Barbara Weisberger, the founder of Pennsylvania Ballet and the first American student of internationally renowned choreographer George Balanchine, died at her home in Kingston, Pennsylvania, on Dec. 23. She was 94.
Weisberger founded Pennsylvania Ballet in 1963. Since then, the company has become a cultural institution, embedded in the artistic life of Philadelphia and nationally respected. With a Ford Foundation grant and a desire to transmit what she learned from Balanchine to American students, Weisberger led the organization until her resignation in 1982.
Following her time with the company, Weisberger spent decades nurturing dancers and choreographers, founding the Carlisle Project, a mentorship program for choreographers in Carlisle, and serving as an artistic advisor at Peabody Dance, the dance program of the celebrated Peabody Institute.
Weisberger was repeatedly honored by the commonwealth for her efforts, and received many honorary doctorates.
“Mrs. Weisberger was a true visionary, a natural leader and a perpetually creative artist,” read a statement from Pennsylvania Ballet, posted to its website. “A pioneer of every important movement in American ballet, Mrs. Weisberger was a remarkable force and we are forever grateful for the indelible impact she made on our art form.”
Weisberger was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Herman and Sally Linshes in 1926, and began her ballet training at 5. She was accepted into Balanchine’s program at the School of American Ballet, as his first American student, when she was 8. In 1940, the family moved to Wilmington, and Weisberger continued her studies, commuting to Philadelphia for training with the Littlefield sisters, giants of American ballet. With her early graduation from high school and the start of World War II, her career as a dancer was interrupted.
But with her marriage to Ernest Weisberger in 1949 and subsequent move to Wilkes-Barre, where the Wilkes-Barre Ballet Theatre was soon established, her life in dance was far from over.
She was “Miss Barbara” to her many ballet students in the ’50s and ’60s and, according to her daughter, Wendy Kranson, even until her death.
“She was never Mrs. Weisberger,” said her son, Steve Weisberger. “It was always ‘Miss Barbara’ to the ballet people, just like George Balanchine was Mr. B.”
Both Steven Weisberger and Kranson emphasized that their mother, for all of her successes and busy schedule, was a normal, loving mother at home, even if work frequently took her away. They kept kosher, and attended synagogue with some regularity; Weisberger was a New York Times crossword fiend, and skilled at Sudoku and poker.
In 1961, her path crossed with Balanchine again, as she was among a select group of ballet teachers invited to a ballet summit in New York. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Weisberger told Balanchine that Philadelphia was ripe for a serious company; Balanchine told her that she should be the one to bring it there. She’d spend the next 20-plus years commuting between Wilkes-Barre and Philadelphia, doing just that.
When Weisberger hired Roy Kaiser as a dancer in 1979, Kaiser wasn’t sure he had the skill to be what he was expected to be. But over the course of a long association with Pennsylvania Ballet, first as a dancer, and then as artistic director, Kaiser learned invaluable lessons from Weisberger.
“She really taught me the importance of, among many things, creating a company that really, truly had a spirit about it,” Kaiser said.
Martha Koenemen, hired by Weisberger to be a pianist for the company in 1973, saw early on that Weisberger was the model of a visionary, effective leader in the arts.
“We have practically a 60-year-old ballet company in a major city,” Koenemen said. “That’s quite an astounding accomplishment.”
Weisberger was predeceased by her husband, Ernest, and is survived by her children, Wendy and Steve, three grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.