When Kaiser comes through the door, it's a good idea for anyone who's been there more than ten years to revamp their resumes and start writing their letters of resignation, especially if you don't like having your comfort zone messed with. Messing with your comfort zone is the only way to accomplish a major turnaround, and Kaiser never pulls punches. His recommendations can be harsh, but failing to follow them is tantamount to turning off the lights and locking the doors for good.
There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth last year, when familiar faces began disappearing from both the artistic and executive staffs. Corella's first season had been set by his predecessor, so his first task was to raise the quality of the dancers, which he did by bringing in some young guns to raise the bar for the veterans, shaking them out of their entropy and reminding them why they wanted to become dancers.
For his second season Corella set the programs himself, and raised the bar even higher for the whole company - dancers, musicians, stage and wardrobe departments - by staging his own production of Don Quixote. This production is still a work in progress, but I'll delve deeper into that aspect later. Staging any of the classic story ballets, after Petipa or anyone else, is more than enough to test the mettle of any dancer raised on nothing but Balanchine.
The problem with any of the classics, not just Don Q, is that they are not in the DNA of a Balanchine-style company. Sure, Pennsylvania Ballet has performed the grand pas de deux at the occasional gala, but never the story itself. It is a story full of outrageous characters begging for over the top interpretation, again, something which is not in the DNA of the Balanchine style. Which is why there was a confounding upset to Corella's casting of the ballet. Principals danced soloist roles. Soloists and corps members, even a couple apprentice men, danced principal roles. Granted, some of this had to do with the fact that they needed five different principal casts to get through the two week run, but I saw a deeper purpose.
There are story ballets in the Balanchine repertoire, but as far as I'm concerned they were never his strong suit. Story ballets require acting and nuances of interpretation, things Balanchine never encouraged because he never wanted his dancers to stand out. The only star of his ballets was his choreography, and his choreography can only be performed if his Foundation repetiteurs judge it to be correctly executed. This is the sort of rigorous discipline the principal dancers, pre-Corella, would be used to and it's a hard thing to shake off. No matter how much you might want to, it just isn't going to happen overnight, and may not happen in the short amount of time in which a company has to change, or die.
By shaking up the pecking order in the casting, dancers from outside the strict company tradition helped bring the story to life, while the veterans brought the disciplined technique to the featured roles which required it. Also, by casting on both merit and potential rather than on rank and tenure, Corella put the company on notice - contracts for next season are in the works, and the AGMA grace period is over. Like a good slasher flick, the dancers need to consider very carefully if this is a good place for them to be, because now anyone can go at any time.
For his third season, Corella is adding two full length ballets in addition to the ubiquitous Nutcracker, his own staging of Le Corsair, and Ben Stevenson's Cinderella. These story ballets are selling out the houses, revenues are soaring, and new repertory works are being introduced so that Philadelphia will get to see some of the ninety-nine percent of ballet that isn't Balanchine.
I expect there will be more departures from the ranks as the deadline for turning in contracts for next season approaches. I expect there will be more wailing and gnashing of teeth as the new Pennsylvania Ballet rises upon the strong foundation laid down by its founders. I expect as the fresh works and new stagings of the classics are absorbed into the company DNA, the wailers will come around in spite of themselves and the rest of us will continue to sit back and enjoy the dance.