After more than a year without a school director, the Pennsylvania Ballet and artistic director Angel Corella have hired James K. Payne to run the School of Pennsylvania Ballet, the company said Wednesday.
“I’m really excited,” Payne said. “This is not just come in and maintain [the school]. This is come in and build, and I love that.”
Payne, 46, originally from Phoenix, had an 11-year career as a dancer with Ballet West and the Houston Ballet, followed by a two-year stint in management with the Houston company, and he has run the Payne Academy of Ballet, outside Houston, for 17 years with his wife, Bridget.
He feels even more artistically fulfilled teaching than he did performing, he said. “I learned a lot from different teachers, coaches, choreographers, and I had the need, the want, to pass it along.”
He has also served on the national board of the American Guild of Musical Artists.
Getting hired to run the School of Pennsylvania Ballet was a whirlwind experience, he said. It started with a social call to the ballet’s new executive director, Shelly Power, whom he knew from her time as administrative and artistic director of the Houston Ballet Academy.
The job posting had just gone up, and Power assumed that’s why he was calling. She suggested he apply and in late April, he came to Pennsylvania and was interviewed. Two weeks later, he was offered and accepted the job and began interviewing potential new owners for his Texas school.
The Paynes have two children, an 18-year-old daughter who is a ballet student at Oklahoma University, and a 20-year-old son studying animation at Texas A&M.
Payne is coming in to an organization that has had much turnover in recent years. Along with the company’s comings and goings, the school has had new leadership at least every two years since it reopened in 2012.
The original ballet school was opened 1963 by Barbara Weisberger, with the encouragement of her mentor, George Balanchine. She started the company the same year.
In 1992, with the Pennsylvania Ballet on shaky ground, the school broke away from the company and became what is now the Rock School for Dance Education.
By 2012, the Pennsylvania Ballet was on better footing, and then-artistic director Roy Kaiser was eager for the company to again have a feeder school. He hired former principal dancer William DeGregory as director of the school. Longtime principal dancer Arantxa Ochoa, who had just retired from dancing, was appointed principal teacher.
In 2014, the company’s entire artistic team — including Kaiser and DeGregory — either left or was fired. Ochoa became director of the school, a post she held until leaving in 2016 to take a similar position at the Miami City Ballet School.
(Her husband, Alexander Iziliaev, was a principal dancer and photographer for the Pennsylvania Ballet. He now teaches at the Miami City Ballet School but continues to shoot photos for the Philadelphia company.)
At that time, Anastasia Babayeva and Denis Gronostayskiy, former Russian dancers living in Chester County, were hired away from their Academy of International Ballet in Media to run the School of Pennsylvania Ballet, but they left seven months later. (Their son, Aleksey Babayev, dances with the company and has been promoted to soloist for the 2018-19 season.)
This year, the company’s artistic staff has been running the school on an interim basis while searching for a new director.
Payne says he does not want to focus on the past. Instead, he is looking to stabilize things.
“This is not a stepping stone. We’re going to stay,” he said. “Stability is super-important.”
He doesn’t expect to change much right off the bat, but his general theory of good dance education is “kind of a holistic program,” he said. “That involves the whole kid. It’s not just training someone to do a perfect tendu.”