When Bojan Spassoff retired in August after 35 years leading Philadelphia’s Rock School for Dance Education with his wife, Stephanie, many in the dance world wondered whether anyone could fill his shoes.
But earlier this month, the school announced a new president and director who is not just a shoe filler but a score.
Peter Stark, 54, attracted dance students from around the country when he led the Next Generation Ballet, a preprofessional training program and company he founded in Tampa, Fla. More recently, dancers followed him to the Boston Ballet, where he is associate director of Boston Ballet II and head of the men’s program at the Boston Ballet School.
Stark is moving to Philadelphia in early January. He starts the new gig on Feb. 20, but he is already meeting virtually with the staff at the Rock.
So why would he leave such a prominent program to come to Philly?
“It was the first question Bo [Spassoff] asked me,” Stark said via Zoom from his Boston apartment that was filled with packing boxes. “‘Why do you want this job?!’ Which was a good question. I wasn’t really looking to move until I saw this job open. And I thought, ‘Well, that’s really a match for my skill set.’”
That skill set includes teaching, offering performing opportunities, and coaching advanced students for both ballet competitions and careers. But the Rock had a long wish list, said director of advancement Richard Clark, who was among those leading the search for the new director.
The search committee wanted someone “with the proper pedagogues, the stage presence, career, the teaching ability, the executive leadership, the engagement in the community, the work with local government, the sort of grassroots pushing of an actual small school, and then having worked in a larger capacity for a larger organization, budget management, you know, understanding things from both an artistic perspective and an executive perspective,” Clark said.
That took 185 applicants down to a pool of less than 20 and finally to Stark, whose resume and reputation put a lot of people in the dance world at ease.
“I think that once we made the announcement that Peter was coming on board and Stephanie was staying on board, people kind of felt an alignment of the past and the present” of the Rock School, Clark said. Stephanie Spassoff has committed to staying at least through the summer.
Philadelphia Ballet founder Barbara Weisberger started what was then known as the School of Pennsylvania Ballet in 1963 at the encouragement of her mentor, George Balanchine, the legendary choreographer and founder of New York City Ballet.
In 1992, when the company faced financial difficulties and risked closure, the Rock became an independent school to keep it afloat. Twenty years later, the company opened a new school, the School of Philadelphia Ballet, and both exist today.
The Rock’s sovereignty was part of what interested Stark, “a very proud, distant descendant of Gen. John Stark,” the Revolutionary War leader famous for writing, “live free or die.”
“Most ballet schools in America … the revenues from the school supports the ballet company’s performances,” Stark said. “And what’s nice about a school like the Rock is the revenues go back in to support the students. And that’s why the Rock School is able to give nearly a million dollars in scholarships annually. And recruit internationally.”
Stark said he’s a teacher first and likes that the Rock teaches many different styles of ballet.
“I’m very much a pluralist. I think it is sort of the American way. And I love training dancers with options because you never know actually where a dancer is going to land” professionally.
The Rock has had success training students for prominent international ballet competitions, and so has Stark.
The school is widely known in the dance world, having participated in the documentary First Position, which includes its participation in a large student competition, Youth American Grand Prix.
The Rock has produced big names in the ballet world, such as international superstar Isaac Hernandez and his brother Esteban, who is a principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet; Christine Schevchenko, a principal at American Ballet Theatre; Beckanne Sisk, a principal at Ballet West, who was on the ballet reality TV show Breaking Pointe; and Michaela DePrince, who was born in Sierra Leone, raised in Cherry Hill, is a soloist at Boston Ballet, and recently appeared in a campaign for Nike.
Stark, who grew up on Long Island, started training under Andre Eglevsky — an early member of both ABT and City Ballet. Stark moved to the School of American Ballet at 11. From there, he joined New York City Ballet, but never made it out of the corps de ballet.
“So I jumped to Boston Ballet,” where he was mentored by former ABT star Fernando Bujones.
“Fernando was moving from dancer to artistic director and he said, ‘You know, Peter, if I get an artistic director position, I’m going to take you.’” Stark was excited until Bujones landed his directorship — at the little-known Ballet Mississippi. “I followed him and I didn’t regret it for a minute.”
But that company folded a year later. So Stark moved to the Washington Ballet, where he retired as a leading dancer and began teaching more extensively. From there, he taught at the Maryland Youth Ballet.
And then his mentor Bujones called again.
“Fernando called me to be the [school] director of Orlando Ballet. The budget when I took it was $340,000, with a $90,000 summer program. I took that budget to $2 million with a $600,000 summer program.”
He worked there for a decade with Samantha Dunster, now assistant artistic director of Philadelphia Ballet. He also grew that school from one to four locations, before opening his own school, Next Generation Ballet. When he returned to Boston in 2015, he left Next Generation in the hands of his friend, Philip Neal, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet.
Over the years, Stark has trained such prominent dancers as siblings Lia and Jeffrey Cirio, who are from the Philly area. Lia is a principal with Boston Ballet and Jeffrey is a lead principal with the English National Ballet.
“With Jeffrey, I was his coach when he won seven medals worldwide,” Stark said. “We actually traveled the world.”
Lex Ishimoto, who won So You Think You Can Dance in 2017, was Stark’s student in Boston.
At the Rock, Stark plans to carry on much of the Spassoffs’ work. His first task will be gearing up for the summer intensive, because “that is sort of the linchpin for recruitment for the subsequent rest of the year.”
He also plans to regrow the school, which had reduced staffing earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stark plans to increase attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. The school’s outreach program, Rock Reach, introduces 25,000 to 26,000 students in 19 Philly schools each year to ballet. Most are Black or brown.
“It starts with programs like that,” Stark said. “But it also has to be systemic. In every level of the organization, there has to be a commitment from the board down to Level 1 ballet. And to me diversity is not just race, which is incredibly important. But I think you’re also now seeing diversity of body shape and size, diversity of personal identity.”
He’s living that, too, investing in the neighborhood around the Rock School. He is renting a house in Point Breeze, five blocks from the Rock, with his Philly-raised husband. They are planning to eventually buy a house in that neighborhood.
Initially, Stark has a “ramp contract” — “it’s multiyear, but it’s not a decade long,” Clark said. But “our goal and our alignment with Peter and his sort of honor and pledge to this organization was to make this his career for life.”
Stark agreed. “This is a new community to me,” he said. “This is the last major city on the East Coast, because I started my career in New York, then I danced for Boston Ballet, Washington Ballet, so now I’m hitting Philly.”