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Barbara Weisberger, founder of the Pennsylvania Ballet, dies at 94

Barbara Weisberger was George Balanchine’s protégé, his first American student as a child, and founder of the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Barbara Weisberger (left) participating in a class with George Balanchine in 1961. Balanchine encouraged her and other teachers to form ballet companies. (NANCY LASSALLE / “Balanchine” is a trademark of the George Balanchine Trust)
Barbara Weisberger (left) participating in a class with George Balanchine in 1961. Balanchine encouraged her and other teachers to form ballet companies. (NANCY LASSALLE / “Balanchine” is a trademark of the George Balanchine Trust)Read more

Barbara Weisberger, George Balanchine’s protégé, his first American student as a child, and founder of the Pennsylvania Ballet, died Dec. 23 at her home in Kingston, Pa., near Wilkes-Barre, following a lengthy illness. She was 94.

Almost single-handedly, on a dream and the wings of a Ford Foundation grant more than half a century ago, Mrs. Weisberger founded the Pennsylvania Ballet and with it helped launch decades of regional dance companies across the country.

She started out with a vision and two dancers chosen from Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York.

“Barbara Weisberger was a visionary,” said Angel Corella, the ballet’s artistic director since 2014. “She gave Philadelphians the gift of dance, a gift that has brought immeasurable joy to the many generations that have filled our theaters. ... I will miss her joyous face and our many conversations about Mr. Balanchine and her beginnings as a young dancer. Barbara founded the company that I so passionately love. For that I, and surely all our patrons, will be forever grateful.”

Shelly Power, who became the ballet’s executive director in 2017, said that Mrs. Weisberger was “ahead of her time” in founding the company in the early 1960s.

“She was a force of nature,” Power said. “For a woman, during that time period, to be so impactful — she was an influencer, the most common term that we can use today. She made things happen. ...To be that much of a mover and a shaker, she’s inspiring.”

Mrs. Weisberger was a ballet teacher when Balanchine summoned her and other top instructors from around the United States to New York in 1961. He was concerned that their schools were turning out more worthy dancers than the country’s few companies at the time could hire.

“If you really are serious, Mr. B.,” Mrs. Weisberger said at a cocktail party, “the place to start is Philadelphia.”

“Well, Barbara, my smart ballerina,” he told her, “you must do it.”

With that, Philadelphia was thrust into the forefront of the soon-to-burgeon regional ballet movement, fueled by a 1961 Ford Foundation grant. In the years that followed, Mrs. Weisberger’s Pennsylvania Ballet performed regularly in Philadelphia, toured extensively, and settled in as resident company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York, where it was considered the equal of the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the Joffrey Ballet.

The great master gave her many of his ballets for her company to perform. He came to Philadelphia for rehearsals. And he helped her hire dancers.

“He never charged me a penny. For anything!” Mrs. Weisberger said.

This, Balanchine told her, was a debt repaid. When he came to the United States, the only people he knew were the Littlefields, a family in Philadelphia who had a school and company. They provided him with his first dancers, as he was now doing for Mrs. Weisberger.

He also had a particular fondness for Mrs. Weisberger: She had been his first student when he moved to the United States and opened his school in 1934.

“When I was 8 years old, I was the first child at the School of American Ballet,” Mrs. Weisberger said. “I am the only one who can say this.” The rest of the class was filled with older dancers Balanchine was honing for his company,

She watched him make his magic. And she dreamed.

“I sat under a piano after class and watched him create Serenade. In the last movement of the ballet, the ballerina is lifted by three men off into the moonlight, and I thought, ‘That’s what I’m going to be.’

“I was never that, but I created places for dozens and dozens of dancers to do that.”

Mrs. Weisberger might have become a dancer if the timing were better. After a year at the School of American Ballet, her parents decided she should study with peers and moved her to the Metropolitan Opera ballet school.

But when her father’s job got transferred to Wilmington, her parents consulted Balanchine on a teacher. He sent her to study with his friends the Littlefields in Philadelphia.

“I graduated through high school very quickly, and I think I wasn’t even 16,” Mrs. Weisberger said. She was on the brink of a ballet career when World War II struck. Men were drafted into the military, so there was no one to partner ballerinas and very little ballet being performed. Instead, she opted for college, attending Penn State.

Mrs. Weisberger was an adult teaching ballet when she ran into Balanchine again and became his protégé.

“He gave me all these dancers that [first] season, and if I could’ve kept them, I would’ve had the best dancers in the country,” Mrs. Weisberger said.

For years, she commuted between Philadelphia and Wilkes-Barre, where her husband and two children lived — a lifestyle few women of the time would have considered.

The company built up over time, and she raised generations of dancers, several of whom were involved with the company until six years ago. Her final generation of “kids” included former artistic director Roy Kaiser, who stepped down in 2014, before Corella was hired to replace him.

The ballet had many ups and downs over the years. For Mrs. Weisberger, the biggest down came in 1982, when the company was forced to cancel its season during a severe financial crisis. She was forced to resign the day before her 56th birthday.

“Balanchine called me soon after I resigned,” Mrs. Weisberger said. “He said, ‘We will start all over again. We will do Concerto Barocco with a nice chamber orchestra. Everything will be just right.”

Instead, she went to teach at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Carlisle. She also founded the Carlisle Project, which from 1984 to 1996 was devoted to nurturing the careers of promising ballet choreographers.

She also was an artistic advisor at Baltimore’s Peabody Institute.

Mrs. Weisberger was the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including Pennsylvania State University’s Distinguished Alumni, the Hazlett Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Governor of Pennsylvania, and the 2013 Dance/USA Ernie Award. She has received honorary doctorates from Swarthmore College, Temple University, Villanova University, King’s College, and University of New England.

“I am grateful that I had a chance to meet Ms. Weisberger and enjoyed her company at a Pennsylvania Ballet performance of Jewels by George Balanchine,” Power said. “She never lost her passion for the art form or the joy the dancers brought her as they graced the stage.”

Mrs. Weisberger, whose husband, Ernest, died in 2013, is survived by a daughter, Wendy Kranson, and a son, Steven Weisberger, three grandchildren, and four great grandchildren.

Interment was in Temple Israel Cemetery in Swoyersville, Pa. There were no services; a memorial is being planned for a later time, post-pandemic.

Donations in Mrs. Weisberger’s memory may be made to Temple Israel of Wilkes-Barre or to any other charity.