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Pennsylvania Ballet fires longtime artistic leaders, administrators

With a single swing of the ax, the new leadership of Pennsylvania Ballet has cleared out the longtime artistic pillars of the company.

Jeff Gribler as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The ballet master joined the Pa. Ballet in 1975.
Jeff Gribler as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. The ballet master joined the Pa. Ballet in 1975.Read moreInq Tobia

With a single swing of the ax, the new leadership of Pennsylvania Ballet has cleared out the longtime artistic pillars of the company.

Jeffrey Gribler is gone. The energetic personification of the company, who arrived in 1975 as an apprentice and quickly worked his way through the corps to become principal dancer and ballet master, was let go after nearly four decades. Tamara Hadley, who joined the same year and was much loved as principal dancer in the major classical roles, has been dismissed as ballet mistress. Also fired were William DeGregory, a star dancer before becoming director of the ballet's school and Pennsylvania Ballet II, and former dancer Michael Sheridan, assistant to the artistic director and the cofounder of the annual AIDS fund-raiser Shut Up & Dance.

The dismissals - carried out Monday and not announced publicly by the company - come as Pennsylvania Ballet continues to remake itself after commissioning a report from arts consultant Michael M. Kaiser that, in the words of one ballet leader, aimed to bring the company "back to the top ranks of American ballet companies."

Its 51st season begins Oct. 16.

In quick order after Kaiser's evaluation a year ago, both artistic chief Roy Kaiser (not related to Michael Kaiser) and executive director Michael Scolamiero left, and by this July the company had appointed Spanish dancer Angel Corella its new artistic director.

Roy Kaiser, who turned over the company to Corella Aug. 20, declined to comment on the reasons for the change, but lauded the contributions of those being let go.

"The artistic team that has been in place during my tenure, they're top-notch," said Kaiser, now artistic director emeritus. "They were the best of the best and I could not think more highly of them than I do. I got a lot of credit for the artistic success of the company, and they were a big, big part of that."

Asked Wednesday about the reasons for the dismissals, Corella said in an interview at the company's headquarters: "I'm sure the people were great, but it was about the team you feel comfortable with. Energy is important in an arts organization. If you are comfortable, everything will fall into place."

Julie Diana, who retired in April as principal dancer, has been appointed ballet mistress, and her husband, principal dancer Zachary Hench, the new ballet master. Corella said that he had known Hench and Diana for about seven or eight years before coming to Philadelphia, since bringing them to Spain to dance with his former company there. "I fell in love with them. I was blown away by them, not just as dancers but as people. They are very sweet," he said.

Corella said Hench "filled up the stage," and praised his energy. "He is helping everyone to be better. You don't want someone who at the end of your solo doesn't tell you anything about your solo."

The ballet also let go its marketing director, a member of the development staff, and the administrator of the ballet's school. The school's director will now be retired dancer Arantxa Ochoa, its former principal instructor, whom Corella said he had known from childhood when she was his sister's best friend.

Ochoa was also a member of the search committee that named Corella artistic director.

As for who will follow DeGregory as director of Pennsylvania Ballet II, the trainee program for pre-professional dancers, a spokeswoman said that "the artistic staff is still working out the details of that assignment."

Interim executive director David Gray said he was "not aware" of whether any of the departed artistic personnel would be given public tributes, calling them "backstage" employees.

F. Randolph Swartz, artistic director of Dance Affiliates, said the stability of the company under Roy Kaiser had been unusual, and that the changes in artistic personnel were not unexpected. "It happens. I would equate it in many ways to a sports team that changes managers or how, in baseball, a new head coach brings their assistants along," Swartz said.

Phil Juska, the school administrator who lost his job, had been at the ballet 18 years, and said he was surprised by the decision.

"I feel bad about it, obviously," he said. "But people like Bill and Tammy and Jeffrey, they were with the ballet their whole adult lives. They were the heart and soul of the ballet."