5 Things to Know About Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins - West Side Story Suite Pittsburgh

PBT’s May 4-6, production of UPMC Presents West Side Story Suite + In The Night + Fancy Free is part of a nationwide, year-long celebration of the 100th birthdays of choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein. They collaborated on several important works, including the ballet Fancy Free (the basis for the hit musical On the Town) and the Broadway and film sensation, West Side Story.

Jerome Robbins - West Side Story Suite PittsburghHere are five things you should know about Jerome Robbins, the dance icon behind PBT’s season finale production of UPMC Presents West Side Story Suite + In The Night + Fancy Free:

1. He started young. Jerome Robbins was just 24 years old when he began choreographing his first ballet and claim to fame, Fancy Free, which later inspired the Broadway hit On the Town. At the time, Robbins was still dancing as a founding company member of Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) and had to create the ballet on the fly – between stops, on the tour bus and in hotel lobbies. Fancy Free was an instant sensation, sparking 22 curtain calls at the time of its premiere. In the ballet Robbins and Bernstein (and designer Oliver Smith) capture a moment in wartime New York that they – and the original audience – were all living in. Smith’s spare and wistful set design and Bernstein’s jazzy score create an atmosphere that is – to this day – undeniably American. Robbins’ first try at professional choreography signaled his genius for natural, spontaneous movement that adeptly reveals character and relationships.

2. He was an iconic choreographer in ballet…Following his choreographic debut at American Ballet Theatre, Robbins joined New York City Ballet and quickly ascended to the post of associate artistic director, working alongside George Balanchine. With the exception of brief sabbaticals, Robbins worked with NYCB from 1949 until his death in 1998 and created many of his great works there. Among the more than 60 ballets he created during his career are Fancy Free, Afternoon of a Faun, The Concert, Dances At a Gathering, In the Night, In G Major, Other Dances, Glass Pieces and Ives, Songs, which are in the repertories of New York City Ballet and other major dance companies worldwide. His final ballets include A Suite of Dances created for Mikhail Baryshnikov (1994), 2 & 3 Part Inventions (1994), West Side Story Suite (1995) and Brandenburg (1996).

3. And on Broadway. In addition to his work in the ballet world, Robbins is world renowned for his work as a director and choreographer in theater, movies and television. His Broadway shows include On the Town, Billion Dollar Baby, High Button Shoes, West Side Story, The King and I, Gypsy, Peter Pan, Miss Liberty, Call Me Madam and Fiddler on the Roof. His last Broadway production, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (1989), won six Tony Awards including best musical and best director.

4. He is an icon in dance with the awards and accolades to back it up. In addition to two Academy Awards for the film West Side Story, Robbins has received five Tony Awards, including best choreography for West Side Story, five Donaldson Awards, an Emmy Award, the Screen Directors’ Guild Award and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Robbins was a 1981 Kennedy Center Honors Recipient and was awarded the French Chevalier dans l’Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur.

5. He worked with one of our own. PBT Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr remembers Jerome Robbins as exacting, intuitive and genuinely genius. Over his three decades with American Ballet Theatre, first as a principal dancer and then as the company’s ballet master, Orr worked repeatedly with Robbins – in the studio as a dancer and later as a repetiteur for his works. “I’ll never forget Jerry’s genius for the details that make a masterpiece,” Orr said. “Fancy Free, in particular, holds a special place in my heart. I had the privilege of learning one of the sailor parts from original cast member John Kriza and dancing the role for many years with ABT. We plan to do Jerry proud with this program.”

And to think: In the 1930s, Robbins intended to study either chemistry or journalism at New York University until the Depression depleted his family’s ability to support his education. It was then that Robbins returned to his early aptitude for music, dancing and theatrics. The rest is Broadway and ballet history.

Experience the PBT premieres of three Robbins masterworks in UPMC Presents West Side Story Suite + In The Night + Fancy Free on stage with the PBT Orchestra May 4-6, at the Benedum Center. Get your tickets here.

Behind the Scenes: Dancers Make Vocal Debuts in ‘West Side Story Suite’

In West Side Story Suite, PBT dancers won’t just be dancing…they’ll add singing to their repertoire too.

In honor of international centennial celebrations for choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein, PBT will be bringing ballet fans a triple threat of company premieres — and acting, singing and dancing performances — in UPMC Presents West Side Story Suite + In The Night + Fancy Free on stage May 4-6, at the Benedum Center.  

To prepare for their vocal debuts, the dancers have been working with Joan Barber, a vocal coach from the Jerome Robbins Foundation, who was the original Somewhere soloist for West Side Story Suite when it debuted with the New York City Ballet. As an actor and singer, Barber has performed on Broadway and sung on the original sound tracks of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and the King of Thieves, Pocahontas and others.

She’s also taught voice lessons for 30 years. And beginning this winter, Barber has worked extensively with PBT’s newly minted vocalists on their range and annunciation as well as the intention behind each lyric they sing.

“What does the song mean and who are you singing to?” Barber prompts. “They’ve all got their own individual interpretation of how to do the songs, and I encourage that…Bernstein’s music is so rich. Sondheim’s lyrics are so rich…every dot, every accent mark…everything means something in this music.” 

Here’s how 4 dancers summed up their vocal journeys:

Julia Erickson - Pittsburgh Ballet TheatreJulia Erickson

“I sing a fair amount but we’re talking along to songs I like in the shower/car/kitchen! It’s totally new. That being said I was in the school chorus in sixth grade. And I would say it feels totally natural. It is scary but they have been so supportive throughout the entire process. The singing is just another extension of the character — another means of expression. It’s a fantastic thing to get to explore…using my voice on stage for the first time at this late date in my PBT career! The more we learn about how to use the instrument, the more dynamic and complex we realize it is. And singing and dancing at the same time doesn’t just add one additional element; when you add in stage direction, projection, annunciation, style, breath and all the other things it’s quite a bit more to manage!”

Jessica McCann

“Singing and dancing is something I’ve never experienced at this magnitude. I’ve only taken one singing class in my life and I don’t have fond memories. The coaching I’ve received as Anita has been inspiring and empowering. I was told to stay in my head voice on the very high notes instead of switching to my soprano, which is what I was doing in the beginning, and I feel like I’ve grown more than I was expecting to! I have a new-found confidence in my singing, especially on those higher notes. Being coached to take hold of what I have and strengthen it has been incredible. (Barber) really pushed me and believed in me when I didn’t.”

Joseph Parr

“We had to sing in front of the entire company two years ago to audition for the lady who wound up being the vocal coach for West Side Story Suite.  That was a kind of nerve-wracking, but besides that day it’s been a great experience!  By the time the show comes I will have sung in front of the company enough times that a couple more hundred people won’t make me more or less nervous.  It’s harder to sing in front of people face to face with the lights on than in a packed house with the lights off.  I felt that way when I had to sing for A Streetcar Named Desire and this is way more fun to sing.”

Amanda Potts

“I would consider myself to be a quiet person and throwing myself into the role of Rosalia is the farthest outside my comfort zone I have ever pushed myself. I grew up singing in choirs, but being vulnerable enough to perform solo work isn’t something I ever pictured myself doing. And yet, the more we rehearse, the more I find myself really enjoying it.”

 

 

 

Experience the PBT premieres of UPMC Presents West Side Story Suite + In The Night + Fancy Free on stage with the PBT Orchestra May 4-6, at the Benedum Center. Get your tickets here.

Sneak Peek: West Side Story Suite

This spring, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre celebrates the 100th birthdays of iconic choreographer Jerome Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein with a triple bill of PBT premieres: UPMC Presents West Side Story Suite + In The Night + Fancy Free, on stage May 4-6, at the Benedum Center.

Jerome Robbins (1918-1998) is a cultural giant in both ballet and Broadway dance. His Broadway hits include On the TownBillion Dollar BabyHigh Button ShoesWest Side StoryThe King and IGypsyPeter PanMiss LibertyCall Me Madam, and Fiddler on the Roof. His last Broadway production, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway (1989), won six Tony Awards including best musical and best director.

Throughout his career, which included a long-term position as New York City Ballet’s associate artistic director, He choreographed more than 60 ballets, including Fancy Free and In The Night, which PBT also will perform in May.

“No choreographer has so epitomized the American scene, or been so prolific in his expenditure of his creative energy. He contributed a great body of superb work to our dance culture, represented all over the world, and in the continuous performances of musicals during the last 35 years.” New York City Ballet

Beginning in the late 1940s, Robbins teamed up with the brilliant composer Bernstein to create West Side Story, a modern take on Romeo and Juliet,  which sets the love story on the streets of 1950s New York in the crosshairs of two feuding gangs: The Jets and the Sharks.

Capturing the essence of the full-length musical, West Side Story Suite premiered in 1995 and samples iconic songs and Tony-winning choreography from the duo’s Broadway musical (1957) and Academy Award-winning film (1961) with choreography by Robbins, music by Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and scenery by Oliver Smith.

In the words of Principal dancer Julia Erickson, “West Side Story is such a crowd pleaser. It’s based off of Romeo and Juliet, so it’s a universally compelling story and I think that the suite picks out the greatest parts of it and puts it together in something that can be presented in an evening of ballet.”

Get a sneak peek:

The Story of Swan Lake

The Story of Swan Lake

Swan Lake is arguably the most famous ballet of all time. Have you heard of Swan Lake, but don’t know the story line? Here it is in a nutshell…

Prince Siegfried is celebrating his 21st birthday. His Queen Mother presents him with a new crossbow…and a wake up call. It’s nearly time to choose a bride from one of six eligible princesses. It seems like the perfect time to escape to a hunting party with his BFF, Benno, and the rest of his friends.
The Story of Swan Lake

Boy meets…swan. It’s after dark and, as Siegfried approaches a moonlit lake, he sights a majestic swan in flight. He takes aim…but the bird becomes a beautiful maiden, who implores him to lower his weapon. For Siegfried and Odette, it’s love at first sight. But this budding romance comes with some baggage.

The Story of Swan Lake

Cursed from the start.  Unfortunately, Odette has met an evil sorcerer first. The vindictive Von Rothbart has cursed Odette, trapping her in the body of a swan. Although she reassumes her human form by night, it will take a pledge of true love to break the spell once and for all.

The Story of Swan Lake
A wolf in sheep’s clothing. Siegfried has made up his mind to swear  his love for Odette, but he hasn’t envisioned the sabotage to come. Back home in the castle, guests — including the princesses — gather for his birthday ball. The Queen Mother pressures Siegfried to choose a bride, but he refuses. Who should waltz in but Von Rothbart and his daughter Odile (!), the spitting image of his beloved Odette…

The Story of Swan Lake
The Ultimate Deception.
Odile dazzles him with her vibrance (and her 32 fouettés) and deceives him into declaring his love to the wrong woman. As Prince Siegfried swears his fidelity, he sees a fleeting vision of Odette, realizing with horror that he’s mistaken his love for her evil twin.

The Story of Swan Lake
Will good or evil prevail?
No spoilers here. You’ll just have to see to find out.

 

Swan Lake with the PBT Orchestra runs Feb. 16-25, at the Benedum Center. Find your seats here.

 

4 Valentine’s Day Gift Ideas

Valentine’s Day Gift Guide

Valentine’s Day is just a few weeks away, Pittsburgh! Here are four ideas to help you plan the perfect Pittsburgh date night and the ultimate gift from the heart.  Give a gift that…

Valentine's Day PittsburghInspires

Plan the perfect date with tickets to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Feb. 16-25, production of Swan Lake, ballet’s greatest love story. Dress up, dine out and get lost in this classic story of good versus evil.

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Valentine's Day PittsburghKeeps Giving

Or, make that three dates to anticipate! Create a three-ballet package featuring Swan Lake, PBT: New Works and UPMC Presents West Side Story Suite + In the Night + Fancy Free for as little as $81. Plus, your love will eat up these VIP perks.

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Valentine's Day PittsburghMoves

Treat the dancer lover in your life to classes at PBT Studios! Sign them up for our Swan Lake workshop, where adult students will learn iconic choreography from the ballet. Or, consider a class pass for PBT Barre Fitness, Pilates and other Community Division dance fitness options.

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Valentine's Day PittsburghGives Back

If your special person loves doing good, consider making an honorary gift to Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre to support extraordinary art in our city. Plus, when you donate in a loved one’s name, they can experience behind-the-scenes benefits.

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6 Reasons Dracula Will Give You Goosebumps

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre - Dracula

Dracula kicks off Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s 2017-2018 Season with a dark, beautiful ballet perfect for Halloween weekend. Here are our top six reasons it will give you goosebumps.

Dracula - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

1. The ballet is inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic novel – the granddaddy of all vampire dramas.

The ballet tells a dark, yet juicy love story. Dissatisfied with his undead brides, Dracula fixates on Svetlana, a young woman who’s head over heels for a mortal man, to satiate his thirst for fresh blood. His obsession traps Svetlana and her new fiancé Frederick, in a dangerous love triangle.

Tales of vampire-like creatures date back to ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt, but today’s depiction emerged during the 1700s in Eastern Europe: evil spirits that lurked in graveyards, entering dead bodies and awakening them to an “undead” state. Along with attempts to explain the unexplainable, vampirism seems to find root in humans’ fear of dying and the desire to live forever. Although vampire lore has existed for centuries, the image Stoker created has become the standard in pop culture and artistic interpretations around the world.

Dracula - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

2. Like bats, these vampires fly through the night.

The choreography includes a spooky levitation scene for Svetlana and eerie flying sequences for Dracula and a few of his leading ladies. For the aerial scenes, choreographer Ben Stevenson recruited Foy Inventerprises (also know as Flying by Foy), the same experts who’ve given wings to film, Broadway and music stars, including Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.

Dracula - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

3. The New York Times says, “the sets, costumes and lighting are not just lavish but exquisitely beautiful and atmospheric.”

The ballet opens in the Count’s candlelit crypt, a “dark, nocturnal world in which vampires thrive,” explains set designer Thomas Boyd.

To depict 19th-century Transylvania (the central part of present-day Romania), both Boyd and costume designer Judanna Lynn studied the fictional world of Stoker’s novel and the traditional dress and architecture of the actual region. The ballet features three distinct scenes –  the crypt, the village and Dracula’s bedroom – and over 70 costumes. Most elaborate is the Count’s.

When Dracula fully unfurls his 30-pound cape, its bat-like edges reach an imposing wingspan of 23 feet. His brides wear tattered wedding gowns, streaked with the dirt of the grave and adorned according to the era they became vampires.

For the scenery, Boyd said, “The works of 19th century German painter Caspar David Friedrich are very evocative of the feeling and style that I was seeking. In his work, there is a sense of immortality, of timelessness, of an energy that transcends time.  And it is this feeling that I am seeking to evoke in setting the scene for the ballet.”

Dracula - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

4. The dancing has teeth (and so do the dancers).

Some say the ghostly corps de ballet scenes, with 18 swirling vampire brides, reminds them of a spin on Giselle’s veil-wearing Wilis, zombie-like maidens jilted before their wedding days. Although the choreography is worlds away, choreographer Ben Stevenson employs similar “ballet en blanc” conventions for the corps of vampire brides: all-white wardrobe and unified movements.

Meanwhile, in the village, normal life goes on, with bright folk dances and joyful variations for the newly engaged Svetlana and Franz…at least until Dracula crashes the party and abducts the belle of the ball. As Boyd puts it, “This is not your typical ‘happy peasants in the village scene.’ There’s a classic dichotomy here: These peasants live near Dracula’s castle, under the shadow of evil.”

5. Pyrotechnics raise the stakes.

Garlic, crosses, stakes – the villagers try it all in their quest to rescue Svetlana from the Count’s clutches.

But a vampire’s ultimate kryptonite is sun exposure, so PBT pulls out the pyrotechnics for the Count’s final blaze of glory and Svetlana’s only saving grace. Keep your eye on the chandelier.

 

 

Dracula - Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

6. Franz Liszt’s Dance of the Dead inspired Ben Stevenson to set the choreography to this composer.

Liszt took the melody for this music from a 13th-century Gregorian chant called the Dies Irae, a piece of music that has been adapted for many works, including film scores for The Shining and even The Lion King. Hear some of this theme in the Dracula trailer.  Another musical highlight is an Act I dance with two brides and Dracula to The Lugubrious Gondola (1882), an atonal work Liszt originally wrote for a funeral procession. Stevenson and John Lanchbery, the renowned music arranger and ballet conductor, chose the music of this famous 19th-century Hungarian composer and pianist, because they thought it was capable of creating the “atmosphere of terror” that descends on this 19th-century Hungarian village.

Experience all the chills for yourself! Dracula returns Oct. 27-29, at the Benedum Center with tickets starting at $28. Get yours now.

Source: Dracula Audience Production Guide

Top 10 Ballet Photos of 2016-2017

Top 10 ballet photos of 2016-2017

It wasn’t easy to whittle down material from nearly 50 performances to just top 10 ballet photos, but we were able to assemble a short list of shots that left a lasting imprint on our imaginations. Captured in the studio, on stage and behind the scenes, these images represent our favorite photographic memories of the 2016-2017 Season. Enjoy!

Top 10 ballet photos of 2016-2017
Artists: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Corps de Ballet dancers | Photo by: Kelly Perkovich

This was one of the first photos taken in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s brand-new Byham Center for a dance, a two-studio annex building at PBT Studios in the Strip District. Here, company members are settling into their bright new rehearsal studio.

Top 10 ballet photos of 2016-2017
Artists: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Principal Julia Erickson and the Corps de Ballet | Photo by: Rich Sofranko

We love this atmospheric shot from PBT’s redesigned Giselle, which opened the season in October. Here, the “Wilis” move in their signature arabesque formation, while their queen, Myrtha (danced by Julia Erickson), commands center stage. The thick forest and full moon of Peter Farmer’s new scenic designs add even more dimension.

Top 10 ballet photos of 2016-2017
Artist: Yoshiaki Nakano | Photo by: Rich Sofranko

As Yoshiaki Nakano sails over the flowers, he seems to symbolize the effervecense of PBT’s magical The Nutcracker, which celebrated its 15th anniversary this season.

Top 10 ballet photos of 2016-2017
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School students Grace Bond (left) and Eden Lewis (right) | Photo by: Kelly Perkovich

This top 10 ballet photo was captured right after the September ribbon cutting ceremony for the new Byham Center for Dance. As they watch PBT dancers rehearse in the new Ryan Studio, PBT School students Grace Bond and Eden Lewis illustrate the special connection between the company and school, where aspiring dancers see their role models at work every day.

Top 10 ballet photos of 2016-2017
Artist: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Principal Julia Erickson & the PBT Corps de Ballet | Photo by: Rich Sofranko

The Queen of Hearts, danced by Julia Erickson, is seeing red in this shot from PBT’s February production of Derek Deane’s Alice in Wonderland. This scene in particular, complete with playing-card tutus, leaps off the stage with its brilliant character acting and crisp Corps de Ballet dancing.

Top 10 ballet photos of 2016-2017
Artists: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Principal Alexandra Kochis & former Principal Christopher Budzynski | Photo by: Aimee DiAndrea

This shot made our top 10 ballet photos of 2016-2017 thanks to an intimate angle captured from the wings. Here, the ghostly Wilis of Giselle separate ill-fated lovers Giselle and Albrecht, danced by real-life husband and wife Alexandra Kochis and Christopher Budzynski. This production marked the final performance of Budzynski’s ballet career and the last time the husand-and-wife duo would share the stage.

Top 10 ballet photos of 2016-2017
Artist: Julia Erickson | Photo by: Aimee DiAndrea

We can’t get enough of our new studios, especially when Principal Julia Erickson is sailing through the air in this gorgeous emerald-green costume from George Balanchine’s iconic Jewels.

Top 10 ballet photos of 2016-2017
 Artists: Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers Diana Yohe & Corey Bourbonniere | Photo by: Rich Sofranko

The extension and intentsity of this photo from Dwight Rhoden’s Ave Maria, part of the March mixed repertory collaboration with Dance Theatre of Harlem, made it an instant pick for our top 10 ballet photos of 2016-2017. Plus, hats off to PBT dancer Diana Yohe, who received a promotion to soloist in recognition of her brilliant performances this season.

Top 10 ballet photos of 2016-2017
 Artists: Alexandra Kochis & Luca Sbrizzi | Photo by: Aimee DiAndrea

There’s nothing quite like sitting in on a working studio rehearsal. You can see every expression the dancers make,  hear each breath they draw and see the muscle behind the movement they make look so effortless. Here, Alexandra Kochis and Luca Sbrizzi  rehearse for the title roles of Romeo and Juliet, and made it difficult to leave the studio with dry eyes.

Top 10 ballet photos of 2016-2017
Artists: Amanda Cochrane & Yoshiako Nakano | Photo by: Rich Sofranko

Seen here onstage, Romeo and Juliet ended the 2016-2017 Season on an “emotional high.” The scenery was exquisite and the score is a masterpiece unto itself. But the dancing and acting, portrayed here by Yoshiaki Nakano and Amanda Cochrane, were enough to reduce us to tears.

Make more photographic memories next season! Don’t miss a banner season, featuring Dracula, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, PBT: New Works and UPMC Presents West Side Story Suite + In the Night! Learn more here.

5 Facts to Love About ‘Romeo and Juliet’

Romeo and Juliet Pittsburgh - Ballet Photo

We could count many ways we love Romeo and Juliet, but allow us to wax poetic about just five facts, which make it the perfect season finale. This production dials up the drama with a sweeping staging that is completely new to Pittsburgh, to the United States, and to North America! Together with the PBT Orchestra, we’ll debut Derek Deane’s epic staging of Shakespeare’s story of star-crossed lovers from April 21-23, at the Benedum Center. His reading reverberates with powerful acting and emotion, creating vivid poetry without speaking one word. Here are just 5 facts about Romeo and Juliet that make it love at first sight:

1.  It’s a feast for the eyes.

The curtain rises on a gorgeous scene straight out of Renaissance-era Italy. Derek Deane originally conceptualized this production for an in-the-round production at London’s cavernous Royal Albert Hall, so the scenery had to project. He says he was inspired by the “exquisite” setting of the 1968 Zeffirelli film to capture a cinematic quality in the ballet’s scenic designs. Scenic and costume designer, Roberta Guidi di Bagno, a native of Italy, brought his vision to life. Standout settings are the moonlit balcony scene and the eerie crypt with its somber procession of candle-bearing monks. Each performance features 63 characters, many of whom make multiple costume changes throughout the show.

2. Passions – and tensions – run high.  

This emotional roller coaster twists and turns from infatuation to fury and many fascinating shades in between. As they’re pushed to the brink of their emotions, protagonists reveal different sides of themselves, which creates unexpected and even startling moments between characters. The drama isn’t all in the sword-fighting scenes: Watch for evolving tensions among the members of the Capulet family, for example, and the character arcs that come along with it.

Romeo and Juliet Pittsburgh - Rehearsal photos
Dancers Amanda Cochrane and Yoshiaki Nakano rehearse Romeo and Juliet’s Balcony Scene. Photo by: Aimee DiAndrea.

3. But, the dancers keep it real.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet has earned its place on the pedestal of great literature, theater and film. But with its themes of forbidden love and societal stresses, the story has stood the test of time because it’s relatable to real people. For his adaptation, Deane returned to the original text to analyze the characters and what makes them tick. Among his favorite interpretations are Lady Capulet, Tybalt and Juliet. His Juliet is a strong woman who knows what she wants, someone who has “so many layers to her.” Deane describes Tybalt, the “King of Cats,” as “uncontrollable…always looking for trouble.” And with her overwrought reaction to her nephew, Tybalt’s, death, Lady Capulet claims one of the ballet’s reigning dramatic moments.  Unlike the fairy-tale themes of great 19th-century works like Swan Lake or La Sylphide, Romeo and Juliet is a 20th-century ballet with real-world themes. This sense of reality is paramount to Deane’s interpretation.

4. Prokofiev gives Tchaikovsky a run for his money. And the PBT Orchestra will be playing it live.

Many credit Prokofiev’s score for cementing Romeo and Juliet’s place among the major works in the ballet repertoire. The intense, richly varied music is particularly famous for its character portraits and an emotional range that contains notes of both tenderness and violence. Prokofiev composed the score in 1935, though it wasn’t performed as a ballet until 1938. Three suites and 10 piano pieces extracted from the score were the first to reach the public. Although it was intended for the Kirov ballet, “Romeo and Juliet” premiered instead in Brno, Czechoslovakia (now in the Czech Republic) in 1938. It didn’t debut in the Soviet Union until the Kirov staged it in 1940. NPR’s Ted Libbey, author of its “Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music,” says “Romeo and Juliet is one of the most beautiful scores of the 20th century, and certainly one of the greatest compositions for the ballet stage, on a par with the great Tchaikovsky ballets.”

Romeo and Juliet Pittsburgh - Rehearsal photos
Dancers Yoshiaki Nakano and Amanda Cochrane rehearsing for Romeo and Juliet. Photo by: Aimee DiAndrea.

5. Without using one word, the dancing speaks volumes.

When it came time to translate Shakespeare’s poetry to motion, Deane first channeled the emotions of each encounter. “I visualize how the person should feel,” he said. Each dance carries its own emotional tenor from the lifts and elation of the balcony scene to the heartrending final dance in the crypt. Another choreographic feat can be found in the frenzied sword-fighting scenes between the feuding families. Two of Deane’s favorite moments sum up the ballet’s emotional extremes. One is Lady Capulet’s visceral reaction to Tybalt’s death, which Deane likens to a “Maria Callas moment.” But on the other side of the spectrum, he says, “I love that moment in the balcony pas de deux where they both realize there’s no way back. It’s destiny.”

One Weekend Only: Romeo and Juliet takes the stage April 21-23, at the Benedum Center. Tickets start at just $28. Get your tickets here or call 412-456-6666. Groups of 8+ can save up to 50% by calling 412-454-9101 or emailing groupsales@pittsburghballet.org.

#FacesOfBalletPgh: Zion Jackson & Bria Goldsmith

Students at Hill Dance Academy Theatre; aspiring professional dancers

Zion & Bria of Hill Dance Academy Theatre
Bria (left) and Zion (right) in the studio at Hill Dance Academy Theatre

It’s a Tuesday night in March, and Zion Jackson, 13, and Bria Goldsmith, 17, have just finished master classes with Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers Lindsey Croop and Chyrstyn Fentroy. They’ll admit to a few pre-class jitters, but these two are no strangers to dance. Both are long-time students at Hill Dance Academy Theatre (HDAT), where they dance ballet, jazz, Horton, tap, African, modern and Afro-Caribbean and took tonight’s master classes. Their academy was founded by Ayisha Morgan-Lee, a professional dancer with a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts from Howard University and a Master’s in Arts Management from Carnegie Mellon University Heinz College’s School of Public Policy & Management. The organization’s teaching artists include professional dancers, scholars and alumni, and its philosophy focuses on the dancer’s mind, body and spirit in a well-rounded program that prepares students for careers and life. For Zion and Bria, this philosophy rings true. Dance is central to their lives now, and both intend to build their futures around it. But regardless of what their future careers hold, they know it’s already changed them for life. Here are their stories:

How and when did you get your start in dance? What drew you to it?

Zion: “My first time coming to HDAT, I was 8 and my cousin did it. We used to always put on performances in my living room and show my parents, and they signed me up for dance. I also tried karate, but I was too graceful for it. So I did dance…When I first saw Misty Copeland’s performance on TV, I thought, ‘Hey that looks cool, I want to try that.’ It was very graceful. Of course it looked easy at it first, but it’s not easy (laughs).”

Bria: “I actually started because I came to one of HDAT’s summer intensive performances…my cousin (was performing). I was nine at the time and I didn’t do any outside activities, so my mom was like, ‘Do you want to try it?’ So that’s how I started dancing. I was never really a performer, I was more on the shy side. So I was thinking, maybe it would allow me to open up more and not be so timid and to myself and conservative…Something about dance just kept bringing me back in. I just enjoy it.”

How do you feel when you’re dancing?

Zion: “When I first started dancing I liked to stay to myself, and if I did do stuff, I liked to be in the back. But then as I started dancing I wanted to go to the front. When I dance I feel like I can touch someone in the audience. I feel loved by everybody around me. I feel like you develop a community around yourself. You feel like some people actually want to see you and are paying just to see you, so it’s kind of like a comfort feeling.”

Bria: “When I dance, I just feel a different type of energy coming out of me. Some people that are watching are not fortunate enough to dance for whatever reason, and I just want to make sure that I use this gift to the best of my ability, because everyone does not have the opportunity to dance. When I dance I try to make sure that I’m telling a story and that I’m just not going through the movement, but adding a little personality into it.”

What is your advice for someone who is on the cusp of trying someone new or expressing themselves through something like dance?

Zion: “At first it’s not going to be easy, but don’t give up. Don’t just take a class and be like, ‘OK I like it or I don’t like it.’ Make sure you keep taking classes, because in different classes you learn different things and you develop different feelings about dance. A lot of people say dance is your passion, but as it develops over time you can find that passion in dance.”

Bria: “Dance is very demanding. It takes a lot of work. But if you’re really passionate about it then maybe the work won’t really get to your head, because it’s something that you love. Also you shouldn’t worry about well, ‘She’s more flexible than me or she has better turnout than me’ or whatever it may be. It’s just you getting yourself better each day. I would just say, go for it. It’s a challenge, but if you continue to do it and continue to train, then your results will show.”

As a dancer, what do you take away from your ballet training, specifically, to improve your broader technique?  

Zion: “Whether you like ballet or not, it’s the basis of every dance. Everything drives from ballet just like Latin helps every other language form. In Horton, you always have to go navel to spine; even though the arms may be different, your main body frame and structure stays the same. Or in tap, you always have to stay on your toes or on the balls of your feet, so your relevé in ballet helps to make sure your calves are strong enough to do the exercises needed in different dances…Dance requires a lot of discipline, and ballet especially… Like posture in ballet: Some people will ask me, ‘Why are you sitting like that?’ And I didn’t even notice. Or I’ll be sitting and already pointing my feet, and I won’t notice that either. I feel like that influence in ballet, you carry it on through life.”

Bria: “Ballet is the foundation of all genres. Whatever genre you’re taking, ballet is going to show up in some way, shape or form. In ballet, you have to really understand the anatomy of your body. If you’re in any other genre, ballet is just there. That’s why I try each day in ballet to really get that down, so I can take it with me wherever I go.”

What was it like to take class with Dance Theatre of Harlem dancers?

Zion: “At first it was very intimidating. I see (Lindsey Croop) walk in, and I’m like, ‘Wow, she’s really graceful, she looks like she’s a really good dancer.’ And of course she is. I expected her to be really tough and hard on us, but she was very graceful and funny. She would also be really informative and tell us why we’re doing something, and make sure we’re breathing and just make sure that we’re doing what we’re supposed to (through) a friendly banter. You can see her personality. And when she danced and showed examples, you could see how her personality would show, which was a good influence on us.”

Bria: “It was kind of scary, because pointe isn’t really my strength at all and it’s just something that I have to continue to work on. But it turns out that she wasn’t as strict as I was expecting. She just really wanted us to know the different placements of our body. She wants to make sure that we’re dancing instead of doing the basics and just going through the movement. It was a nice class. She taught us some of her repertory, and it was really nice.”

Do you have a dancer role model?

Zion: “I think it would be Katherine Dunham or Pearl Primus. We had a choreographer come in and set some choreography on us that was choreographed by Pearl Primus, and I looked up how she used to dance. She was a very powerful woman and she was a very powerful dancer. She started in track…in something almost totally different from dance, so she inspires me.”

Bria: “Ingrid Silva. She is a dancer at Dance Theatre of Harlem. I watched her documentary a few days ago, and it just showed that you can do whatever you want to in life, no matter the obstacle or circumstance. It just really pushes me to make sure that whatever dream I have, I continue to go for that and I succeed no matter how long it will take me.”

What was your biggest takeaway from today’s master class?

Zion: “Our teacher today helped us understand that there are breathing points in ballet, and ballet is basically all breathing in the movement. Not to just do the movement, but to live in the moment. So while you’re living in the moment, you’re telling a story, and when you tell a story you have to breathe. Ballet is living…you have to breathe.”

Bria: “I learned to be more loose instead of being timid. She also taught that while we’re doing a fun and funky dance, make sure that you still continue to do the technique… the ballet foundation. Also I learned, you are your biggest competitor. Even though she didn’t say that bluntly, that’s what I got from it. You can’t compare yourself to whatever someone else has, you just have to fight to make sure that you’re better than what you were yesterday. That’s just the motto that I’m trying to keep with me throughout my dance career and I hope that takes me far.”

What are your plans for the future and for your career?

Zion: “I personally want to dance with Philadanco, because I like their style and how it’s really fast movement. It’s to its full extent. They do Horton, and that’s my favorite style of dance. Horton, Graham, Dunham, I like those types of dance styles, and Philadanco does that and it’s really upbeat. Every piece has a story behind it, and it’s really fast and I like that. And then I want to open my own dance company like Miss Ayisha has.”

Bria: “I’m a rising senior, so in college I do plan on dancing, depending on whether it’s a major or minor. Then, after college, if dance sticks with me throughout the four years, the company I would like to join is Ronald K. Brown Evidence. I just feel like that’s the company that I can relate most to. I think it was two years ago, they came to Pittsburgh and did an open community audition to perform with their dancers and I was picked among three other dancers. Right then and there I knew that I could see myself in that company when I grew up. I’ve seen a lot of companies, so me saying that now…says a lot. Hopefully I keep that mentality throughout my college years.”

What has dance given you that you’ll always carry with you, both within and beyond the dance world?

Zion: “Discipline. In dance there’s a lot of discipline. You have to know when to ask questions, when not to ask questions. Your posture. How to greet and make connections with people. The dance world is so small that you have to make different connections with different people and that will go a long way. In the real world it’s kind of like that…making different connections can get you pretty far in the dance world or not.”

Bria: “You have to network and put yourself out there and not be afraid to connect with other people. You might meet up with them a year later and you might be looking for a job and they might be one of the people who interview you and they might remember you. Not to be afraid to take on any challenge that comes your way and to never throw away an opportunity, because you never know where that could take you.”

Performing. Is that a big part of the equation for you – the ability to share your gift with others?

Zion: “My first time performing with HDAT I was 8 or 9…and even though I was in the back I felt like the spotlight was on me. I liked that feeling of having people watching you and coming just to see you. I like the rush of performing. Even backstage, preparing to perform, you meet so many people and there’s so many memories. Not everything is going to be perfect. Things go fast, and you have to be able to react quickly to those things. I have a lot of memories to take back with me before, during and after the performance.”

Bria: “It just brings you a satisfaction to know that you touched someone out in the audience in some type of way. I feel like dancing is just a way of life. Even if you don’t pursue that for the rest of your years, I feel like there’s always going to be a part of you that will always have a connection to dance. That’s where I am right now. I’m just trying to enjoy my last year here. I’m also in the stage of trying to find myself and trying to see how I’m unique and stand out from the rest.”

Why is it important to take class with and be exposed to people with different professional backgrounds?

Zion: “It keeps letting you get inspired to do different things and it helps you touch on different genres of dance that maybe you weren’t thinking about doing in the future or you haven’t done. I know sometimes in dance it gets really hard and it’s gets hard for you to keep moving on and pushing forward. When you keep having master classes, it inspires you to keep going so you can see the excellence that you can become when you get older.”

Bria: “It’s good to take master classes, because you never want to stay stuck on one style of dance. You want to get all the opportunities that you can to try other things, because you never know, you may like it. Also, taking master classes with different people, you may see them again. They may remember you…You just never know what you can get out of a master class. I just feel like it’s great to take every opportunity that you get.”

Why do you think dance is universal?

Zion: “I think dance is universal because I feel like whatever you do there’s going to be something that you love encrypted into it. Some people use dance as a stress reliever, and some people might use art, like coloring, as a stress reliever, so I feel like we all have different hobbies and different things that we can share with each other. To me, wherever I go, especially in Pittsburgh if you go to one of the cultural events, dancing is always part of the show. Or, you’ll see someone just getting up and dancing to their favorite song, whether it’s nodding their head or actually dancing. So even if you’re not taking classes 24/7, I feel like you still have a part of dance and that rhythm in your body.”

Bria “Dance is just one big community. The dance world is known to be small. Whenever you go out to different functions that revolve around dance, you can meet up with someone that you may have been in a master class with a few months ago…you can just meet people from all over. Also, I just feel that dance is in every type of activity. I know some football players take ballet classes for their muscles…or track…or any other type of sport. I just feel like dance is in everything and there’s no escaping it.”

We’re celebrating diverse, inspiring dance stories all month long. Join the dialogue and follow the series at #FacesOfBalletPgh.

#FacesOfBalletPgh: Adon Quinerly

Adon-Quinerly performing in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School's Spring Performance at the Byham Theater.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School student dancer; recipient of PBT’s Community Youth Scholarship

Adon Quinerly, a scholarship student at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre SchoolAdon Quinerly was six years old when he auditioned for the inaugural class of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Community Youth Scholarship program. In his own words, “I thought it would be fun; I thought PBT would be a cool place to experience.” Now, at age 10, nearly four years into the training program, dance still makes Adon feel “happy.” He says his favorite part is “learning new dance moves” and picking up new choreography. Since joining PBT School’s Children’s Division, Adon has performed in the company’s main-stage production of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center in addition to PBT School spring performances at the Byham Theater. Here’s why Adon’s pursuit of dance makes his mom, Maximillion Elliott-Quinerly, happy too.

Why do you think ballet is a good opportunity for Adon? Why did you decide to help him pursue or discover it?

“Dance was such a large part of my life during my pregnancy with Adon and directly after. I took him with me wherever I’d dance. When he was a baby, at times I would wear him when I taught or during congregational dances. I would grab a piece of cloth and wrap it around him and wrap him onto me.  As Adon grew, I began to incorporate him into the choreography whenever I could. Dance was very natural for him, as it was for me. Unfortunately for me, as a young person I did not have an opportunity to receive technical training. When I heard about PBT’s scholarship program, I wasn’t sure that Adon would want to pursue ballet in the way that he does.  However, I knew I had to at least put him in a position to have that option.  I wanted Adon to be able to explore his full potential in dance and not be limited by a limited dance vocabulary.  When he was awarded a scholarship with PBT, we were both very excited.  

Ballet is a beautiful language of discipline and grace, a foundational language from which one can build a dance vocabulary. I believe technical training offers the natural dancer an opportunity to expand their abilities and perfect their natural gift. Adon is developing beautifully under the guidance of PBT, and I am looking forward to watching his continued growth as a dancer and as a man.”

Why do you think these classes are an important part of his weekly routine and his life?

“The weekly routine is helping Adon to learn time management and prioritization of tasks. The discipline he is learning in ballet is transferrable to other areas of his life.”

Adon-Quinerly-performing-in-Pittsburgh-Ballet-Theatre's-The-Nutcracker
Adon Quinerly performing in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker

What do you think ballet brings out in Adon?

“Confidence.  Ballet is building Adon’s confidence and self-esteem; this is translating ballet into every area of his life.  Additionally, when he is at PBT and/or participating in PBT activities and performances there is a sense of community. He is a part of something that he loves and a part of a group of people who he is developing long-term relationships with.”

Why do you believe dance in general, and ballet in particular, is universal?

“I’ve spent almost a decade using dance as a platform to communicate with and bring together multi-cultural, multi-generational people from extremely diverse backgrounds. The language of dance transcends geographical, socio-economic, political and other boundaries; it draws people together to create beauty in community. Ballet in particular is a technical language that appears consistent cross-culturally. The issue is the foundational language is not known to all. This language, ballet, should be as accessible as one’s first language. However, even in the absence of audible cues, there is a kinesthetic teaching that takes place in dance. This way of teaching is invaluable particularly when one travels to teach.”

We’re celebrating diverse, inspiring dance stories all month long. Join the dialogue and follow the series at #FacesOfBalletPgh.

#FacesOfBalletPgh: Aditi Kumar

Aditi Kumar with her father at a Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Adaptive Dance class.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Adaptive Dance student

On a Saturday afternoon in March, eight-year-old Aditi Kumar walks through the front doors of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Studios with a spring in her step.

“I can’t believe this is my last ballet class,” she says wistfully, smiling up at her father, Kumar Sankaranarayan.

Her father returns the smile, reminding her that it’s just the end of her second “dance season,” but not the last class she’ll take. Aditi is part of PBT’s Adaptive Dance classes, a specialized class series developed for students with special needs. The 10-week class meets weekly on Saturdays at PBT Studios, where they learn ballet basics and modified choreography from classic ballets like The Nutcracker.

Simply put, Aditi says that dancing makes her feel happy.

And her joy is apparent.

As soon as she sets foot in the studio she’s off – chasséing large circles around the studio, and counting off each movement as she goes. Before class has even started, she announces that she’s glided through more than 50. It’s a talent that earned her the rank of “Chassé Queen” in the class.

Aditi Kumar takes class at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre as part of the Adaptive Dance Program, a class series of students with special needs.
Aditi Kumar in the studio at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre before an Adaptive Dance class.

“I love dancing,” she said.

But at one time, her parents questioned whether she would ever walk. Aditi has been diagnosed with Right Hemiplegia, a type of Cerebral Palsy, which is a disorder of movement, muscle tone or posture that is caused by damage that occurs to the developing brain, most often before birth.

“She likes it, which is a great thing. She looks forward to coming here. I think she genuinely likes the music,” Sankaranarayan says.

First and foremost, Aditi’s parents say that dancing brings her joy. But they think it also serves as a form of physical therapy rolled in with the art form.

“It’s a great feeling. Especially with her condition, we were not even sure whether she would walk, so to see her do some of the intricate dance movements is very satisfying to say the least,” Sankaranarayan says. “For example, holding the barre and going onto her tippy toes, for her condition it’s a very difficult thing to do. That is something she learned here. She has made good progress.”

And that’s not all Aditi has learned.

She ticks off a list of her favorite movements: Plie, saute, chassé. The french terminology rolls off her tongue, and a smile lights up her face. Her biggest accomplishment? The grand battement. And tiptoeing and jumping along the dots never disappoints.

Aditi Kumar with her Adaptive Dance teachers, Jamie Murphy and Kaila Lewis of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Aditi Kumar with her Adaptive Dance teachers, Kaila Lewis (left) and Jamie Murphy (right), at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

“I love Miss Kaila and Miss Jamie,” she says.

Sankaranarayan says Aditi also loves being part of a group activity, making new friends and getting to know her instructors, Jamie Murphy and Kaila Lewis.

“It takes a lot of patience and passion on the part of the teachers. They’re awesome. You can see they’re doing it with passion,” Sankaranarayan says. “As a parent of a child with special needs, we really appreciate that Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is doing a program like this, which gives kids an opportunity to experience an art like this.”

We’re celebrating diverse, inspiring dance stories all month long. Join the dialogue and follow the series at #FacesOfBalletPgh.

#FacesOfBalletPgh: Chyrstyn Fentroy of Dance Theatre of Harlem

Chyrstyn-Fentroy & Francis Lawrence, Dance Theatre of Harlem
Chyrstyn Fentroy in "When Love"
Chyrstyn Fentroy in “When Love”

#FacesOfBalletPgh: Chyrstyn Fentroy
Dance Theatre of Harlem dancer

Dance Magazine has praised Chyrstyn Fentroy, of Dance Theatre of Harlem, for her “chameleon-like adaptability,” “technical prowess” and “charismatic stage presence.” Pittsburghers saw it all firsthand when she performed opposite DTH’s Jorge Andrés Villarini at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Pointe in Time: Gala Giselle in November. The Los Angeles native left guests enthralled with her evocative performance of Vessels, and she’s now dancing in several works on the PBT+DTH program in Pittsburgh. Fentroy trained with Ruth Fentroy and with Joffrey Ballet before joining Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she’s in her fifth year as a company member. Dance Magazine recognized her among its “25 Dancers to Watch” of 2015 and featured her as its cover artist for the month. She’s also a recipient of the 2016-2017 Princess Grace Honorarium, a prestigious honor for emerging talents in theater, dance and film. Here is what makes this talent tick:

Describe your first encounter with ballet. What hooked you?

“My mom was a professional ballet dancer, so I was introduced to the art form at a very young age. I remember growing up watching her perform from the wings. By the time I was 3 I had even learned the entire “Sugar Plum Fairy” just from watching her so often. I think growing up seeing her amazing musicality really gave me a deep appreciation not only for ballet but also for music. Often times I can hear a piece of music and I can almost feel the music inside of me and I have a lot of fun taking class and rehearsing solo works and trying to find all of the different ways I can play with the music. It really keeps me engaged and excited to come back for more.”

When was your ballet “epiphany” – the moment you knew you wanted to pursue this art form not only as a hobby but as a career?

“I knew this was something that I really loved and wanted to pursue as a career when I spent my first summer alone in New York City. Something about the idea of waking myself up in the busy city to head into the studio to work towards a new goal every day became sort of an addiction to me. I love learning something new about myself and the world around me every day, and ballet is a tool that really allows me to do that.”

Chyrstyn Fentroy and Francis Lawrence in "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux"Photo by: Renata Pavam
Chyrstyn Fentroy and Francis Lawrence in “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux”Photo by: Renata Pavam

What was one challenge that you had to overcome in order to make your dream a reality?

“When I began studying ballet full-time, I was your stereotypical “bun-head.” I was obsessed with perfection. I was obsessed to the point where I was inflicting damage on my mental and physical health. I would get incredibly angry at myself for anything that I considered the tiniest bit of failure unknowing that I was setting the bar impossibly high for myself, but fortunately I came across a teacher that gave me a serious reality check. Simply put – he told me that no director would ever want to hire an angry dancer. And as simple and obvious as that statement may seem, it really turned on a light in my mind and I began working on myself from the inside out and doing so, I fell in love with the freedom I found in loving myself and what I was given. No one is perfect and everyone has something to offer.”

What is it about ballet, and dance, that sustains your dream and rewards your hard work?

“Lately, I have been really intrigued by works that allow me to have a voice louder than my own. I know that I may not be able to make a difference in the world in one day, but the idea that I might be able to give power to someone who can is incredibly empowering. I want to continue to deliver the message of those today and those who came before me. I want to use my body to provoke thought and be heard.

Overall, in a world that is chaotic and often times dark, dancing reminds me that I am alive. That I am only human – but also that I am human! The possibilities that lie within our bodies and minds are endless!”

Chyrstyn Fentroy and Jorge Andrés Villarini in "When Love"
Chyrstyn Fentroy and Jorge Andrés Villarini in “When Love”

What excites you about ballet’s future and its possibilities?

“I think that the ever-changing world around us influences all forms of art and that alone excites me because it means that I will always learn and explore something new and that there will always be room for growth and new forms of inspiration that I may not have ever expected.”

When you dance, what do you hope to impart through your performances?

“Every time I step on the stage, it is my goal to make the audience feel something different than what they felt when they walked in the building. And that can be something different for every person, whether it be a reminder of the time they fell in love or what it feels to be angry. I want to be a relatable artist because when it comes down to it the thing that every person on this planet can relate to is being human. An audience member may not be able to understand a tendu or many pirouettes, but we all are human; we all feel.”

Why do you think ballet – a centuries-old art form – remains relevant to people today in 2017?

“As I mentioned before, ballet continues to evolve as the world does. New choreographers and innovators are born every day with a modern view on what dance should be in comparison to everything happening around us. I think it’s these new creations and the pairing of them with the restaging of classics that keeps ballet relevant – a reminder of what dance was created to be and a look into the future and its endless possibilities.”

What advice would you give a young dance student today (or yourself at a younger age)?

“I think that I would tell a younger me, or a young dance student today, to find the beauty in yourself as an individual. Comparing yourself to others does nothing to benefit you because you are not, and will never be anyone but you. Love yourself first, love your art, and then share that love with the world. Keep your ears open and let the music become your heart. Most of all find a way to feel free in your dancing, because it is your freedom in movement that will bring you nothing but pure joy, always.”

We’re celebrating diverse, inspiring dance stories all month long. Join the dialogue and follow the series at #FacesOfBalletPgh.

#FacesOfBalletPgh: Dr. Melonie Nance

Dr. Melonie Nance, co-chair of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre + Dance Theatre of Harlem commitee
Dr. Melonie Nance, co-chair of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre + Dance Theatre of Harlem commitee

#FacesOfBalletPgh: Dr. Melonie Nance
ENT otolaryngologist, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Trustee, PBT + Dance Theatre of Harlem committee co-chair

Dr. Melonie Nance is a surgeon, a wife and a mother. But for much of her life, she was a dancer. It shaped her identity then, and it remains part of it today.

Dr. Nance threw body and soul into ballet beginning at age 8. In high school she made the difficult decision to prioritize academics, and a future career in medicine, over a rigorous pre-professional training schedule. In college, she rekindled her passion for dancing and performing, but faced an inner conflict with the dance form she’d grown up loving.

Now, years later, her 3.5-year-old daughter, Lalitha, is the one dancing. And, as a member of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Board of Trustees and co-chair of the committee supporting PBT’s collaboration with Dance Theatre of Harlem, Dr. Nance is back to playing an integral role in the art form she’s loved for so long.

Here, she shares what drew her to ballet, what pushed her away, and ultimately what brought her back.

How did you first get into ballet?

“My mom took me to ballet when I was little. But she tells me that even when I was 3 years old I was the one that asked her if I could go to dance class. I took ballet when I was a little girl – ballet, tap and jazz – and then stopped when school got started and a I took piano and other things. When I was 8 years old I wanted to go back to ballet, and my mom wanted me to go to a place that was teaching serious ballet. She took me to the library before I started, and we checked out a book on the positions in ballet. We reviewed, and then she started me in classical ballet training at age 8.

I stopped in high school because it was getting to be the point where everybody was becoming pre-professional and you had to go five and six times a week and I had to stop and do my homework. It was a big decision. I sat down with my ballet teacher, Miss Ludmilla Dokodovsky, and we talked about it, and I told her that I wanted to go into medicine. When I went into college I started dancing again. I danced the entire time I was in college in almost every dance concert they had. It was a small school, and you didn’t have to be a dance major to be in every performance. It was modern dance and some ballet. A lot of students got to choreograph their own stuff, which was exciting. Three of my best friends in college were dance majors, so I was basically a dance major without the paperwork.”

What about ballet had you hooked?

“I love classical music. I think for me as a person, what I generally gravitate toward is something that is regimented and very difficult. I think that’s probably why I went into medicine too. I just liked the structure of it. I think it’s very analytical, the way you have to learn the combinations and stay on top of the music. I like the physicality of it. I love that it keeps you in shape. Even though you’re doing an art form it’s really totally physical training. Even now as I’ve tried to stay in shape and I go to the gym or yoga or pilates, it’s not the same.”

Dr. Melonie Nance as a middle school dancerHow do you feel ballet has shaped you as a person?

“For me, I’ve always been a person that can be really good at things without working too hard — but only certain things. So if something wasn’t easy for me, I would just do something else. But, ballet wasn’t easy for me at the beginning. My teacher, Miss Ludmilla, was just there, with me, on me, and she pushed me. Without that one-on-one interaction from her, I probably would have let it go earlier than I did. I remember specific days when she would come up to me in class and say, ‘Look at these muscles coming out. This is because you’re taking class so many times a week…’ or ‘Your body shape is good for doing really high jumps.’ She would do that with everyone. She would say, ‘you have the gift of having extension,’ or ‘look how you can turn.’ Everybody felt like they had these special gifts.”

Did you face any challenges in your pursuit of ballet?

“I don’t know if I felt actual racism in our dance school. There were a few other girls of color and boys of color in our dance company, and I felt that they got the roles that were commensurate with their level of talent. I didn’t feel that I couldn’t (achieve a role because of my color). I did know that I was one of the only ones, but that wasn’t really different from all of my other school activities.

But I have to talk about this other issue that I’ve had with ballet. When I was in college I came in as someone who had taken all of this classical ballet. Most of the classes were modern dance, so I had to kind of let that go, let it go out of my body. My best friend in college was a choreographer, and she was not a ballet dancer. She explained to me how ballet is Eurocentric, and that ballet pushed these European standards of beauty onto all dancers.These concepts expanded my mind, allowing me to see that there are so many types of dance besides ballet. During that time of my life, it was sort of uncool for me to love ballet because of the cultural references. It made me feel like I couldn’t love ballet as much because I was supposed to be searching for my own culture. I mean, I’m glad that it happened to me because it really opened my mind. You don’t have to have ballet training to be a good dancer, which I think is one of the main points she was trying to assert.

When I came to Pittsburgh and was in my residency, I took ballet for exercise, because I knew that was the best way for me to work out my body. It still is. Not until the last five years, when I started to really be involved in PBT and (a friend) got me back into ballet, did I realize that it’s OK for me to love ballet. And then with Misty (Copeland’s promotion to principal at American Ballet Theatre), it also helped me be like, ‘Hey I can love ballet and be a black woman.’ While in the past, I felt like I shouldn’t express my love for ballet because it was so European. But I don’t care anymore, I love ballet!

Now I think if we’re open to cultural diversity then…I think everyone can participate in it now and enjoy it in so many different ways. I’m glad that people are pushing to broaden and participate in their own way. I think the whole concept of Misty Copeland has allowed black girls, and women, to love ballet and proudly participate in it as a welcome part of the art form. There are so many different types of ballet choreographers now from all different cultures. I think we’re going to see a big widening and broadening of the field and what is ballet.”

Dr. Melonie Nance performing in college
Dr. Melonie Nance performing in college

Did it help you discover an inner joy or sense of expression?  

“Yeah, I think so. In high school you get to be involved in this whole other world. I played music, I played the flute and I was in band. I didn’t feel as much of an ability of self-expression as I do with dance and with ballet. Even after I stopped taking a lot of the high-intensity class schedules for ballet, I always was known as a dancer at school. I choreographed the school musical and other things. I felt like people knew me as a special talent. I won the talent show in sixth grade, so after that everyone knew that I was a ballet dancer.”

Dr. Melonie Nance's daughter, Lalitha, in her first ballet class at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Dr. Melonie Nance’s daughter, Lalitha, at age 1.5, in her first ballet class at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Now your daughter, Lalitha, is taking ballet classes. What do you see it bringing to your daughter’s life?

“I was so excited to take her (to her first Mommy and Me ballet class at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre). I was like, ‘OK, you gotta get this under control because this is not about you anymore…I don’t want to push this on you.’ But she really loved it. I should share part of something I wrote to her on that day…

Dear Daughter,

On your first dance class, I may have been overjoyed about the fact that this happened today. I am not going to push you. But I do feel a special fulfillment in sharing something I love so much with you… I hope someday that you love something as much as I have loved and still love to dance — ballet and many other forms. God help me to open doors to many opportunities for you to choose your passion — whatever they may turn out to be…

Right now both of my little girls love ballet, and they’re around it a lot because of my involvement. If they really want to do it they certainly can. What I’m excited about is that they see so many girls of color in their dance classes and onstage…Lalitha just thinks it’s a regular thing. If they want to, the door is so wide open, but I certainly don’t want to push them. Right now it’s just about exposure.”

 

Why is this collaboration important to you personally and why do you think it’s important for our community?

“I just think it’s a doorway to get a whole bunch of people connected…It allows people to fall in love with ballet who may have thought ballet isn’t for me or it’s not for us. If they’re excited about Dance Theatre of Harlem and they come and see, I think people will get excited for the kids who may have opportunities to do ballet in a way that maybe they didn’t feel was a door that was open to them. I just feel like most people in Pittsburgh, when you talk about Dance Theatre of Harlem, get really excited. They’re excited about the history of DTH and how hard they’ve had to work to be there. Some of that same history is at PBT too in a different way. I think that it’s a real stepping stone to really widen the audience and widen the opportunities for kids in Pittsburgh to come and take ballet. It’s not going to be everyone’s career, for sure, but it can be a really important part of your upbringing.”

One thing that’s kind of funny is that my husband has never seen my dance. All the people who know me now, they know me as doctor, as a physician, as a mom. People that knew me in college and in high school and younger, they knew me as a dancer. They can’t believe I’m a doctor now. It’s so funny, because it’s so much of my identity in the past.  I’m so glad now it’s becoming part of my identity in a new way.”

 

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre & Dance Theatre of Harlem: 2 Companies, 1 Stage, 25+ Exciting Events

From the music of Brahms, James Brown and Billy Strayhorn to the choreography of Glen Tetley, Dwight Rhoden and Robert Garland, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Dance Theatre of Harlem are joining forces to celebrate the diversity of dance talent and styles in American ballet. Tickets are going fast, but there are still tons of exciting ways to take part in this first-time collaboration:

Private Performance & Preview Party

6 p.m. Thursday, March 16, 2017 // August Wilson Center
Join us for pre-show festivities and a private performance, then eat, drink, and dance the night away with PBT and DTH artists. Best of all, your ticket supports PBT’s Community Youth Scholarship program, which provides need-based training scholarships to talented young dancers. Buy tickets here.

Save your Seat

Experience five works and two premier companies with one ticket! Seats are very limited; snag yours before it’s too late!

Friday, March, 17 – 8 p.m.
Saturday, March 18 – 8 p.m.
Sunday, March 19 – 2 p.m. 
Thursday, March 23 – 7 p.m.  BEST AVAILABILITY 
Friday, March 24 – 8 p.m.
Saturday, March 25 – 2 p.m. 
Saturday, March 25 – 8 p.m.
Sunday, March 26 – 2 p.m. 

Connect with the Artists

Screening of Black Ballerina
2 p.m. Saturday, March 11, 2017 // Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Alloy School
Experience the inspirational stories of several diverse dancers who confronted the barriers of racism, exclusion and unequal opportunity in the pursuit of their ballet careers.Free and open to the public. Register here.

Panel Discussion: Diversity in Ballet 
4:45 p.m. Sunday, March 19, 2017 // August Wilson Center
Join dancers and artistic directors for a thought-provoking discussion on the advancement of diversity and inclusion in the art of ballet. Free and open to the public. Register here.

Meet the Artists: The Story of Our Collaboration 
Try out simple ballet steps, meet ballet dancers from both companies and learn the story of this exciting cross-company collaboration. Perfect for kids and families. Free and open to the public.

Session I: 10:30-11:30 a.m. Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Homewood // Register here.

Session II: 6-7 p.m. Wednesday, March 22, 2017
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh – Allegheny // Register here.

Informance: Discussion & Demonstration 
Explore the training and technique of classical ballet through engaging commentary and dancing by DTH and PBT artists. The program includes repertory excerpts, an audience engagement activity and a Q&A session. Free and open to the public.

Session I: 4 p.m. Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Point Park University’s George Rowland White Performance Studio // Register here.

Session II: 4 p.m. Wednesday, March 22, 2017
University of Pittsburgh Alumni Hall // Register here.

PBT Connects @ the Theater
Join artistic directors Virginia Johnson (DTH) and Terrence S. Orr (PBT) for a series of pre-and post-performance discussions at the August Wilson Center. Free and open to performance patrons. Learn more here in the theater programs tab.

 

Support Studio Collaborations

Throughout the residency, PBT and DTH artists will connect with local students and dancers through a series of master classes and demos presented in partnership with the following organizations: Boys and Girls Club, CAPA, Hill Dance Academy, Hope Academy, Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Alloy School, Orange Arrow, PearlArts Studios, Point Park University and the University of Pittsburgh. Lend your support to these important educational opportunities here.

 

PRESENTED BY:

 

 

 

 

 

 

In collaboration with Pittsburgh Dance Council and Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Made possible with support from BNY Mellon; Richard King Mellon Foundation; Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust; The Benter Foundation; Richard E. Rauh; Point Park University; University of Pittsburgh; Mr. Edwin H. Beachler III; Mr. & Mrs. Tom Hotopp; Ms. Mary McKinney & Mr. Mark Flaherty; Mr. & Mrs. Chris Fleischner; Mr. & Mrs. Mark Popovich; Mr. & Mrs. Thomas Todd; Ms. Lois A. Wholey and Holliday Fenoglio Fowler, L.P.

Beat the Winter Blues: 5 Reasons People Are Going Mad for ‘Alice’

Alice in Wonderland: Corridor of Doors

Sick of short days, gray skies and cabin fever? Ditch reality, embrace the madness and find out why people are raving about their wild trip to PBT’s Alice in Wonderland. This imaginative production is onstage through Feb. 19, at the Benedum Center. Get your tickets before it’s too late!

Alice in Wonderland: Down the Rabbit Hole

1. The stagecraft is simply astonishing. Floating clocks, confusing corridors of doors, teapots that pour on command, Queens who appear out of thin air – we’re all mad here.

Alice in Wonderland: Mad Tea Party

2. Kids can’t get enough. From a dancing dormouse to mind-blowing magic tricks, there’s never a dull moment. According to one Tweeter, her six-year-old son was “ENTHRALLED.” Her advice? “Go now!”

Alice in Wonderland: Queen of Hearts
3. The Queen of Hearts’ performance is “DELICIOUSLY WICKED (Pittsburgh City Paper).” You’ll literally see red when the Queen loses her head over a game of croquet.

Alice in Wonderland: Playing Card Tutus 4. And, according to Facebook, everybody loves those tutus made of playing cards.

Alice in Wonderland: White Rabbit5. Really, it just “hit all the high points — from a surreal transition to Wonderland, replete with torso-less tutus and floating teapots, to the Rose Garden, dominated in no uncertain terms by a glamorous villainess, Queen of Hearts Julia Erickson (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).”

Getting curiouser and curiouser, but still need convinced? Find more interesting tidbits about the ballet here.