She was a ballet dancer, ballet master and visionary, the one George Balanchine chose to be founding artistic director of Pennsylvania Ballet. Equally legendary as a gifted teacher and over six decades a dance guru for generations of dancers ~ Barbara Weisberger was an indelible advocate and architect for contemporary ballet in Philadelphia and beyond.
Mrs. Weisberger died on December 23 at the age of 94, but her legacy lives on in the lives of danceartists and dancemakers.
Here are a few personal remembrances of her remarkable legacy and her radiant generosity she extended to everyone who was fortunate enough to know her.
The first time I met Mrs. Weisberger was at the company’s longtime studio home at the Rock School building on Broad & Washington. It was many years after Barbara had resigned as director and when I saw her coming out of the studio’s office and speaking to the receptionist, I introduced myself, telling her it was a thrill to meet her. She said something to the effect that she was laughed and said something about being surprised that “anybody remembers me.” Of course the exact opposite was true- who could forget her.
Barbara was not only chosen by George Balanchine to teach Balanchine’s post modern/neoclassicism for his School for American Ballet, when the Ford Foundation underwrote the funding for Balanchine to establish eight regional American companies, he wanted Barbara to establish the Pennsylvania Ballet, citing her not only as a gifted ballet instructor, but trusting her to set the highest artistic classical standard.
Throughout the 60s, Weisberger not only established the Balanchine syllabus, he also gave her license to stage his most popular, and defining ballets. Barbara’s artistic relationship with the legendary Balanchine started when she was 8, the youngest student in the 30s, when he first emigrated to the US and formed his first company, before establishing New York City Ballet. Weisberger established the training and Balanchine aesthetic, but also championed a new generation of choreographers during the 60s and 70s that was giving PABallet its own distinct artistic identity.
‘Flash forward to 2014, when Angel Corella, current director of PABallet re-established the PAB school, with director Arantxa Ochoa, they gave their first performance at the Annenberg Center. After the student showcase performance of the senior class performed Serenade , scored to Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece synphonic and Balanchine’s first ballet made in America. It was full circle moment for Barbara- In the 30s, as he was creating the ballet, Barbara was his youngest student, age 8, sitting under his grand piano watching him choreograph on the dancers and absorbed everything. After the performance Corella came into the audience to talk to Weisberger, later she mentioned to me how thrilled she was to see the school re-established, which was always part of her vision for the company.
~From her creative directorship starting in 1961, to her resignation from the Pennsylvania Ballet in 1982, Weisberger made PABallet one of the top ballet companies in the US, setting a high bar of technical artistry for a new generation of dancers. She was candid about the breakup in the New York Times, noting she was forced to resign when the board wanted to diminish her position as artistic director. She also pointed out that that she was running the company, which toured then, with a completely underfunded fiscal budget compared to other ballet companies.
She recalled those events with me in a phone conversation in 2010, without bitterness “When I left Pennsylvania Ballet he called me into his office. It was a terrible time for me and he took my hand and said “no…no…don’t cry. We will start all over again.”
And that she did, if equally meaningful ways as an educator and innovative standard bearer for ballet training locally and nationally. Among her many initiatives, Weisberger created the Carlisle Project for emerging ballet choreographers and was to become a legendary teacher at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet.
Mrs. Weisberger organized an outreach program as a hands-on artistic advisor, commuting back and forth from her home in Kingston, Pa. She developed the program with Carol Bartlett, dean of Peabody Dance at that time. Together they have assembled a network of ballet stars to work with the students.
In 2013 at Peabody Preparatory school in Baltimore, where Weisberger had organized auditions for black and brown youth. Seeing her in her 80s and moving around the students so nimbly, her style was encouraging and intimate, and you could feel the energy in the room as she worked with these the young men. Seeing her in action was always a distinct privilege and always instructive to dance writers lucky enough to see her in action. She reached out to me to report on this program and I was so honored. The scholarship program she guided had such an auspicious beginning, that it is receiving Diversity Recognition Award from John Hopkins.
The last time I saw Barbara was in the lobby of the Academy of Music in 2018, in for Corella’s revival of Balanchine’s Jewels trittico, she was with her daughter and as we greeted each other Barbara said with a huge smile “you know I’m 92 Lew.” and said I could call her anytime (she famously did not use the internet) I had tears in my eyes seeing her back in the Academy, where her company made ballet history for so many years.
I always recorded our conversations, because no matter how granular she was with vivid details of the people, places and events in her years in New York as a dancer, teacher, and in Philadelphia as the founder of Pennsylvania Ballet, she spoke of student dancers, and dance educators with the same passion and commitment to arts education.
Aside from Barbara Weisberger’s knowledge about dance technique, expression and foundational artistry, there was always something more she gave. A personal connection and philosophy that she taught by doing not telling.
Her influence was summed up this week by PABallet principal dancer Jermel Johnson sums it up best as he paid tribute to Barbara on social media this week and expressing what many dancers who has professional and personal relationships with her, in studios and on the dancestage where she nurtured-
“A bond few will understand and even fewer will be blessed enough to experience. This is a photo of the incredibly loving and inspiring Barbara Wiesberger and me having a conversation. A conversation without words but with love and the exchange of energy. I feel what she is saying with her heart. And for anyone who doesn’t understand, she is telling me to be strong. To love and respect all the way I was taught. To use that love and respect and joy and pain I feel and put it into my dancing.“