#PBTNutcracker: How 1 Ballerina Balances 14 Roles

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.

2017 Holiday Gift Guide

This holiday season, give less stuff and more experiences. With a calm click of your mouse, you can wrap up unforgettable gifts and skip the retail rush. Prepare to make memories!


Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre - Holiday Gift GuideThe Experience Gift

Give your loved one quality time on the town. Choose from iconic stories like The Nutcracker, Swan Lake and West Side Story Suite. Dress up, dine out and get lost in some of ballet’s most exciting choreography. You can purchase single tickets here or opt for a three-or-four-ballet subscriber series, which comes with VIP benefits. Or, purchase a gift certificate for your giftee to apply toward the tickets of their choice.


Pssst: Save $10 on tickets to select performances of The Nutcracker now through Dec. 14

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre - Holiday Gift GuideThe One-of-a-Kind Keepsake

Shop local for the dance — or Pittsburgh — lover in your life. Peruse the PBT Boutique online or at the Benedum Center (during any The Nutcracker show time) for a variety of Pittsburgh- and ballet-inspired gifts. Choose from PBT apparel, hand-crafted Pittsburgh decor and jewelry, collectible nutcrackers, vintage ballet posters and even autographed pointe shoes from PBT ballerinas!



Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre - Holiday Gift GuideThe Resolution Maker

Help the fitness lover in your life ditch the January gym crowds and mix up their workout routine. Adults and teens ages 14+ can work their muscles and refresh their minds with classes like barre fitness, ballet, dance cardio, Pilates and TRX training. Ballet classes feature live piano accompaniment, and all classes are held at PBT’s newly renovated PBT’s Strip District Studios, an American Institute of Architects Pittsburgh People’s Choice award winner. Pick a class package or purchase a gift certificate.


Pssst: You can wrap up a two-week class card for $25. View our class schedule here. Schedule a class to claim this offer at checkout. 

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre - Holiday Gift GuideThe “No More Toys Please” Present

Give the budding ballet dancers on your list the gift that just keeps giving. Ballet classes give kids a creative outlet and teach discipline, poise and confidence along with enviable dance skills. Plus, they’re FUN. And what kid doesn’t love dancing? Sponsor Children’s Division or Student Division classes at PBT School for the youngsters on your list. They’ll love seeing the professional dancers around the studios!


Pssst: For a limited time, save 25% on pro-rated Children’s Division tuition. Email PBT School to register. Offer ends 11/27/17 at 11:59 p.m.


Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre - Holiday Gift GuideThe Do-Gooder Gift

Shopping for someone who has it all and likes sharing it with others? Honor them with a philanthropic gift in their name. Instead of gathering dust, this gift goes right to work, providing ballet tickets for families who couldn’t otherwise afford it or need-based scholarships for aspiring young dancers. Plus, when you donate in a loved one’s name, they can experience behind-the-scenes benefits.


Alexandra Kochis: My 5 Favorite Things


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.

The Nutcracker - 5 Favorite Things

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:

Alexandra Kochis as Marie with former PBT dancer Stephen Hadala as Drosselmeyer

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.”

Alexandra Kochis, as Marie, dancing opposite her husband, former PBT principal dancer Christopher Budzynski, as the Nephew.

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.”

The Nutcracker - 5 Favorite Things

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.

Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr Reveals 17-18 Season Lineup

West Side Story Suite

West Side Story Suite
PBT’s 2017-2018 Season lineup features the return of “Swan Lake” and PBT’s debut in “West Side Story Suite”- presented by UPMC – just in time for the centennial celebrations of Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein, who would celebrate their 100th birthdays in 2018.

The five-ballet season runs October 2017 through May 2018 and features:  “Dracula;” “The Nutcracker;” “Swan Lake” with the PBT Orchestra; “PBT New Works,” a mixed repertory program at the August Wilson Center; and a season finale featuring Jerome Robbins’ “West Side Story Suite” and “In the Night,” also with the PBT Orchestra.

“This season is going to be a thrill and the timing, too, is great fun. We have ‘Dracula’ over Halloween weekend, ‘The Nutcracker’ to ring in the holidays and the great love story of ‘Swan Lake’ around Valentine’s Day,” said Terrence S. Orr, PBT artistic director. In March, we’ll give voice to emerging choreographers from our own company of dancers. And last but certainly not least is our tribute to the Robbins and Bernstein centennial celebrations with ‘West Side Story Suite’ – and ‘In the Night’ – a program that is going to show off the exceptional technique and acting of our dancers as well as some unexpected, and rarely heard, vocal talent.’”

Subscribe now for priority seating, exclusive benefits and savings over single ticket prices. Build your own three, four or five ballet package online here or by calling 412-454-9107.

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“Dracula” – Oct. 27-29, 2017 at the Benedum Center
Choreographer: Ben Stevenson | Music: Franz Liszt | Costumes: Judanna Lynn | Lighting: Timothy Hunter | Set Design: Thomas Boyd | World Premiere: Houston Ballet, March 13, 1997 (originally created as a co-production between Houston Ballet and PBT)

Over Halloween weekend, PBT brings back the deliciously spine-chilling “Dracula,” based on Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic novel – the grandfather of all vampire dramas. Dissatisfied with his bevy of undead brides, Count Dracula fixates on Svetlana, a young girl on the cusp of engagement, to satiate his thirst for fresh blood. A haunting score by Franz Liszt builds suspense while scenic designer Thomas Boyd’s fastidious studies of Balkan and Romanian architecture add authenticity to the 19th-century Transylvanian setting. The dancing also has teeth, with levitation, flying and pyrotechnics that make the choreography even more climactic. At the time of its premiere, the New York Times described it as a “spectacle of an order ballet audiences seldom see today.”

The Nutcracker – Dec. 1-27, 2017 at the Benedum Center
Choreography & Staging: Terrence S. Orr | Music: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky | Costumes & Scenic Design: Zack Brown | Lighting: Julie Duro | World Premiere: PBT, December 2002

“The Nutcracker” returns to the Benedum for 25 performances throughout December. Complete with flurrying snow, a colossal Christmas tree and magic tricks galore, this holiday spectacular features over 100 dancers, 210 costumes and Tchaikovsky’s exultant score. Since its 1892 premiere, this holiday tradition has grown into one of the best-known ballets of all time. PBT adds its own spin on the time and place with a turn-of-the-century setting incorporating Pittsburgh’s own landmarks, historical figures and personality. Each performance features a unique casting combination, giving regulars the chance to see a variety of dancers perform principal roles like Marie, the Nephew, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.

Swan Lake with the PBT Orchestra – Feb. 16-25, 2018 at the Benedum Center
Choreographer: Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov | Music: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky | Costumes: Peter Farmer | World Premiere: Imperial Ballet, St. Petersburg, January 27, 1895

An evil enchantment and a mysterious love story give wings to a ballet that has captured the public imagination since 1895. Together with the live PBT Orchestra, PBT returns to “Swan Lake” for two weekends around Valentine’s Day. “Swan Lake” exemplifies classical technique – from the ballet en blanc swan scenes to the Black Swan’s famous 32 fouettés. But it’s the undulating port de bras of the swans – a movement quality unique to “Swan Lake” – that lends its own mystique to the classical vocabulary. Set to the stirring themes of Tchaikovsky’s score, the split personalities of Odette and Odile mirror the age-old battle between good and evil.

“Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre: New Works” – March 16-25, 2018 at the August Wilson Center
Choreography: Mixed repertory program of world premiere works by PBT dancers

PBT has built its repertory around an eclectic mix of classics, modern masterworks and new commissions from both seasoned and emerging choreographers. In March at the August Wilson Center, Artistic Director Terrence S. Orr will hand over the program to five choreographic voices from PBT’s own company of dancers: Amanda Cochrane, Julia Erickson, Yoshiaki Nakano, William Moore and Cooper Verona. Each choreographer will create a signature work on his or her fellow artists, offering audience members a personal, insightful look at the way today’s dancers interpret their own medium.

“UPMC Presents ‘West Side Story Suite’ + ‘In the Night’” with the PBT Orchestra – May 4-6, 2018 at the Benedum Center

“West Side Story”:
Choreography by: Jerome Robbins
Music by: Leonard Bernstein (“Prologue,” “Something’s Coming,” “Dance at the Gym,” “Cool,” “America,” “Rumble,” and “Somewhere Ballet,” from West Side Story, 1957)
Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim | Scenic Design: Oliver Smith | Costume Design: Irene Sharaff | Lighting Design: Jennifer Tipton | Premiere: May 18, 1995: New York City Ballet

“In the Night”:
Choreography by: Jerome Robbins
Music: Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne Opus 27, No. 1 (1835); Nocturnes Opus 55, No. 1 and No. 2 (1843); Nocturne Opus 9, No. 2 (1830-1831) for solo piano | Premiere: January 29, 1970, New York City Ballet | Costumes by: Anthony Dowell | Lighting by: Jennifer Tipton

PBT’s season finale celebrates the 100th birthdays of Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein, whose game-changing Broadway collaboration remains as relevant today as it was in 1957. “West Side Story Suite” samples classic songs and dances from the full-length musical and film. In this work, the dancers not only dance – they’ll sing excerpts from the famous Bernstein music and Stephen Sondheim lyrics. Tapping into the raw emotions that drove the full-length story, the dancers will take on the personas of Tony, Maria and the rival Jets and Sharks through the emotionally charged choreography that earned Robbins a Tony Award.

“West Side Story Suite” will share the program with another Robbins masterwork: his intimate 1940 work, “In the Night,” set to four Chopin nocturnes. With pas de deux for three couples, “In the Night” lifts the curtain on three very different relationships, exposing shades of love from tender to tumultuous.


PBT Patron Shares Three Generations of Nutcracker Memories

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).”

Artist Spotlight: Q&A with PBT’s Gabrielle Thurlow

From the Sugarplum Fairy to the Snow Queen, PBT dancer Gabrielle Thurlow will perform as many as 10 different roles throughout the The Nutcracker‘s 20 performance run. Here, Gabrielle discusses what’s like to prepare for so many different characters.

For this year’s run of The Nutcracker, you could be responsible for preparing for as many as 10 roles. Do you have any strategies for focusing on each one individually and preparing fully for each part?

I try to focus on one role at a time.  For example, I spend one rehearsal hour working on one specific role.  I then switch gears, and target another role for the next hour.  I continue in this manner throughout the week until I have worked on each one separately.  I may spend more time on certain roles that are more challenging for me, but I make sure to get to them all.  When performances arrive, I focus on the roles that I am going to put on stage that day.


Which character do you have the most fun performing, and why? Which is the most rewarding?

The character that I have the most fun performing is Chinese because it’s so whimsical.  I can’t help but smile when jumping and turning around with the ribbons.  The character that I find most rewarding is Sugar plum fairy because it is so challenging.  It is technically and artistically difficult, and it is also quite a workout for my stamina.  I spend many hours working to make it the best I possibly can, and it feels good to finally get on stage and perform.


Over the course of 20 performances throughout December, do you find yourself refining or experimenting with your roles in any way?

Yes, once I get comfortable on stage, I feel like I can take certain risks within the choreography because I have several opportunities to perform the same role.  I especially like to experiment with party scene.  I like to create stories for the party guests that I portray, and each time I am on stage, their stories change.


Do you approach your rehearsals or studio time different during The Nutcracker season? Do you have any strategies to relax, keep your focus and clear your head as you juggle these roles?

I approach the Nutcracker season slightly different than I would during the rest of the season.  I emphasize a lot more on stretching my muscles, as they tend to get tighter and more fatigued with such a heavy load of dancing.  However, I still approach the actual rehearsals the same as I normally would throughout the season.  Also, I continue to rely on Pilates to help me stay strong and properly aligned.  Staying focused is not difficult for me because I know whatever I am working on is going to be put on stage, and I want to show my best possible work.  To relax, I enjoy spending time with my dog (Winston, a mini schnauzer).  He keeps things simple, and can always make me smile.


As someone with experience dancing multiple roles in The Nutcracker, how do you think this dynamic and unique casting benefits the overall production from the both the dancer and audience perspective?

I think the different casting helps keep the dancers inspired.  Personally, I enjoy the unique casting because it gives me opportunities that I might not normally get as a corps member.  I take this chance to grow as much as possible, both technically, as well as artistically.  I think the dynamic casting also benefits the audience because they get an opportunity to see different dancers doing all different kinds of roles.  It allows them to see the dancers’ versatility, while keeping the performances interesting.


Do you usually have any particular special guests or family members attend the performance? 

Yes, my parents always come to see multiple shows.  They are very supportive of my career, and I love knowing they are there for me out in the audience.


What are some of your favorite holiday traditions outside The Nutcracker?

I love going home (Buffalo, NY) and spending time with my family.  We always decorate our tree together, and make a big brunch on Christmas morning, complete with homemade cinnamon rolls.



Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Pilots Audio Description Program at Dec. 14, Performance of The Nutcracker

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.

For tickets or more information about The Nutcracker, click here.



Artist Spotlight: Q&A with PBT’s Stephen Hadala

Nutcracker 10 #4.jpg

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.”