Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT) has received three Telly Awards for its Fireside Nutcracker, a virtual adaptation of Terrence S. Orr’s The Nutcracker made available to stream online during December, 2020. The company was awarded a Gold Telly for Branded Content General – Virtual Events & Experiences, and Silver Tellys for Branded Content General-Not-for-profit and Branded Content Craft – Editing.
“Fireside Nutcracker kept the holiday tradition of The Nutcracker alive during theater closures due to the pandemic,” PBT Artistic Director Susan Jaffe said. “We were excited to share the program – which reached nearly 50,000 viewers in over 30 countries – with our audience and we’re honored that it has been recognized by the Tellys.”
PBT began work on Fireside Nutcracker in the summer of 2020, anticipating that the company would not be able to return to the Benedum Center for its annual run of over 20 Nutcracker performances. Alongside a team of producers and videographers from LOOK Creative Guild, PBT artists, crew, staff and 25 PBT School students filmed Fireside Nutcracker at the award-winning Pittsburgh Playhouse at Point Park University and the historic Hartwood Acres Mansion.
To accommodate safety regulations while filming during the COVID pandemic, adjustments were made to choreography to ensure social distancing and masking. Lead couples, like Marie and the Nutcracker, were cast using pairs of cohabitating dancers, to limit close contact between dancers outside of a single household. Many of The Nutcracker’s most iconic scenes feature PBT’s corps de ballet in close formation. To adhere to social distancing protocols, these scenes were filmed with fewer dancers interacting at once and were seamlessly stitched together to recreate classic dances for the audience to experience from a new perspective.
“The reformatting of storytelling, choreography and filming of this ballet was complex, but a wonderful process for everyone,” Jaffe said, “and we all felt good about the work. But, the people who shined the most were our dancers and our children who took part in the filming.”
With 24 performances throughout December and unique casting combinations for each, the cast list for The Nutcracker is something of a Rubik’s Cube. How does one ballerina juggle 14 roles across 24 performances of The Nutcracker? Corps de ballet dancer Jessica McCann lets us in on her secrets to success.
First, name all 14 roles for us.
Arabian, Chinese, Columbina doll, Mrs. Kaufmann, Flowers, Aunt Gertrude, Grandmother, Marie, Snow Queen, Snow corps de ballet, Shepherdess, Spanish lead, Spanish side, Mrs. Stahlbaum.
What’s it like to learn and dance 14 roles? How do you keep it straight?!
“It’s kind of crazy isn’t it?! Each year, we slowly learn and perform more roles and are given more opportunities. So the number of roles just continues to increase as your years in the company progress. It’s exciting adding new roles and perfecting older ones. Before every show I really focus down on what I’m doing in this show and try not to worry about anything else. Getting into character really helps me with that because it’s the same music, but depending on your role that night…your timing is different or you’re in charge of something different. It’s always important to try things in a costume before your show, especially when we all do so many different roles. It’s a lot!”
Do you have a favorite role or even a top three? What makes each one special?
“I might have to say, Marie, Snow Queen, and Arabian…Aunties from the party scene come very close though! (They are so funny…If you ever seen me perform it, you’ll probably notice how much fun I’m having!) Marie is, of course, my top pick. I really enjoy playing a character that drives the story. She is so full of life and wonder; you get to play with a lot of different acting while being Marie, including young love. Snow Queen and Arabian are my second and third picks. Being queen of the land of snow is probably my inner child’s dream coming true! The music is powerful and exciting. She is powerful but kind and understanding, and her entrance is one of my favorite things. A huge book opens up and the Snow King and Queen emerge through it. Arabian is the newest role for me…It’s challenging and rewarding, and I love the mysterious quality to the movement.”
How do you keep your energy up throughout the run?
“The whole company is constantly picking each other up – helping and encouraging each other, watching each other in the wings, constantly joking around and reminding each other to just have fun! It’s a long month, but we get through together.
I take a lot of vitamins…amino acids and omega-3 & 6. Lots of water…protein….smoothies, antioxidants and eggs and homemade protein bars with lots of different nuts and seeds as well as yogurt and homemade granola. I also tend to try and lay down and shut my eyes in between performances if time allows. I need to rest my mind and prepare and recharge for the next show filled with different roles then the shows previous. How we treat our bodies and minds when we are so busy pretty much makes or breaks you. You need to stay strong and healthy to make it through! We always have a dinner waiting for us in the crockpot on those nights when we come home at 11 p.m. as well. No matter how tired you are you need a good dinner too.”
What’s your favorite costume of the 14 you wear?
“This is hard… last season I had my Snow Queen premiere and I might have to say that one is my favorite. The Snow Scene has been my favorite scene in The Nutcracker since I started dance at 4 years old. The tutu and tiara are just gorgeous and I feel like a true ballerina when I’m in it.”
Do you prep a different pair of pointe shoes for each role?
“Definitely yes! (Dancing in the) Snow Scene corps de ballet always gets my deadest of dead shoes. It’s a lot of jumping and running, so soft is okay. I wear a brand-new pair when I do Marie, and it’s perfect. You need them harder in the beginning and it’s nice as they soften during the show, because in Act 2 there is much more jumping. If those shoes are still good I might wear them later for a Chinese show or Spanish lead show. Chinese, Shepherdess and Snow Queen need really nice turning shoes so they can’t be too dead, but not brand new. Comfortable. I might even transition my Marie shoes to my Snow Queen shoes. It totally depends on the role, the choreography, and what each individual dancer likes. I’m definitely walking around with a ton of different pointe shoes though, always trying to find the perfect pair for the roles I’m doing that day.”
What does The Nutcracker season mean to you?
“It’s all about family and tradition isn’t it? It’s something that touches young kids and they never forget it. My mother never forgot when she first saw it, and I’ll never forget when I first saw it. It’s a famous story everyone knows one way or another, and it’s a beautiful tradition that families make. I love being a part of so many families’ traditions each year.”
See all of these characters come to life in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker, on stage through Dec. 27, at the Benedum Center. Get your seats here.
The Nutcracker is one of the grandest ballets in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s repertoire: Five lavish scene changes, 170 characters and costumes per performance, a total cast of 30 professional and nearly 150 student dancers. Falling snow, magic tricks, characters that come alive and dance after virtuoso dance. As she prepares for her 12th holiday season with PBT, principal dancer Alexandra Kochis crystallizes her five favorite moments from this supremely detailed production.
1. “The last few notes of the first act overture. It is a piece of music that perfectly captures the joy and the excitement and anticipation of Christmas Eve Day and the last few notes are both a perfectly satisfied ending as well as an open ended invitation to all the good things that are to come.”
>>> Listen to some of the Act I overture in this video:
2. “The lift Marie does with Drosselmeyer in the beginning of the battle scene. It is at a moment in the ballet when everything in Marie’s world is in flux – flying apart and growing out of proportion. She sees her Uncle Drosselmeyer and it is as if he is the one familiar rock to which she can cling. They rush together and he lifts her, spiraling, high above the chaos and the mayhem and the danger. It is a beautiful metaphor as well as a striking visual. Plus it’s tons of fun to do.”
3. “After the battle scene, the stage and the story begin their shift into the Snow Scene. This is my favorite music of the ballet. Tchaikovsky’s score is lush and romantic and soaring. Terry’s libretto here perfectly mirrors the wonder and the magic of the music. The Nutcracker is transformed back to his human form of the Nephew and he announces himself to Marie. I absolutely love this moment as Marie. He is kneeling before you and you gently touch his newly exposed, no longer disfigured face. I get to gaze into my partner’s eyes with this gorgeous music building all around us. It’s a magical moment that I get to relive over and over. So romantic!”
4. “Dancing the finale of the Waltz of the Flowers as Marie. You have a diagonal of soaring grand jetes that culminates with a reuniting with the Nephew and a final, joyous dance together. It is a celebration of happiness and movement and music and each time I do it, I am reminded why it is that I do what I do.”
5. “Seeing the little bees’ faces as they wait on the sides for their entrances during the second act. They are so tiny and so focused and so proud of the part they get to play amidst all these grownup, real-live ballerinas.”
Find your own favorite moments at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s The Nutcracker, onstage Dec. 1-27, at the Benedum Center. Tickets start at just $28. Find your seats here.
Every year, on the Sunday closest to Christmas, Dr. Myra Balok carries on a family tradition that now spans more than forty years and three generations.
It all started in 1970 when Dr. Balok first experienced the magic of The Nutcracker with her baby daughter Shelley at one of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s early performances at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Over the next 40 years, Dr. Balok went on to share that first Nutcracker experience with each of her eight children and 14 grandchildren.
From the Pittsburgh Playhouse, to Heinz Hall, and now the Benedum Center, Dr. Balok’s Nutcracker tradition runs nearly as long as Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has performed the production. For Dr. Balok, however, the magic of The Nutcracker only gets richer.
“Ballet like literature is interpreted. That’s been interesting over the years…how the dancers dance different pieces and how the director envisions different pieces,” said Dr. Balok, a professor of English and Literature at Slippery Rock University. “Every performance, no matter what, is different. I never tire; they are just so full of memories for me.”
From chaperoning a double date for her teenage children to introducing her three and four year old granddaughters to the family tradition, Balok has watched her family’s reactions and appreciation for the show evolve with time.
“I remember taking (my two granddaughters). They were so young, but it’s so visual and beautiful. I think they all know it’s special to me, so I think they’re all caught up in the whole specialness of it.”
This year, Dr. Balok will be attending the show with 12 of her granddaughters and daughters, including Shelley.
“It has become a tradition, and I believe in that. I think that families should have traditions, that there’s something that stays the same for every year…The Nutcracker is something really special. It’s time set aside that we’re together,” Dr. Balok said. “Maybe there will be four generations one day.”
Favorite Moment in the Ballet: As a child, Dr. Balok remembers dancing to the music of the Sugarplum Fairy, so it’s a highlight of the show for her. “Sometimes I watch the pieces, and I hold my breath, it’s so beautiful to me.” The snow scene is another favorite: “I love Pittsburgh, and the scene where it’s moonlit over the river, when I first saw that it was so wonderful… I can’t pick a favorite, I just love them all.”
A Detail You Look for in PBT’s The Nutcracker Each Year: “I love watching how they change the mice (in the battle scene). I always watch for that…” Dr. Balok also looks for the Arabian pas de deux, the partnering in the Sugarplum pas de deux and the Land of Enchantment Carousel.
The Best Part for Grandchildren: “I think they enjoy seeing the other children…that’s been wonderful to see the kids and my kids watching them. “They love the carousel, they talk about that afterwards…I think they like the magical parts…they love the variety.” As for the dancing, “They try to do it at home; they’re walking around on their toes. They’re impressed (with the ballerinas on pointe).”
Following the introduction of braille and large-print programs this season, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is piloting a new Audio Description Program at the 7 p.m. Dec. 14, performance of The Nutcracker to help patrons with vision impairments visualize the choreography, set design and costumes set to Tchaikovsky’s iconic score.
Beyond listening to live verbal descriptions during the production, patrons can get a full sensory experience by attending a pre-performance “Touch Tour” at 5:45 p.m. on Dec. 14, in the Benedum Center’s South Lounge. Assisted by a costumed dancer, attendees will have the opportunity to touch costume samples, such as the Sugarplum Fairy tutu’s stiff netting and intricate embellishment, a textured tactile map of the stage set layout and the poses of signature choreography, such as the carriage of the hands in the Snow Scene. Following the performance, PBT Education Director Alyssa Herzog Melby, who will audio describe the production, will host a feedback session with attendees to evaluate PBT’s first audio-described production.
“Although Pittsburgh already offers well-established audio description programs for opera and theatre, we believe this will be the first program in the Pittsburgh arts community that is specifically tailored to dance,” Melby said. “The thing about describing for dance which makes it so challenging–and rewarding–is that the describer can’t rely on dialogue or lyrics to help tell the story. The describer becomes a storyteller, painting a vivid mental picture for patrons of all the movement intricacies that are happening onstage.”
In preparation for the pilot program, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust co-hosted an Audio Description for Dance training workshop at the PBT Studios led by expert dance describer Ermyn King of the Washington, D.C. area.
The training – which included representatives from the Cultural Trust, Pittsburgh Opera and City Theatre — was designed for describers with previous audio description training and experience. Using live dance demonstrations, the course covered best practices and dance description fundamentals, including Laban Movement Analysis, which uses concepts such as body, energy, space and time to characterize choreography. Many of the describers in attendance volunteer for other Pittsburgh arts organizations and now have the skills necessary to describe for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre productions and other dance events in the city.
The audio description will stream live through the Benedum Center’s assistive listening devices, which ushers are trained to offer and explain to patrons. The headsets for the audio-described performance are available on a first-come, first-served basis at a kiosk in the Benedum Center lower lobby in the right hallway. Upon arrival, patrons should see an usher for more assistance. Patrons will be asked for an ID in order to borrow a headset.
Beyond dancing nearly every male role in The Nutcracker, PBT’s Stephen Hadala holds the distinction of being one of the only company members to have performed in all 11 years of Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr’s version of this timeless holiday classic. Here, he shares some of his favorite Nutcracker memories:
Stephen, you hold the distinction of being one of the only dancers to have performed in all 11 seasons of Terrence S. Orr’s The Nutcracker. What was it like to be part of the first cast to premiere the new production? What was the energy like at the studios and in the theatre?
“Excitement is the key word for this. Just whenever you create a ballet from the ground up there’s always a certain level of excitement. The way Terrence S. Orr approached it, he was really interested in input from the dancers…So it was really building all these characters. Of course opening night came along…it was such a sense of unity, everywhere from the dancers and Terry and the costumiers and the backstage crew, everyone just working together to put on this new production at the Benedum. It was exciting for the audience because it was something brand-new, created for them. (Terrence S. Orr) used the names of people at the party…the McTavish, the Heinz, the Kaufmans….all these names that everyone in Pittsburgh knows and can relate to. I think everyone had that feeling that it was something special for them, a new holiday tradition that they could welcome and be excited about every Christmas.”
What is your favorite part of PBT’s version of The Nutcracker?
“Hands down it’s Drosselmeyer. In other versions, Drosselmeyer kind of appears at the party and does a couple of tricks…In Terrence S. Orr’s The Nutcracker, he’s the storyteller, the thread that sews everything together and makes the story complete, which I like because you get to go with him on the journey from the beginning all the way to the end. There are so many facets to his character. It’s a challenging part, because you are telling the story and introducing the nephew to Marie and also entertaining at the party. It’s a complex character. I’ve been fortunate to do it every year, all 11 years. Every year this character gets deeper and deeper, it’s just a fun one to do.”
Have you developed any personal Nutcracker rituals or traditions to get yourself in the spirit of the show?
“I start with the different roles, more so the character roles…I always start to think about what I did last year and any ideas that I could introduce to the part to make it more interesting. But before the show, if I’m doing Drosselmeyer, I like to go and set up every prop, I lay them out the same way on the prop cart every time, check and double check the props several times. There’s a magic trick with a purple tablecloth that we use. The butler’s in charge of handling it but I like to personally fold it myself and make sure that it’s placed in the same way. Before every show and before every rehearsal I make sure I personally touch and put into place my props. Also, I guess it’s kind of a calming thing before the show starts.”
You’re known for your onstage personality and character roles with PBT. Which Nutcracker character do you have the most fun portraying?
“I think Drosselmeyer is my favorite, because it’s something that I get to do every year. I’m really interested in trying to add a lot of realism to the character…trying to become that person. That’s why Drosselmeyer’s my favorite, because I do get to every year kind of enhance him and add to him.I really enjoy the Arabian pas de deux and the lead Russian. The Russian music is so iconic. When you think of Christmas and Nutcracker, you tend to think about the Russian music. It’s a crowd pleaser.”
What is the most parts you’ve ever danced in one run of PBT’s The Nutcracker?
“I think in one run I’ve done Drosselmeyer, the general, grandfather, the pirate doll, Dr. Stahlbaum, Rat King, Snow King, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Arabian and Cavalier. I think over the 11 years I’ve performed every male spot except for Mr. McTavish and the Harlequin doll.”
Describe the technical challenge of preparing for so many diverse roles.
“I think it gets easier every year once you’ve done every role. It is a challenge. The hard part is looking at each role and kind of figuring out how you have to play it…I think that’s a lot with the character roles just figuring out how to do the part justice without overplaying it or underplaying it. Each divertissement in the second act has a character aspect to it, you know the Russian obviously has to have a lot of bravado and excitement…Chinese you’re dancing with two ribbons with a giant dragon behind you…That’s the hard part figuring out for each role how you’re going to play or dance it.”
When you’re not at the theatre, what other holiday traditions do you enjoy with your family?
“We usually start with Thanksgiving. Usually, my wife and I have thanksgiving dinner at home just the two of us here in Pittsburgh. Both of our families are in Michigan. We usually like to spend that long weekend together. Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, my wife and I love to cook, so we usually do a fondue on Christmas Eve and appetizers and dessert and then on Christmas Day make some sort of Christmas feast. As much as we love to cook, we also love to eat…(My wife) usually comes to The Nutcracker on opening night. I’ve been fortunate to do Drosselmeyer on opening night a lot. She really enjoys seeing me in that role, but she also enjoys the excitement of opening night and the whole experience of that first show. She usually likes to come again toward the end…because at the end it starts getting even more creative. It’s a different show every time. We’re going to try to bring (our 9-month-old son Ian) this year, at least to come back stage and see everything.”