Entertainment » Culture

Pennsylvania Ballet Soloist James Ihde Hangs Up his Dancebelt

by Lewis Whittington
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday May 14, 2018

Pennsylvania Ballet soloist James Ihde is retiring after 25 years, a rare achievement in itself, but rarer still, the fact that he took his final bows in top form, having co-starred with PAB principal dancer Lillian Di Piazza in George Balanchine's "Jewels" at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia this past weekend.

Originally from Kent, Ohio, Ihde was a student at the company's school in the early 1990s, during a particularly rocky time for the financially strapped company. The artistic director Christopher D'Amboise was stepping down and Roy Kaiser, longtime principal with the company was named interim director; both men wanted Ihde in the company. Ihde became a corps de ballet member in 1993 and flourished during Kaiser's tenure, having been a soloist for 15 years.

Ihde has danced a wide variety of lead roles over the years is widely admired by colleagues and audiences for his artistry, warmth and down to earth personality. Earlier this week, not resting on any laurel, Ihde was in PAB studios, for his regular rigorous regimen of rehearsals and morning class and talked about his long tenure with the company.

He noted that he first thought about retiring five years ago, "I felt that something was happening then, that was telling me 'it' was shutting down," he explained "My back had been bothering me," he explained "and I thought maybe 'it' was shutting down." But Ihde worked through it, dancer warrior that he was used to being, "eventually I got my full mobility back," he recalled, "then I got a 3rd or 4th career wind and these amazing roles swung my way and I was dancing in some of my favorites."

Ihde adds, "I had the opportunity to do them better actually, than I would have in the past," he said. "I appreciated them more. When Roy Kaiser stepped down in 2014 and former American Ballet Theater star Angel Corella became artistic director, there was a large turnover of dancers and Ihde knew there was a possibility that his contract wouldn't be renewed. But the parts kept coming Ihde's way for what would be his final seasons, with Corella programming many of the most innovative and in-demand international choreographers. Through it all, Ihde's technique and artistic imprimatur was well suited to neoclassicism and contemporary ballet fusion.

Ihde has always been modest about his artistic skills. "I didn't have the goods to be a purely classical dancer, in the sense of getting those featured parts. I don't have a lot of bravura technique or tricks I could pull out. I was suited to have more opportunities in neo classical and contemporary dance, I felt I had a better niche."

A short list of Ihde's most notable roles over his long career include Lar Lubovitch's "Waiting for the Sunrise"; Balanchine's "Agon" and "The Four Temperaments"; Jerome Robbins' "In G Major"; William Forsythe's "Artifact Suite"; Jirí Kylián's "Forgotten Land"; Christopher Wheeldon's "Liturgy" and "After the Rain"; and title roles in Balanchine's "Apollo" and Ben Stevenson's "Dracula."

And now as a career finale, a part that, Ihde has always dreamed of. "I was envious over the years not having danced 'Diamonds' pas de deux. When Angel presented that, when we talked about this being my last year, I felt grateful. And I immediately thought it would be an amazing thing to get to retire with. I didn't go into it with any expectation. But I wanted it to be memorable."

The role is pristine Balanchine, requiring lyrical technique with the lead couple dancing throughout and capping it off with a central 10-minute pas de deux, which will highlight what so many PABallet fans will remember about Ihde, his dynamic partnering.

"It's a little more classical approach than most of Balanchine's ballets. And of course, it's so great dancing with Lillian Di Piazza." Ihde is known for his partnering strength and onstage chemistry with such luminous former and current prima ballerinas. Ihde remembered his first partnership on a regular basis was ballerina Meredith Reffner. "We always had a great time in rehearsals and on stage," he recalled. Ihde also remembered some challenging partnerships, but said that he always learned "the positive effect" because "you always had to figure out how to make it work."

Ihde is known for his strong partnering with such luminous PABallet principals as Gabriella Yudenich, he recalled, "Gabby always really went for it onstage and I loved that." And with Lauren Fadeley Veyette, dancing in "After the Rain" and "In G Major," and the Forsythe ballets with her. "She was so generous, always patient and the we always worked things out together."

They are some of Ihde's best memories as a dancer, but "I wasn't a natural at it," he admits, "quite the opposite. I was a disaster," he laughs. "But I had to learn partnering every step of the way. Even down to this performance. I do feel very confident in my partnering, but I'm still being coached, taught and shown things."

The soloist has been onstage a lot in his final season, including last month appearing for the 23rd time in the dancer's annual Shut Up & Dance concert benefit performance for MANNA (Metropolitan Area Neighborhood Nutrition Alliance) raising extra funds by letting an audience member rip his shirt off.

Ihde's short term plans are uncertain. He plans to teach and enjoy a break from the studio regimen for a while, but nothing is definite right now. For now, as he prepares for his final challenge, he can even look back with a measure of pride.

"Almost any dancer, if they have any self-awareness. see their limitations and what they didn't do in equal, if not greater amounts," he intimates. "But I have gotten a different perspective lately, that I've been here a long time and got to do so much, and feel I've made a contribution to the company," Ihde said.

Lewis Whittington writes about the performing arts and gay politics for several publications.


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