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Back to school for Pennsylvania Ballet

‘Don’t be nervous,” Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Roy Kaiser told the 23 girls and two boys with their left hands on the barre, wearing solemn expressions and numbers pinned to their neat dance clothes. “Relax and work hard.” The first of two groups of 12- to 14-year-olds followed principal dancer Arantxa Ochoa through an hour of pliés, tendus, jetés, and pirouettes last Sunday morning in the company’s East Falls studios.

'Don't be nervous," Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Roy Kaiser told the 23 girls and two boys with their left hands on the barre, wearing solemn expressions and numbers pinned to their neat dance clothes. "Relax and work hard."

The first of two groups of 12- to 14-year-olds followed principal dancer Arantxa Ochoa through an hour of pliés, tendus, jetés, and pirouettes last Sunday morning in the company's East Falls studios.

"She's my teacher's wife!" one girl squealed on the way out of the audition, referring to Ochoa, a calm, gentle instructor with a striking presence. "That's so cool!"

And that's the point: The company — whose current and former members, including Ochoa's spouse, Alexander Iziliaev, now teach all over the region — is about to reopen its own School of Pennsylvania Ballet after a 20-year hiatus as one of the rare troupes without its own training program.

Students will learn from dancers they've no doubt seen — or even danced with — on stage at the Academy of Music, and whom they ideally hope to follow into a career in a professional troupe. The children's cast of Pennsylvania Ballet's seasonal highlight The Nutcracker, now gleaned from academies around the region, eventually will be drawn entirely from the new school.

"Everyone in the city is excited, of course, no matter what school they currently attend," said Vanessa Ryan, whose daughter, Sarah-Gabrielle, 14, was auditioning. "I think we've been waiting for this day since the first time Sarah set foot at the Academy of Music with Pennsylvania Ballet to do Nutcracker. She was only 10."

About 170 ballet students, ages 8 to 18, came to audition last weekend from as far away as Connecticut. Many were intimately familiar with the company from their days as mice, soldiers, and angels in the company's Nutcracker. At least three of the girls had danced the part of Marie, the lead girl's role.

Stephanie Bandura, 13, from Philadelphia, was one of the more active Maries. She danced the part for two seasons and toured with the company in 2009 to the Kennedy Center in Washington. Even after she grew too tall to be on stage among the smaller children, the company called her back to film the part for the taping of the holiday show on the wall at the Comcast Center.

But she was still unsure about the new school. "I've gone to the Rock School [for Dance Education] since I was 3. I don't want to leave it," she said.

Stephanie was one of many who came from the Rock School, which itself grew out of the ashes of the original School of Pennsylvania Ballet.

This tale of birth and rebirth began when Barbara Weisberger, who had been George Balanchine's first child student in the 1930s, was teaching ballet in Wilkes-Barre decades later. At a 1961 seminar for dance teachers, Balanchine asked them to consider forming companies around the country.

" 'If you're serious. Philadelphia is the place to do it,' " Weisberger, now 86, says she told him. "And he said, 'Well, Barbara, my smart ballerina, you must do it.' "

His famous quote, "But first a school," referred initially to his own School of American Ballet, training school for New York City Ballet, but he said it to Weisberger as well.

"Balanchine often talked in metaphors," she said, noting that it wasn't just about numerical order. "Sometimes you just didn't get it until way later. First a school: That's the heart."

The Pennsylvania Ballet company and school were incorporated in 1963, Weisberger stayed until 1982, and the school went on for another decade. But in 1992, with the company facing financial difficulties, it went independent as the Rock School.

"Roy was at a disadvantage" all these years since, said Weisberger (who noted that her unofficial company title is "beloved adviser. And I'm still Mama"). "If you have a school, you can say, 'There's someone I'd like to nurture.' "

With his School of American Ballet feeding into City Ballet, "Balanchine had this huge advantage that he was making his own instruments," she said, "and finding the beauty in them. And it's a human instrument, not a violin, not a canvas.

Soon the renamed original and second-generation original schools will be operating at opposite ends of the Avenue of the Arts. The School of Pennsylvania Ballet will open in September in East Falls and move to Louise Reed Center for Dance at 321 N. Broad St., the ballet's new headquarters, when it is completed late this year. The Rock School is at Broad Street and Washington Avenue.

Ochoa announced last month that she would retire from the company in October to become the school's principal instructor; William DeGregory, director of Pennsylvania Ballet II, the second company for young dancers, will be the school's director as well. There will be six levels, as well as pre-ballet and adult classes that won't require auditions.

So will ballet students make the leap from their current schools?

"I would have to think about it," said Rock student Alex Sigal, 13, of Philadelphia. "It's about 50-50 chance."

"We're like a family" at the Rock, said Kimberly Ton, also 13 and a Philadelphian. But she has danced in Pennsylvania Ballet's Nutcracker and likes the company. "If they gave me a shot here, I would try coming. It would look good on my resumé."

DeGregory understands the mixed emotions. That's why the 8-year-olds, less tied to other schools, are particularly important. "They are still sponges and they want to do it."

Ochoa agrees. "It was so beautiful to see" the youngest children audition, she said. "One kid, 8 years old, she put on the paper that she was dancing for seven years."

Even though they're likely to lose some talent to the new school, Rock School directors Bojan Spassoff and his wife, Stephanie Wolf Spassoff, say they understand.

"I was director of the School [of Pennsylvania Ballet] for probably seven years," as well as ballet master at the company," he said. "I taught and I coached Roy. Stephanie danced with Roy.

" ... So we know them well, I wish them well. The Rock School is very successful. We currently have dancers in every major company in the country. We've done very well."

The Rock has its own mission. It offers an academic program and housing. It presents its own Nutcracker and is starting a semiprofessional company in the fall. It brings its dancers to competitions, which attracts applicants from overseas.

DeGregory sees his students differently "They're not going to compete. Not ever," he said. Other schools "don't have a professional company, and that's the attraction."

Kaila Carter, 13, from Marlton, N.J., a student at Triplett Dance Academy, has placed at competitions in the United States and Germany. But she auditioned anyway. "My mom was like, 'Try out so you can get used to auditioning.' " But would she like to be in Pennsylvania Ballet? "I think when I'm like 20ish years old."

Local schools other than the Rock also are intertwined with Pennsylvania Ballet. Barbara Sandonato has a an eponymous ballet school in Philadelphia. She was Pennsylvania Ballet's first dancer, and a principal. Her daughter, Gabriella Yudenich, is a soloist with the company.

The Metropolitan Ballet Academy in Jenkintown was started by Lisa Collins Vidnovic, who was a dancer and ballet mistress at Pennsylvania Ballet. DeGregory teaches a program for boys at Metropolitan.

There's room for everyone, DeGregory said. "We're not looking to step on anyone's toes."

Contact Ellen Dunkel at