Free to Dance

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Every morning of his work week, Alexander Peters leaves his home in Center City for a 20-minute walk to his job at the new Louise Reed Center for Dance a few blocks north of City Hall.
 
The 22-year-old performer uses the first few minutes of walking to clear his head and ready himself for a day of class and rehearsals, most recently for the company’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in which he danced two leading roles.
 
Days of strenuous physical and artistic labor have become easier since the company moved to its new headquarters after several years’ temporary residence in a studio complex in the distant northwest Philadelphia neighborhood of East Falls.
 
For Peters and his colleagues, the days of carpool distractions, waiting for buses or trains, long side journeys to the gym and fighting to stay awake on the way home are over.
 
The new building means professionals don’t have to share a bathroom with kids from the company school. Visiting choreographers get a small changing room with a locker instead of a closet packed with company videos, as in East Falls.
 
Most of all, the pressure of commuting is taken off dancers and staff, many of whom live in Center City and don’t drive or even own cars.
 
“The benefit of no longer having to rely on a carpool or a regional rail schedule gives you a kind of independence,” says Peters. “You can do what you want during the day now.”
 
The Louise Reed center, named for a donor and former board chairman, occupies a renovated garage at North Broad and Wood streets that once housed armored trucks.
 
The glass-fronted $17.5 million building is the first phase of a planned complex to include a studio the size of the stage at the Academy of Music, the ballet’s home theater, and a building to house the company’s administrative staff.
 
The project is part of an ambitious slate of goals the ballet lists on its website that includes adding works to the company repertoire, hiring seven more dancers, beefing up the string section of its orchestra and establishing a satellite school in the suburbs.
 
The new center has five studios versus two in East Falls, which frees up  management of space for the artistic staff, but, because the studios are smaller, also constrains performers.
 
Tamara Hadley, a top ballerina with the company from the 1970s through the 1990s and now ballet mistress, favorably compares her light and airy workspace with a dark, wood-paneled studio in East Falls nicknamed “the cave.”
 
When guest choreographers were in residence, Hadley offered them her usual space and “lived in the cave,” she recalls. “I’m not missing that.”
 
The company started working in the new center in January and is still getting to know its new digs.
 
“We all sort of still feel in a transitory state,” Hadley says. “It sure is a breath of fresh air to be in a place of our own that’s not being rented ... it’s so easy to have three or four rehearsals going at once, and it’s impossible to schedule when you only have the two rooms.”
 
On a recent weekday, Hadley worked with three pairs of dancers rehearsing the divertissement pas de deux from the second act of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
 
As the couples moved through the stately adagios of George Balanchine’s choreography in the main studio, a different pair rehearsed some wildly modern moves for “Shut Up & Dance,” a charity benefit, in a smaller room down a hall carpeted in serene gray.
 
While the new center favors diverse rehearsal opportunities, it’s snug at times for the 40-member company, according to Hadley, who with the rest of the troupe eagerly anticipates the planned stage-sized rehearsal space.
 
While they’re waiting — no timeline for the new studio has been announced — dancers feel the pinch.
 
“Even on small steps, I see the dancing is small,” Hadley says. “The boys aren’t able to fly to their capacity to make their jumps. It affects their style and their movement greatly. ... You really have to have space, to feel like you’re moving through air, vast movements, you’re not squished.”
 
The facility has improved life for the company in other ways. The floors, though still being broken in, are not the overly loose work surfaces that applied in East Falls.
 
There, the floors were “too bouncy,” says Hadley. “We had a lot of stress fractures happening. (The old floor) jumps back, and slaps your feet.”
 
The new headquarters offers more resources to prevent and deal with injuries by placing the staff physical therapist in a bigger room with space for more conditioning equipment. The gym at South Broad and Walnut streets where the dancers have company memberships is a 10-minute walk.
 
Centralizing the ballet’s location has paid off not only in time saved, but in the kind of psychological management required by anyone in a creative profession.
 
Peters says the end of carpooling also means the dancers are spending less time anguishing over each other’s experiences, injuries and moods, as frequently happened when they were jammed into cars for twice-daily 40-minute commutes.
 
Now, interactions are on a professional level and produce less anxiety, the performer says.
 
“It gives people more independence, it gives you a fresh perspective on what you’re going to go in and do every day,” he says. “Every person can go in and be fresh every day, instead of letting everything pile up.”
 
Recently at stake for the young artist was the chance to dance both the impish Puck and the stately Oberon in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” roles for which he was elevated from the corps de ballet.
 
Of six performers cast in the roles, he is the only one who danced both.
 
Shifting back and forth required more than usual concentration, as when he heard Puck’s music while waiting to enter as Oberon.
 
“ ‘Oh, wait, am I supposed to be onstage?’ ” he recalls thinking. “There was that weird multiple personality going on in my head.”
 
The company will perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” next year at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., which Peters says will allow the company a chance to “revisit” their work.
 
“The steps are already in your body, but you can go out and approach the whole thing differently,” he says.
 
The Pennsylvania Ballet season continues with “Carnival of the Animals” May 9 through 12 and “Forsythe & Kylián” June 13 through 16, both at the Academy of Music. More information: www.paballet.org.
Published by: Bucks County Courier Times, Sunday March 24, 2013Written by Gwen Shift
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