Roy Kaiser, Pennsylvania Ballet's artistic director for two decades, is stepping down. The former dancer, who started his career with the company 35 years ago, will stay on until a successor is found.

A search committee will be assisted by outgoing Kennedy Center president Michael M. Kaiser (not related), who is also the author of a plan designed to raise the ballet's artistic and institutional ambitions.

Roy Kaiser, 56, joined the company in 1979, and danced his last role - Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet - before becoming full-time ballet master in 1992.

Kaiser said that he looks forward to being able to accept invitations to work on projects elsewhere, and welcomes the lifting of the responsibilities of running a company often hobbled by financial challenges.

"One of the things I am proudest of is that we were able, even through difficult times, to find ways to maintain our creativity and develop new work and bring in new work to the company," he said. "That's what keeps the company alive, what keeps it a living, breathing entity."

The ballet's five-member search committee, chaired by board member David F. Hoffman, meets Thursday in person for the first time, and hopes to have a new artistic head named by the fall. The criteria will be developed by answering certain core questions - not only who is available, but also, does the ballet want to hire a choreographer or curator? Should a new chief have a background in Balanchine, the basis of the company's repertoire? Elder statesman or stateswoman, or rising star?

Executive director Michael G. Scolamiero said his hunch would be that the search committee would seek someone familiar with the work of Balanchine, and find a curator rather than a choreographer. "But you just don't know the answer. The search committee is just beginning to look into what the ideal traits and characteristics of the next leader will be," he said.

Balanchine, he said, "is such a huge part of our history and heritage, I would be very surprised if that was not to continue, though maybe not to the same extent. We are going to Vail [International Dance Festival] in July because of Balanchine, we were invited to the Kennedy Center for our 50th anniversary because of Balanchine. Certainly the works of Balanchine have advanced the reputation of the company unlike any outside of New York City, and we are very proud of that."

Kaiser, unlike his predecessors, was not a choreographer - he took over from Christopher d'Amboise - but rather a curator of the company's traditional storybook creations, such as The Nutcracker, and cultivator, as with choreographer-in-residence Matthew Neenan. During his time, the company added more than 90 works to its repertoire, including 34 world and 56 company premieres. Pennsylvania Ballet has also traveled widely, to City Center in New York, the Kennedy Center, and Edinburgh International Festival.

Named interim artistic director in 1994 and to the post permanently a year later, Kaiser came to ballet relatively late, at 17, after an early start as a tap dancer. At 21, he moved to Philadelphia from Seattle and San Francisco, to study at the school of the Pennsylvania Ballet.

"I remember saying to my father that it was going to be an interesting year," he said. "And I never left."