Dance world reacts to large-scale Pa. Ballet dancing staff changes

Soloist Mayara Pineiro (front left), Corps Member Etienne Diaz (back center) and artistic director Angel Corella (front right) of the Pennsylvania Ballet rehearse for "Don Quixote."

Change is constant in the dance world. But the suddenness and scope of the roster changes announced Monday for Pennsylvania Ballet stunned many in that world and out of it.

Angel Corella, the company's artistic director and an international ballet superstar, said 17 of 43 dancers - nearly 40 percent - would be leaving the company. Twelve were let go and five are leaving on their own, including favorites such as Lauren Fadeley, who is going to to Miami City Ballet as a soloist; and Elizabeth Mateer, who will be joining the corps of the San Francisco Ballet.

So what is Corella not finding among some of the current cast of dancers?

"We're looking for dancers that they can do everything," he said on Monday, "that they can just go on stage and do a Kylian ballet as well as they can do a Balanchine ballet as well as they can do a full-length. Unfortunately, we're not a huge company. We hope that we will one day, we're working toward that. So every dancer should be able to do everything."

As almost everything does in the dance world, the move provoked controversy and high feeling. Some called it an expected move by a new director finally able to put his stamp on his company. Others called it part of the dance life. But there was also awkwardness, trauma, sympathy for dancers not renewed, and questions over the way Corella handled the announcement.

Corella, in New York judging the finals of the prestigious Youth America Grand Prix competition, was not available for further comment Wednesday. But David Hoffman, chair of the company's board of trustees, released a statement saying that the board has encouraged Corella "to build the Company that best fits his artistic vision, and we fully support his efforts to do so."

Pennsylvania Ballet's move is similar to such moves in the corporate world, where new owners or CEOs often bring in their own people. And while unusual for Pennsylvania Ballet, such moves are not altogether uncommon in the dance world - although they are rarely spoken of publicly. Amy Brandt, editor of the ballet magazine Pointe, said dance companies often change radically after a new director brings on an exodus, "and it will be the same with Pennsylvania Ballet now that Angel is free to hire his own dancers."

'Disrespected'

 

The dance life is even less secure than many people realize. Dancers usually get one-year contracts. Non-renewal means you're back on the road, looking for a company to join. Many dancers are, for these reasons, dance nomads.

Yet the manner of the Pennsylvania Ballet moves has sent a wave of ill feeling throughout dance circles.

"Within hours of the [Inquirer] article being published, it spread like wildfire among dancers on social media," said Brandt. She described the welter of reactions. "Many were outraged. Others expressed sympathy for the company members who were let go. But I've also seen comments from Philadelphians who are very happy with Angel's vision and welcome the changes. It's a big change, and one I'd say many expected."

Dancer Olivia Hartzell said she was hired to do everything in the 2014-15 season, but that Corella never wanted to use her.

In an e-mail, Hartzell said she was the last dancer hired by outgoing artistic director Roy Kaiser. "I was the only incoming dancer the 2014-2015 season," she said. "Needless to say, things did not go as planned upon my arrival, the same week that Angel officially took over.

"After not having been cast in the first program of the season, I approached Angel to ask why and if I could understudy, he told me I had nothing to worry about."

As the season went on, though, she said, choreographers tried to cast her but Corella resisted. Eventually, she said, she told him she could not return for the 2015-16 season and was paid to leave.

"Dancers live a finite, fragile and precious career," Hartzell said. "They are the lifeblood of a company and should be protected, not so easily disposed, or used as pawns in a game of power. Unfortunately the drastic changes are not a new story at all.

"I have danced in four different countries, experienced three changes of direction in different companies and worked with numerous directors/choreographers/dancers. Never was I so disrespected as a dancer or human being than I was at Pennsylvania Ballet."

Trauma, awkwardness

 

"When you're fired or laid off in a regular profession, it's immediate," Brandt said. "You pack up your desk in a cardboard box, and someone escorts you out the door. But in the dance world, you have to finish out the two to three months left of your contract, knowing you're not really wanted there."

Brandt also noted the extremely limited and competitive job market facing out-of-work dancers and the survivor's guilt of those left behind.

"I went through two director changes in a three-year period when I was a dancer with the Milwaukee Ballet," she said, "and in both instances things got very painful and dramatic during contract time. Longtime dancers were forced to 'retire,' new soloists and principals were brought in. The second time around, I think 14 dancers out of 28 left, most being let go. I was among them, and it was absolutely the worst experience of my career."

Judith Adee-Leppek, a retired dancer in Omaha, also went through it twice, both times at Ballet Arizona. "I was a new dancer brought in with the new director and watched him slowly weed out those who did not gel with the rest of us," she said.

"This is what happened in Zurich when I was there," agreed Jessica Stulik-Molnar, a ballet teacher in Waldwick, N.J. She danced with Switzerland's Zurich Ballet when there was a change of management in 1993. "New guy, and 75 percent of us left."

Even Corella said in his last years at American Ballet Theatre, when he was a guest artist rather than on staff and the management was stable, he would return each spring season and find much turnover, particularly in the corps de ballet.

edunkel@philly.com

@edunkel

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