January 9-15, 2003
Turn the Beat Around
Roy Kaiser might just be the guy who saved the Pennsylvania Ballet.
Not long ago, the Pennsylvania Ballet seemed as much a soap opera as a dance troupe. Some wags called it "As the Ballet Turns." Every artistic director, from founder Barbara Weisberger through Benjamin Harkarvy, Robert Weiss and Christopher d'Amboise had been fired or left angrily. The company repeatedly ran out of money, shut down or faced permanent closure. In 1994, almost in desperation, the board of trustees turned the artistic directorship over to retired PAB Principal Dancer Roy Kaiser, who'd been serving as associate artistic director. It proved to be an inspired choice. Now, stabilized financially and administratively and bursting at the seams with fine dancers, Roy Kaiser's company works, onstage and off.
What did gentlemanly Roy Kaiser bring to the job that none of his high-profile predecessors did? As a performer, the tall, handsome Kaiser had been a courtly presence, in the danseur noble tradition. Onstage and off, he was serene, well-mannered and thoughtful. In the arts world such personalities are rare, especially in dance where huge personalities dominate -- in fact, they give it their names: Balanchine, Robbins, Graham, Cunningham. Being a well-adjusted person has never counted for much.
Kaiser's unique qualification was having lived the entire PAB saga -- he had muscle memory that included not just ballet steps, but the whiplash from past administrative crashes, plus an emotional connection to every dancer. He'd joined PAB back in 1979, just 21 years old and having only taken his first ballet lesson at age 17. As a child performer, one of the five Kaiser Brothers, he had tap-danced on stage and television. Growing older, he knew he wanted a theater career, but doing what? Someone convinced him to try ballet just to improve his overall technique, and he found himself "humbled, floored by the sheer physicality of the form. It got my attention."
Kaiser was physically gifted, handsome, tall and male, which meant ballet loved him back right away. He went on to the Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle, then the San Francisco Ballet, before arriving here in '79. PAB brought him together with his future wife, dancer Kelly McManus, as well as lifelong friends Jeffrey Gribler, William DeGregory and Tamara Hadley. These ballet youngsters "grew up together" and, to a certain extent, defined PAB for many years.
What looked to the outsider like Kaiser's good and solid, if unexceptional, career as a PAB dancer turned out to be on-the-job training for the directorship. Each former director gave him artistic and administrative responsibilities and taught him something. Barbara Weisberger and the early PAB era showed him the importance of "instilling confidence in the company, real pride in being part of Pennsylvania Ballet." But he also learned "the vulnerability of ballet" companies as shut-downs started happening right away -- he and McManus used the free time provided by a 1982 shut-down to get married.
The European Benjamin Harkarvy taught him "a lot about commitment. Ben lived, ate and drank PAB." Kaiser works the same way, putting in days that start at 10 a.m. and end when the curtain comes down if the company is performing. He gives credit to "a great wife" for the support that allows him to devote this kind of focus to the job. "She's been a dancer and knows what I'm doing and why it's necessary." (McManus retired in 1987 and stays home with children, Roy III, 12, and Cristina, 6.)
Robert Weiss came next, bringing New York City Ballet's ranking system to PAB and giving Kaiser the position of soloist. The charismatic Weiss taught him "the importance of stretching the company artistically with a challenging rep." Plus Weiss gave him artistic and administrative tasks, and Kaiser found he liked doing them. Dance was to be his life, but maybe not on the stage.
When Weiss was fired and while a lengthy director search began, committed PAB dancers, including Gribler and Kaiser, were central to holding the company together. After Christopher d'Amboise was hired, Kaiser was promoted to principal dancer, only to leave the stage shortly thereafter to become d'Amboise's associate artistic director. Kaiser's desk was right next to d'Amboise's in the smallish director's office, and he was in on everything. D'Amboise wanted to do choreography, and Kaiser actually liked doing the day-to-day company stuff that d'Amboise loathed. He didn't even mind "putting on a tie" to go fundraising. "A partnership made in heaven," Kaiser laughs. "I thought I was getting job training to go somewhere else with these skills. D'Amboise made a career for me."
In spite of his 15-year on-the-job training, when d'Amboise left unexpectedly in the fall of 1994, Kaiser was not the immediate choice for artistic director. Wedded to the idea of a high-profile outsider, the board of trustees turned to Kaiser only as interim director. His friend DeGregory says, "We were astonished when we found out he wanted to be director. I thought he wouldn't consider it. Everyone thought, Oh, Roy will be there a couple years as a transition.' But he took the bull by the horns and never let go. He'd seen the rights -- and the wrongs -- of what happened here, and he learned so much." By spring 1995, wise heads inside the company could see they had a winner in Kaiser and the permanent title was his.
The troubles didn't just evaporate -- we are talking about a huge arts organization -- but overall Kaiser's tenure has been the Miracle on Broad Street. He's pulled together an administrative team working together without competition, expanded the outreach program and started PAB touring again. The PAB budget has not only stabilized but has actually shown small surpluses for the last three years. And by maintaining what he calls "a very open audition process," Kaiser has brought in one talented dancer after another. In fact, watching this burgeoning talent pool is one of the distinct pleasures of attending PAB these days.
Without knowing it, the Pennsylvania Ballet trained up their next leader within the company and then had the good sense to recognize it. There've always been boosters claiming world-class status for PAB, but Roy Kaiser might finally be the director to make this true. After all the sturm und drang, Jeff Gribler succinctly sums up Roy's tenure as artistic director -- "Heaven."