Can we dance?
It was a soft-shoe question answered with steel-tipped determination 50 years ago by a ballet dancer who needed much more than being on her toes to come up with a reply.
She needed vision — and an artistic prod and pas de deux played out with George Balanchine.
As the Pennsylvania Ballet Company observes its 50th anniversary this season, all eyes — and those same toes — point to Barbara Weisberger, the Brooklyn-born, Philadelphia-stamped cultural icon who raised the company to its feet and then some — including a nasty falling out some 30 years ago.
PBC recently saluted its founding mother in all its golden celebrations — and hers, with an 87th birthday bash — marking the amazing turnabout of a company once teetering on bankruptcy and now, defiant to the corps, considered one of the top five ensembles of its kind in the country.
One can only wonder what would have happened had little Barbara been more interested in Tailspin Tabby — those popular Pop-Up Kritter toys at the time — than spinning ballerinas when she turned 8 in 1934.
For that was the year she met a curious George who had nothing to do with a man in a yellow hat: This George was more concerned with men and women in white leotards and if they knew their way around a barre.
Outside her husband — who died this year at age 94 — octogenarian Weisberger claims that Balanchine, who considered her his protege, “was the most loving, generous man in my life.”
He had chosen the young dancer as his first child student nearly 80 years ago as a member of an evolving core that would one day leap across worldwide stages as the American Ballet.
The then-30 year-old Russian emigre/ballet master was at the beginning of his American journeys of jetes and giant adventures, and Weisberger learned at his feet, beginning with admission to the George Balanchine/Lincoln Kirstein School of American Ballet.
Before long, she transferred to the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School where she would come across Balanchine again as its choreographer.
Bashert? Meant to be? “It’s nice to think that,” muses Weisberger now.
Certainly, their lives intersected with the grace and aplomb of two dancers entwined in a grasp for the heavens. “It is hard for me to separate the man and the god,” she says of the Janus of genius. “He was a simple man, a very loving man — only if he cared for you.”
But was he a … Jewish … man — in his own way? “I was the company’s Momma, the Jewish mother of the ballet,” says the PBC’s founding artistic director with a laugh. “And he was Russian Orthodox. But he had a Jewish heart — I don’t know if he would have liked me saying that. But there was a Jewish perspective in his values.”
It was Balanchine who helped shove Weisberger to center stage, advising her to start a company in Philadelphia. (By 1940, Weisberger and family had moved to Wilmington, Del., with the young Weisberger a commuter, traveling to Philadelphia regularly to study ballet.)
And thanks to him there was a Ford in her future — Balanchine was the one who brought her to the attention of the Ford Foundation. “We were suffering in the first years,” she recalls of the company, “starting with less than $3,000” in its coffers.
But, fueled with funding from Ford, they coughed up enough to mount a school and then a performance schedule at a time when such future stars as Barbara Sandonato — PBC’s first dance hire in 1963 and mother of Gabriella Yudenich, now a solo-ist with the company — “were making $20 a week.”
More needed than a pas de deux was a deux ex machina — an outside force saving the day: Enter Balanchine, stage right. “He came and helped us,” she says. “We had been locked out of our studio once too many times,” unable to pay the rent.
It all hit home for Mr. B, as his fans and favorites knew him. “Once I asked him, ‘Why, Mr. B., why are you so good to us?’ And he replied that ‘when I came to this country, no one would accept me and I didn’t know anyone but the Littlefield girls’ — Dorothie and Catherine, Phila-delphia sisters who provided a bounty of bounce for American ballet and from whose ranks of their Philadelphia Ballet they encouraged the young Balanchine to borrow dancers who would become the American Ballet company’s first stars.
“He came down to visit them from New York and cleaned out the company, taking maybe 70 percent of their dancers,” all with the Littlefields’ biggest of blessings, laughs Weisberger, who had studied with the sisters when she commuted from Wilmington.
A prima ballerina payback? “Mr. B said to me, ‘So you see, Barbara, they helped me. Now I help you. It’s a debt repaid.’ ”
Weisberger has paid back on her own, too, becoming known as a grand teacher of the art. “Mr. B liked my teaching,” she says. “Being a teacher, teaching, he thought of it as the most important element of the art, that school is the heart” of the dance. To that end, PBC has followed in Balanchine’s steps.
“I’d like to call this 50th anniversary, ‘The Debt Repaid,’ ” says Weisberger marking the upcoming opening of the Louise Reed Center for Dance, which will serve as PBC headquarters and home for its dance school.
But not everything was beautiful at the ballet: In 1982, PBC’s beloved founder was given the pink slipper, forced to leave by, in hindsight, a board some said was bordering on insolence and decidedly lacking any insight.
New blood was brought in in a bloodbath awash with controversy. “It was wrongheaded,” Weisberger says of the Black Swan-style move. “I felt a tremendous sense of loss and spirit.”
But she exited, as was her custom, gracefully. “I didn’t want to make any controversy at the time. Who would it hurt if I did so? My dancers.”
And that Weisberger would not abide. “I didn’t want to appear bitter — but I was bitter and heartbroken. But I knew, they would one day do the right thing and it would all come around.”
Around and around it went, history eventually written correctly, all at the fete of Weisberger, now a welcome sight at PBC. “The circle is closed,” says the troupe’s honorary trustee. “I love and have always loved my kids.”
They have loved her right back. Indeed, Roy Kaiser, the company’s nationally revered and respected artistic director, was brought on by Weisberger as an apprentice 35 years ago. What he did for love is borne out by the love he feels for his PBC patron partner.
“Barbara’s influence is very much a part of the Pennsylvania Ballet today,” he praises. “Barbara placed great importance on the ‘spirit’ of the company, a genuine love of dance, the work that goes into it, and performance. A real sense of ensemble from the most seasoned dancers to the newest dancers in the company.
“Much like a ballet is handed down from generation to generation, this spirit and respect for the work has been handed down also. I believe that it is still evident in our performances today.”
Can we still dance? At 87, Weisberger recently went through hip replacement surgery at the Rothman Institute, but was out and about soon after. Something in the way she moves?
Maybe her mentor said it best so many years back: Barbara has the drive, spirit, talent to make ballet move and “will always have my respect and energy behind her. Ballet is lucky.”
Who better for such an appraisal than Balanchine himself, who described his protege that way some 35 years ago at a PBC gathering in anticipation of the staging of one of his works.
He wasn’t the only dance dervish to toss lovely laurels at her: When PBC was looking for an inspired choice to replace Weisberger so many years back, Rudolf Nureyev reportedly rejected an offer with this advice, told anecdotally to Weisberger: “What you should do is get Barbara back.”
More than anything, Balanchine always had Weisberger’s back, even during — maybe especially during — the dark days after Weisberger had been caught flat-footed and asked to leave. “He continued his support of me, never left my side,” she says. “He told me, ‘We will start over and everything will be all right.’ ”
It was — Weisberger started the Carlisle Project. And the female ballet legend Lincoln Kirstein, co-founder of the New York City Ballet, complimented by calling her the “Jewish Joan of Arc” after the PBC debacle decades back, ran the Carlisle — featuring workshops, residencies and showcases — from 1984 to 1996.
Her PBC reign had put her on good footing to do so — but so had earlier experiences, such as Weisberger’s pre-PBC entrepreneurial role as founder of the Wilkes-Barre Ballet Theater 60 years ago. Even now, she is not one to put her feet up and relax; she is artistic adviser of the Peabody Dance in Baltimore.
For all her work and wizardry over the years, Weisberger — who has been granted five honorary doctorates and a slipperful of awards over the years — will be honored with the Ernie Award from Dance USA during its annual confab in Philadelphia on June 13.
She is being cited at what is billed “the broadest national gathering of dance professionals in the United States” for her role as “an individual working ‘behind the scenes’ within the infrastructure of the dance field, whose achievements have significantly empowered artists and supported their creativity individually or as a community.”
What adds to the spring in her step beyond the anticipation of the award is that so many of her “kids” will undoubtedly be there — those she raised to reach for the rafters of academies worldwide while stretching the realms of what beauty means.
“Oh, how I love my kids,” says the woman who is proud to point out that, after all is said and danced in a life and field of turning points and accomplishments, “I’m still Mommy!”
Michael Elkin is features editor of the Jewish Exponent. This article originally appeared in "The Good Life" special sections feature.