Philadelphia’s largest dance company is planning a return to live performance next season with several new pieces, a dip into a new venue, and under the banner of a new name.
Pennsylvania Ballet will now be known as Philadelphia Ballet, its leaders say, to promote a stronger sense of ownership of the company by the city in which it lives.
“For me, it’s a natural fit. Most ballet companies have their city’s name because the community supports you,” says executive director Shelly Power. “I by no means want anyone to think we’re abandoning Pennsylvania, but it’s about our identity as one of the most important cities in America.”
Says company artistic director Angel Corella: “Philadelphia has an international recognition. It’s for the Philadelphia Orchestra, for the museums, for the opera — for the city, the city of love. And it’s got such a power that we wanted to feel even more attached to the city.”
Philadelphia Ballet was the name Barbara Weisberger wanted to use, and did use briefly, when she founded the company in 1963, Power said. But another group had a similar name, hence the early switch. The school has also been renamed, to the School of Philadelphia Ballet. Pennsylvania Ballet II, the emerging talent wing of the company, is now Philadelphia Ballet II.
The 46-member dance company aims to open the new season in the fall girded by renewed assurance in its leadership. Both Power and Corella are negotiating extended contracts expected to be voted upon by the ballet board early this summer. Corella is buying a house in Rose Valley, and he and company dancer Russell Ducker recently married.
The 2021-22 season opens at the Performance Garage, near 15th and Spring Garden Streets. The reasoning for the intimate setting is no one is quite sure how comfortable audiences will be with returning to live performance in the fall.
“You can read all the surveys in the world, but when it comes to actually making that decision there are a series of factors depending on what is happening on a day that might affect someone’s buying habits,” says Power.
The October program in the modest venue features two world premieres: one by Corella set to a Philip Glass score, and another not yet announced.
But then, Philadelphia Ballet moves more confidently into normalcy with a run of The Nutcracker at the Academy of Music, with full orchestra, in December.
The annual three-week run of the holiday favorite is critical to the company’s financial health. It is by far the biggest revenue producer of the season, and last year the pandemic forced its cancellation. Power hopes no audience-capacity limits will be in effect for the show this coming season.
And, as for audience confidence: “Hopefully by Nutcracker we’ll have a level of comfort and a desire to get back into the theater,” she says.
In February, the company has a run of performances in the Perelman Theater for the very first time in a program of works by Alba Castillo, Juliano Nunes, and a third, as-yet-unannounced choreographer. The Perelman, with about 550 seats, offers a high-profile, intimate venue. The company has decided to not return for now to the Merriam Theater, which is in need of renovations.
“It was just not a good experience for our patrons or our dancers. The theater needs so much work,” Power said.
The rest of the season is to be performed in the Academy of Music. Swan Lake, March 3-13, will be choreographed by Corella. Three George Balanchine works are scheduled on a program running March 17-20: Stars and Stripes, Symphony in C, and Divertimento No. 15.
And the Dutch choreographer Hans van Manen takes up the May 13-16 program with his Grosse Fuge, Variations for Two Couples, and 5 Tangos.
“What defines a company and what makes a company different are all the world premieres and all the new works,” said Corella, a former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer who took over the Philadelphia company in 2014. “But at the same time I wanted to bring ballets that people are comfortable with, are familiar with, like Swan Lake.”
The company has been performing online during the pandemic, though it dipped a toe into live performance with a fund-raiser earlier this month at Red Rose Farm in Villanova.
“Walking through the crowd seeing tears in people’s eyes and smiling faces, they were reaching out to me to say thank you,” said Power. “It’s been so long since we’ve heard live music and had live dance, it spoke volumes about the desire to have art back in their lives.”