Pennsylvania Ballet prices rise and subscribers disappear

Ghosted by the Pennsylvania Ballet

I will never forget the excitement when my relationship with the Pennsylvania Ballet moved to the next level. I’ve been pretty serious about Ballet X since their first Philly Fringe performance, and the Limón Dance Company’s Moor’s Pavane at the Prince was arguably the highlight of the past season. But I’ve been an avid fan of the Pennsylvania Ballet since the 1970s (I am still waiting for them to revive the full ballet of Under the Sun.)

Angel Corella in American Ballet Theatre's Le Corsaire, 2009. (Photo by Kent G. Becker via Creative Commons/Flickr)

Hopelessly devoted

For years I had tickets in the Academy of Music’s Family Circle, not quite the nosebleed seats, but close. I’m not knocking distance relationships; ours was good. Sometimes you just want to get closer. So, when Carl called that year, I asked his advice. Carl called longtime subscribers to remind them to renew. He helped us move to the mezzanine, and we even threw in a contribution. Over time, Carl got us better seats in the same price range.

Then, the 2015-16 season came around and two things happened that shook our ballet world. First, the price went up. Not, we-can-afford it-if-we-cut-the-contribution up, but where-can-I-sell-this-kidney up. We figured Carl could fix it.

That’s when the second thing happened, or rather, didn’t happen: Carl never called. We knew about Angel Corella, the ballet's new artistic director. In retrospect, we should have realized he was the reason for our breakup, but we were still counting on Carl. 

When I didn’t hear from him, I called, and after a typical lover’s spat (we have been together so long, you are taking me for granted, you want somebody richer), some not-Carl rolled back the price as a favor, but said we shouldn’t expect lowered prices next year. There we were, in our same seats, closer to the same price, but looking at a different Pennsylvania Ballet.

We were starting to wonder if we were falling out of love.

Faux pas de deux

For example, the February program started with Nacho Duato’s Without Words. I will give them this: it looked difficult. But it was about as exciting as watching yoga. The movements were too static and the dancers seemed so intent on not doing themselves an injury they had no focus to spare for the audience.

I have never, in 40 years of ballet, seen anything quite that boring, but I had high hopes for Christopher Wheeldon’s For Four. I love Wheeldon’s choreography, and four guys onstage?  What could go wrong?

The steps were all there, and the leaping. But when you put dancers together on a stage, at some point you need “together” to happen. Each dancer seemed to dance in his own head, as if the other dancers and the audience weren’t there. We felt alienated from the performance.

The Jerome Robbins piece, Opus Jazz, brought the whole company out for a sock hop in an imaginary gym. They seemed to be having fun at last, and we breathed a sigh of relief.   

In March, 2016, Pennsylvania Ballet reached out with a conciliatory subscriber development call. Did we want to subscribe early?  We were glad to hear Pennsylvania Ballet still cared, and their next production, Don Quixote, was marvelous. It was profligately pleasing. If I were to quibble, the divertissements in the village scenes could have been shortened, but its dream sequence worked, tulle skirts and all. The big pas de deux at the end was fine, though not as sharply performed as the teaser they’d given us the year before.

The straw that nearly broke a dancer's back

And then we saw the June performances. Ballet is difficult and sometimes painful, but it has to look effortless to work, and you have to express the piece. That’s the magic Don Quixote had, but the June program, not so much.

Trish Brown’s O Złozony/O Composite had everything it needed to be awesome: interesting music, set, and choreography. It was my favorite piece of the night, though we couldn’t help feel that it would have worked better on Ballet X. It was like a foreign dance language for which they hadn’t gotten the accent down. 

By this time, we knew about the many dancers unceremoniously “retired” and young dancers moving up, which leads to another truth about ballet: When a company is changing dramatically, you need a lot of rehearsal. Clearly, they weren’t getting it. You could see dancers counting steps on the stage. 

During The Four Temperaments, one of the soloists fell flat on her face. I will not call out the dancer because it was clear all season that, with the exception of Don Quixote, the company was not only badly rehearsed, it had also lost much of the institutional memory that might otherwise have inoculated performances against disaster. I had sympathy pains for days.

Certainly, the Pennsylvania Ballet needs to keep up with the times, and the dance community has both a financial and a social investment in seeing Angel Corella succeed. But he was available because his company in Spain failed. Corella’s opening moves here were to ride roughshod over his dancers and the company’s history, which produced an uneven season at best. At some point, we may wonder whether Spain failed Corella, or Corella failed Spain.

When a follow-up call did not come (from Carl or anyone else), I accepted that we’d been ghosted for more financially attractive patrons. That's fine. Ballet X is still awesome, and the Martha Graham Dance Company is coming to NextMove at the Prince. I won't be sitting by the phone!

To read Merilyn Jackson's review of the Pennsylvania Ballet's Balanchine and Beyond program, which includes O Złozony/O Composite and The Four Temperaments, click here.

Our readers respond

Amy Smith

of South Philadelphia, PA on September 07, 2016

What a wasted opportunity when the Pennsylvania Ballet hired Angel Corella. They should have hired Matt Neenan or Meredith Rainey, who were both at PAB during what I would argue were the company's last glory days, and who are local and intimately connected to the company culture. Meredith (and likely Matt too) would also have brought some much-needed racial diversity to the company as well, by hiring non-white dancers. Meredith's post-PAB company, Carbon Dance Theater, was a beautiful group of dancers of color. Pennsylvania Ball;et's dancers should reflect our city's racial diversity.

The writer is co-director and founder of Headlong Dance Theater.

Jennifer Booker

of Philadelphia, PA on September 11, 2016

I've been a Pennsylvania Ballet subscriber and avid supporter for more years than I can recall, but this might be my last year too. For Angel to come in and cut out the heart of the company and act as though nothing is wrong just baffles me. I'm hoping the company shows signs of life again by the end of this season, but it's clearly on life support at this point.

Jake Allison

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on September 12, 2016

I'm assuming that the author is an avid Balanchine fan who has never been exposed to other wonderful contemporary choreographers because of Pennsylvania Ballet's previous Balanchine-saturated seasons. Get over it. Ballet is more than Balanchine.

Corella is going to bring new and different to Philadelphia. Transition is always hard, but it doesn't mean that the new dancers aren't of the same caliber as the old guard (they're actually much better-trained and more versatile).

I'm a little confused by the author's enjoyment of Don Q and her subseqent condemnation of Corella. The previous iteration of Pennsylvania Ballet (mostly School of American Ballet graduates) could not have pulled off a virtuoso ballet like Don Q, and the company would likely have had to pull in guest artists to perform Basilio and Kitri.

If you liked Don Q, then you should probably embrace what Corella is trying to bring the the company. Ballet X justly dominates the modern market of Philadelphia, and the author's recognition of this prevents me from dismissing her opinion in toto.

Michelene Murawski

of Philadelphia, PA on March 04, 2017

The above writer went on to attack Sara's sadness when terminated for her use of several extra inches of vertical space. There is only the beginning of my planned reply to Camille, the writer, taking into account the hypocrisy between how sad this writer, Camille, was in the above article and how disallowing she is of another human being, a dancer, an artist, to be sad like Camille herself was - over being jilted by the ticket salespeople. Camille is objecting to Sara voicing on her personal Facebook page NOT EVEN AN OPINION, but how she FELT after a complete surprise that ripped the foundation right out from under her. Sara posted an intentionally vague remark (without reference to the incident, which was deliberately left unsaid to protect the company who didn't protect her). She simply wrote on her own page: "I don't believe in life anymore.”

There is much irony — to be fair, perhaps inadvertent — in Camille fault-finding of Sara's simple utterance. Sara’s misstep, that is, of refraining from utter silence during shocking and excruciating heartbreak (for which she has now apologized profusely at length in his office while in tears to her director, whose response was to refuse Sara's begging for forgiveness, grow angry, and gloat while implying he has succeeded in ruining her, while also stating that everything is better than ever for him).

The irony has to do with Camille's prior article entitled “Ghosted by the Pennsylvania Ballet” and how Camille herself reacts to feeling rejected. Camille's prior article is about her own experience of being jilted by the same organization. A brief diversion: Camille was someone whose identity was not, one presumes, strongly associated with PA Ballet. Sara Michelle Murawski’s was. For Sara, it was happily the centerpiece of her life. One can easily see how much Sara cherished PA Ballet by taking a glance through her virtual reality posts for all of her time there. She certainly provided effusive positivity with countless direct references to the company for which she worked. Much good PR for them! The company that betrayed her on ambush before she was to perform her final Nutcracker. Is all that she did to boost the public reputation to be forgotten and dismissed because it made Pa Ballet uncomfortable for her to show any emotion when the meteor hit her life on December 30th? Never imagining the outrage storm that would follow, Sara ambiguously sought the only solace that came to mind, which was to let her virtual reality friends be aware that she was extremely crushed, given that what she wrote was exactly what she was feeling: a moment of questioning whether life is worth living.

Putting aside the unusualness of Sara's approach to life (in which she has more of a singular vision that most everyone, and it's centered on ballet), which makes what happened to her all the more disconcerting, the act of seeking a sign or a lifeline from others on social media is what young adults of her generation do. They turn to those who care, whomever will listen or relate. The fact that the public found out what it was that devastated Sara had everything to do with the what-it-was, which was handled recklessly on surprise. TO put the fault for that on the recipient of the recklessness is absolutely sickening and hideous at a whole new level. Sara was deliberately graceful enough to refrain from naming any person or organization when she expressed her loss of belief in life.

Sara did not will into being the catalyzing event, would not have wanted it to occur even in her darkest nightmares, and was in no way expecting or or had a sign that could have led her to foresee any hint of a possibility for it. She had been working a grueling set of Nutcracker shows for many weeks, just as described exactly one year to the day by PA ballet with the publicity stunt about Ballerinas Vs. Footballers in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, this surprise and hostile action against a dancer who did the three top female roles through the Nutcracker series entirely contradicted the spirit of that public post of one year prior, which went viral to the delight of PA Ballet's pr team, and which was intended to generate public respect for ballerinas. Sara's elegance exists in the way she took the stage after such a devastation.

Returning to the ensuing older educated woman on younger artist woman attack that followed in the Broad Street Review, by the writer named Camille: Camille, conversely, took to the writing an article against the same company when Camille was angry over being jilted by the seemingly sincere and friendly salesperson upon whom she relied for purchasing her season tickets. Yes, that is devastating. Truly life altering. Camille found fault in Sara's sense of devastation, or to be more precise, in any sliver of self expression by Sara, no matter how vague and necessary. Sara had not pointed a finger or shamed any other being or entity, as Camille, conversely, did in both "Ghosted by the Pennsylvania Ballet" and in "Size Matters" pieces of writing.

Editor's Response

Michelene Murawski is the mother of Sara Michelle Murawski, the dancer who was released in 2016 from her contract with the Pennsylvania Ballet. 

Anthony Masino

of Secane, PA on December 24, 2017

My wife and I were subscribers for well over ten years. We thought the Pennsylvania Ballet was among the best. Over the years, my wife followed the careers of the dancers, and enjoyed watching them grow. We ended our subscription three years ago, when Corella took over. We read about the purge, and my wife was quite upset to see her favorite dancers being "trashed."

After three years, we decided to see the changes and what, if any, improvements Corella brought to this troupe, that we thought was very good as is. We booked box seats for The Nutcracker, a ballet that we've attended four times in the past. We hoped that the new management and directors would, at the very least, keep it as professional as we were acciustomed to, but we had a very large letdown. The precision, the effortlessness, the graceful movement, and the vibrant energy that we hoped so much to see in the new dancers was gone. The dancers seemed to just about know their parts; they could not form straight precise lines; and the angels, who are supposed to glide as their dresses stayed unmoved, were only fair. The last blow, especially to my wife — she remembers more than I do — is the ending. The show seems to have ended without an ending. My wife said she remembers the ending four years ago, when the girl returns to her bed and awakens from her dream.

Very sadly, we will not be re-subscribing next season. After reading the history of Corella, it seems to me that he was not ready yet to take control of an already very good troupe. The coaches and trainers he brought in are not up to par, and seem not to demand first-class performance. It seems that the blame for slow ticket sales that the Ballet experienced a few years ago went to the performance directors while it should have gone to the publicity department, which didn't publicize the Ballet properly. Sorrowfully, and with no blame to the dancers, who seem to have the ability but not the guidance, to perform well, we give the new management a sad thumbs-down.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.