In his continuing efforts to turn Pennsylvania Ballet into a national powerhouse, artistic director Angel Corella announced Monday that he has hired two major stars as ballet masters, as well as five new dancers.
Charles Askegard and Kyra Nichols will fill the positions held by retired Pennsylvania Ballet dancers Zachary Hench and Julie Diana, who have moved to Alaska to run a ballet school.
Nichols, 57, was one of George Balanchine's muses and had a long career with the New York City Ballet, joining as a 15-year-old apprentice in 1974 and retiring in 2007. Made a principal in 1979, she was second-generation City Ballet; her mother, Sally Streets, was in the company in the 1950s.
Askegard, 46, danced for 10 years with American Ballet Theatre, where he was a soloist and befriended Corella during the latter's tenure there. He subsequently moved to New York City Ballet and was a principal for 14 years, retiring in 2011.
For the next two years, he ran Ballet Next with former ABT dancer Michele Wiles, then taught, coached, and choreographed in his native Minnesota and New York.
"Actually, I was set to teach at Juilliard this fall," said Askegard, who instead will be moving to an apartment in the Art Museum area. "Nothing against Juilliard, but this was an opportunity to work with professional dancers."
His contract, which starts Oct. 5, is for one year. But he is looking at the long term. "Angel was building an artistic team. The intent isn't that I'd just stay one year. My intent is to . . . become an integral part of the company. A dancer's development takes years. You can make changes in a person's dancing very quickly, but long-term goals - you can invest a lot of time. It's why finding a position like this is very exciting."
Nondancers may know Askegard in other ways: He was married for nine years to Candace Bushnell, who wrote the New York Observer column "Sex and the City," on which the book, TV show, and movies were based. He was also the dancer on whom three Barbie movies were animated, playing a prince in Barbie in the Nutcracker, Barbie of Swan Lake, and Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses.
It's a credential that makes him extremely popular among young dancers. This summer, teaching at ABT's summer intensive, he had a class of young teens learning sections of choreography when one asked whether it was true he'd been in a Barbie movie. "I instantly went from a fun teacher to, like, a rock star. They screamed."
On a more serious level, "he's one of the greatest partners I've seen," Corella said. "He has a great energy and is very positive, someone I can trust, someone that I could work with. I think our team is getting stronger and stronger."
Nichols, who is married to Pennsylvania Ballet executive director David Gray, coached Pennsylvania Ballet dancers in the premiere of G Major in May, and Corella has been eager to sign her on full time ever since.
"She was one of the greatest Balanchine ballerinas," he said. "She will get the dancers in perfect shape, help the girls know how to present themselves on stage, and be as beautiful as she was as a dancer. It's such an incredible gift."
For now, Nichols will come in for specific projects and occasions, but "I've been fighting and trying to get her more and more involved," Corella said. "Slowly, she's starting to put her foot in."
Ian Hussey, a principal dancer, praised Corella for "bringing in a lot of talent. I'm really excited to welcome them into the family. With Kyra, I'm excited. We kind of know her already . . . but she's taking a much larger role.
"With Charles," Hussey continued, "I don't know him personally, but the one thing about his hire is that it's an especially good strategic move for the company," because Askegard danced Balanchine ballets with New York City Ballet and all the classics at ABT.
Lauren Fadeley, also a principal, knew Nichols and Askegard at New York City Ballet, where she was an apprentice and in the corps de ballet.
"They were always so sweet and caring to us newer members of the company, and prime role models of what it means to be a principal dancer. I have always idolized them as dancers, so to work with them in this capacity is just amazing."
The company also hired five new dancers - a soloist, a corps member, and three apprentices.
Nicolai Gorodiskii was born in Ukraine and grew up in Argentina. He has won many ballet competitions and has videos all over social media. A member of the National Theater of Croatia, he used Facebook to contact Corella, who told him several times he didn't have a position - he has 2,000 resumes from eager dancers. He finally let Gorodiskii take company class during last year's Swan Lake run and was so impressed that he went and asked the board for another position.
Ana Calderon, from Spain, danced with Corella's former company, Barcelona Ballet, and then Houston Ballet. When Corella moved to Philadelphia, she was eager to work with him again.
The apprentices are Marjorie Feiring, Aaron Anker, and Kathryn Manger. Feiring is the first dancer to graduate from the School of Pennsylvania Ballet, then join Pennsylvania Ballet II, and make it into the main company.
Corella's goal is to grow the company, add dancers, and have added weeks of performances. That will come, he said, when the company is on more stable ground and the Kimmel Center sees that it can sell out the Academy of Music more often. Meanwhile, he's getting ready for an action-packed season and looking to the future, teaching the second company and watching the advanced students in the school.
"I want to make sure where the future is going to be."