sighs during our lengthy conversation. Her husband (who coincidentally was also named Ernie) died earlier this year , so with a certain sadness she says, “I lost two Ernies, but I’m getting another.”
Oh, The Stories She Tells!
One could almost write a history of American ballet by following Barbara Weisberger’s lifelong dance career. Shelves in her home are filled with memorabilia and awards – hopefully, there’s room for at least one more, the Ernie, as “this one is special.” She was nominated by executive director Michael Scolamiero on behalf of the Pennsylvania Ballet and the Pennsylvania School of Ballet, which she founded in 1962.
“I think that Barbara’s influence is very much a part of the Pennsylvania Ballet today,” Artistic Director Roy Kaiser writes in an email. “Barbara placed great importance on the ‘spirit’ of the company, a genuine love of dance, and the work that goes into it and performance -- a real sense of ensemble from the most seasoned dancers to the newest dancers in the company. Much like a ballet is handed down from generation to generation, this spirit and respect for the work has been handed down also. I believe that it is still evident in our performances today. The company owes its very existence to Barbara’s vision: starting a major ballet company from nothing and giving it such a strong foundation from which to grow and evolve.”
When she turned 80 in 2006, Weisberger was honored in Philadelphia with a birthday party filled with dancers and choreographers whose work she encouraged. Today a scholarship program for aspiring ballet dancers at the Pennsylvania School of Ballet bears her name. “It’s a great pleasure to see the rebirth of the school,” acknowledges Weisberger, referring to its closure soon after she left The Pennsylvania Ballet 28 years ago. “No great company in classical ballet is without a school.”
Nonetheless, the party she’s most looking forward to is the Pennsylvania Ballet’s 50th Anniversary celebration in mid-October. It begins with dancers ringing the NASDAQ closing bell in Manhattan. The celebration comes back to Philadelphia when the season opens with the company premiere of Balanchine’s full-length Jewels. There’s a gala in Philadelphia’s historic Wanamaker Crystal Tea Room, followed the next day by a free public performance that will include excerpts from the celebratory season and signature pieces from the Pennsylvania Ballet’s past 50 years.
No doubt Weisberger will be ready to party hearty, especially to show off her new hip, the replacement just received this spring.
“I have so many stories to tell,” she says, and, indeed, she does, beginning with the fact that she was the first child accepted into George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. When Weisberger was eight years old, a neighborhood dance teacher encouraged the talented youngster to pursue training with the recently arrived Russian dance master. She still remembers sitting under a piano and watching Balanchine create Serenade, his iconic first ballet in America. Weisberger was eight years old at the time and living with her family in Brooklyn. A neighborhood dance teacher encouraged the talented youngster to pursue training with the recently arrived Russian dance master. She still remembers sitting under a piano and watching Balanchine create Serenade, his iconic first ballet in America.
One can easily picture her blues eyes twinkling as she recalls early months spent in a Manhattan dance studio that was previously home to dance pioneer Isadora Duncan. “Someday I’m going to finish my book!” exclaims the still feisty 87-year-old. “I’m not reticent,” she admits, “And I’m always thinking of things.”
Any ballet lover would eagerly read all about her years working with “Mr B,” as he was often dubbed by students and colleagues (though never by his wives nor his friend Dorothy Littlefield, who always called him “George”), according to Weisberger.
Meanwhile, her family moved to Wilmington, Del., and from there she commuted to Philadelphia to dance with the Littlefield sisters, “pioneers of indigenous ballet,” as she puts it, who opened her eyes to the possibilities of regional ballet. “The first regional ballet festival wasn’t in New York,” emphasizes Weisberger, “it was in the Wilkes Barre-Scranton area of Pennsylvania.” That festival was instrumental in getting her to commit to the region, where she still maintains a home across the mountain pass, near the Susquehanna River.
Her years training with Balanchine were brought to an end by World War II. “My life changed in the war,” she says with a rare hint of regret. She had been preparing for a dance career but veered away to attend college. “It was my detour,” she affirms. “I graduated from Penn State University in three years, got married, returned home, and started teaching.”
As director of the Wilkes-Barre Ballet Theater school and company, which she formed in 1953, Weisberger regularly sent her students to the School of American Ballet where Balanchine could instruct them. Robert Bottom was one of the first to train in New York City; he then went on to a professional career with the Pennsylvania Ballet and other companies.
“But he always came back to mama,” extols his mentor.
The list of her protégés (who still keep in touch with her) would fill pages in her book. The Washington Ballet director Septime Webre affectionately calls her his “Jewish mother.” Doors open all over the country when Weisberger attends the ballet. At the recent memorial for Carol Bartlett, director of the Peabody Dance Program, Weisberger sat in the back of a capacity-filled auditorium in Baltimore. Watching her from a distance, one could feel her sorrow for her lost friend and associate in the program they had worked so hard to develop. She will continue to advise the new faculty.
The Making of a Ballet Company and School
Weisberger says the turning point in her career occurred in 1961 at a cocktail party at the home of Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet. The social gathering followed a master class for ballet teachers and directors led by Balanchine himself. Among the guests were donors from the Ford Foundation interested in financing potential regional ballet companies outside Manhattan.
“They came from California and all over the country,” recalls Weisberger, “at least 30 of us, gathered together to take a class from the master. I have this wonderful picture of Mr. B holding my head ... ah, such sweetness,” Weisberger speaks, lowering her voice. “I still cry when I look at the photo that shows him correcting me.”
They got down to business at the party. Balanchine, Weisberger said, told group, “You are going back to your communities to teach ballet and you’re doing a good job. But where will they dance? In Russia we have the Bolshoi, the Mariinsky [Kirov]. This is what we must do in this country.” He then offered his costumes, music, and, most importantly, his ballets.
“We [the dance directors] were in the vanguard,” boasts Weisberger. “It was the beginning of a proliferation away from Manhattan. We were nervy, gutsy, but also loving,” she chuckles, still displaying her Brooklyn accent and an indomitable spirit that Balanchine must have admired way back when.
She had her eyes set on Philadelphia, a city with a cultural heritage but no ballet company. When she turned to Balanchine for his advice, he pointed her to the Ford Foundation with the fatherly words, “Barbara, you must do it.” Thankfully she took his advice. “I was at a hair salon in Wilkes-Barre when I got the call from the Ford Foundation rep,” recalls Weisberger, who was granted $45,000, then received additional money from other sources that added up to $275,000 over a 10-year-period. Her first two dancers at the Pennsylvania Ballet came from SAB at Mr. B’s suggestion. At that time Weisberger served as ballet mistress, while Balanchine was artistic advisor. “He was wonderful, full of heart, and he kept us alive just by the spirit ... and I had a lot of chutzpah. That’s how we were able to do it,” Weisberger surmises.
Weisberger was the youngest of those stellar teachers and directors who created what is known today as American ballet: The Christensen Brothers (William, Harold, and Lew) in San Francisco and Salt Lake City; Virginia Williams in Boston, and Frederic Franklin in Washington, D.C. (who died just a few weeks ago), among others.
“Everyone’s gone now,” she sighs on the phone, referring to the ballet directors who were the first to receive grant money from the Ford Foundation when it came to their rescue in 1962.
A Peabody Proposal
Good genes must play a role in the success of any dancer or director. Still, crucial to any professional career, says the octogenarian, is “being there at the right time and grabbing the moment.” It’s a philosophy that paid off when Peabody conservatory director Robert Sirota came away so impressed with Weisberger’s work with the Carlisle Project that he invited her to Baltimore “to take a look at the program” there. She generally liked what she saw, though she has a bold vision for helping to mold tomorrow’s artists. “So much is sewn into the fabric of everything, but what has fallen through the cracks is the art and the nurturing of artists,” she maintains. “In the preparation of our students, we have to bring Peabody dance up to the level of what is happening now,” she told Sirota in 2002. The Estelle Dennis Scholarship program for the Baltimore City boys began a few years later, thanks to Weisberger’s encouragement and persistence. “There is so much emphasis on virtuosity,” she continues on the phone, her words tumbling out like acrobatic dancers in a story ballet. “And as we build our dancers, we must create more varied dances for them.”
Being there at the right time and grabbing the moment is a key to understanding Barbara Weisberger and her vision for American dance. She was at the right cocktail party when Balanchine introduced her to key members of the Ford Foundation. Her timing was right for the Carlisle Project, and it became a way to channel her energy and talent after a tough few years following her departure from the Pennsylvania Ballet. And Peabody has provided yet another outlet for her expert mentoring capabilities.
But ask Weisberger her secret and she would tell you, “It’s all about love.”
Photos: Weisberger, courtesy Peabody Institute - Preparatory, The Johns Hopkins University
Weisberger, courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet
Weisberger, courtesy Peabody Institute - Preparatory, The Johns Hopkins University
Carolyn Kelemen followed James Rouse’s dream to Columbia, Md., in 1970 and soon begin writing about dance for Patuxent Publishing newspapers. Her master’s degree in dance was earned at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. She currently teaches arts and humanities at Howard Community College in Maryland and reviews dance and theater for the online DC Metro Theater Arts. In 1972 she formed the Interfaith Housing Ballet Company and staged one of the New City’s first dance benefits at Merriweather Post Pavilion. In 1999 she won a Howie Award for her support of the arts, and in 2006 she was inducted into the Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame for her efforts on behalf of “A Labor of Love” to a benefit people living with HIV/AIDS in Howard County.
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