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March 1, 2024

Peabody ballet virtuoso upholds Balanchine legacy

By Patrice Hutton | March 30, 2006

"Girls! Point through your toes," yelled the woman.  Pacing around the studio, located in the basement of the Peabody Institute, she eyed a dozen girls wearing royal leotards and pink tights.  "Point your feet!  And for goodness sakes, turn out."

Barbara Weisberger, who celebrated her 80th birthday this month, serves as the artistic advisor to the dance department at the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.  But long before that, she became George Balanchine's first pupil. "Either by design or by happenstance my life skirted around Balanchine's and traced the whole growth of American classicism," she said.

Weisberger tells the story causally.  "I was five and a half years old, studying with a local teacher in New York," Weisberger recalls.  "When she read that the School of American Ballet was opening, she called and told them that she'd like to bring her student." Today the School of American Ballet (SAB) -- the school of New York City Ballet -- remains one of the world's most competitive ballet training programs.

Weisberger continued: "They told my teacher that they didn't have any children's classes yet, but she didn't take no for answer.  The director finally gave in.  It was 1934, and I was the only child at the time.  Balanchine was rehearsing Serenade for its debut."

As Weisberger grew older, she continued her ballet training at the Metropolitan Opera School.  But by the time Weisberger graduated high school in 1942 and war raged throughout Europe, chances of continuing her career in dance were slim.  Nowadays a ballet dancer in Weisberger's position would be able to audition for an array of companies throughout the United States and Europe.

Twenty years later -- after earning a degree from the University of Delaware and holding a teaching position in Wilksbury, Pa. -- Weisberger found herself at a cocktail party at the home of Lincoln Kirsten, Balanchine's co-founder of the of NYCB, discussing the very problem that had kept her from pursuing dance as a career. "Mr. Balanchine told us that it was very sad that we were turning out more and more trained and talented dancers than there was room for his company to absorb."

Balanchine pointed out that all of Russia's major cities had schools with corresponding companies. "I went up to him and said, `You know, Mr. Balanchine, if you're serious about all this, the place this has to start is Philadelphia," Weisberger said.  He said to me, "You must do it.'"

The Pennsylvania Ballet -- situated in Philadelphia -- held its first performance in spring 1964 under Weisberger's direction. After two years of performing with the Philadelphia Lyric Opera, the Pennsylvania Ballet held its first independent performance.  With the performance came the beginning of the ballet world's decentralization from the stages of New York City.

"The world as we know it with the proliferation of companies all over the world began with the Pennsylvania Ballet," Weisberger said. "We were in the vanguardof that movement.  It started the growth of indigenous or homegrown American ballet."

When Weisberger's work with Pennsylvania Ballet came to an end in 1982, she invested her time in building up the Carlisle Project.  The project offered budding choreographers the opportunity to work with new composers in Carlisle, home of the famed Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (CPYB). "When I started this project, I thought that's the place to be," Weisberger said.

When Weisberger came to Peabody in 2001, she set out to restructure its dance program.  Working with the program's director and modern dance teacher Carol Bartlett, Weisberger brought in Melissa Stafford, a CPYB trained teacher. She said that one of the biggest challenges that Peabody faces is training dancers in a city that lacks a professional company to aspire to.

"... In some ways a professional company becomes a beacon, and if that beacon isn't there, the city becomes a little lax," Weisberger said, "When I came to Baltimore, people told me it was not a dance city. I said, "Don't tell me that; cities are not dancers, people are.'"

In her advising role, Weisberger travels to Baltimore to teach and rehearse Peabody dancers a handful of times a year.

A whisper travel will travel around the classroom when students know that Weisberger will be watching a class or rehearsal.  Weisberger is known among students to halt class in order to help a student perfect a movement or to give a lesson in ballet history.

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