Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre History
1969: THE FOUNDING
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre was conceived by a charismatic Yugoslavian choreographer and a forward-thinking arts advocate. Founding Artistic Director Nicolas Petrov and Founding Board Chair Loti Falk believed that a world-class ballet company belonged in Pittsburgh. In the infancy of the city’s dance scene, the founders aligned their visions over an outdoor ballet performance featuring Petrov’s Pittsburgh Playhouse dancers. Despite ballet’s novelty in Pittsburgh, the movement resonated with onlookers. It also secured a pledge of support from Falk. According to Petrov, “the development of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre pivoted on that promise.” Together, they went on to found Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 1969 in affiliation with Point Park College, and supported by its innovative young president, Arthur Blum. As founding artistic director, Petrov brought artistic connections, a rich choreographic background and a corps of young talents from the dance programs he developed at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and Point Park College. As founding chair, benefactor and full-time volunteer, Falk gave wings to the company with the irrepressible energy and ambition that continue to define the PBT work ethic. The legacy was born.
In the 1970s, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre proved its staying power. Following its 1969 stage debut at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, PBT sold out its inaugural 1970-71 subscription season, featuring Petrov’s The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. In 1971 Loti and Leon Falk purchased PBT’s first studio space on the Boulevard of the Allies. In these formative years, the founders flexed their connections in the elite circles of American ballet to bring seminal performers of the era, including Natalia Makarova, Edward Villella and Violette Verdy, to guest star in PBT productions. Luminaries like Leonide Massine and Frederic Franklin came to Pittsburgh to stage ballets, instruct master classes and help shape the fledgling company. By the end of the decade, PBT had cleared fiscal hurdles, become independent of Point Park College and withstood an artistic transition. When Petrov stepped down to focus on the Point Park program, John Gilpin, of London’s Festival Ballet, briefly led the company until Patrick Franz, a former Paris Opera Ballet dancer, took the helm in 1978. The Company closed the decade with a symbol of the future: the establishment of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School in 1979.
Repertoire Highlights: Cinderella, Coppélia, Giselle, Petrov’s Steel Symphony, Frederic Franklin’s Les Sylphides, George Balanchine’s The Prodigal Son
- Defining Moments of the 70s
1970–71: PBT presents its first subscription season at the Syria Mosque.
- 1977: Nicolas Petrov steps down as artistic director. PBT becomes fully independent of Point Park College.
- 1978: Patrick Franz is named Artistic Director. Budget tops $1 million and subscriber base reaches 4,000.
- 1979: PBT School is established.
As it entered its second decade, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre cemented its place among the nation’s leading ballet companies. By the 1981-82 Season, PBT had made its New York City debut and toured to 28 states, Canada and the Virgin Islands. In 1982, PBT entered a new era with the appointment of Patricia Wilde as artistic director – a position she would hold for 15 years. The former New York City Ballet principal invigorated the dancers with her refined technique and the works of modern masters, including her mentor, George Balanchine. In addition to Balanchine masterworks, PBT took on full-length classics like Don Quixote and premiered the first ballet rendition of The Great Gatsby. With an eye toward the future, the Company launched PBT School’s first Intensive Summer Program and established the Schenley Program for high school students balancing academic and artistic studies. In 1983, Loti and Leon Falk purchased a warehouse in the Strip District and gifted it to PBT to refurbish into a new, more expansive home for both the Company and School.
Repertoire Highlights: Andre Prokovsky’s The Great Gatsby; George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, Western Symphony and The Four Temperaments; Paul Taylor’s Sunset; Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo R
Defining Moments of the 80s:
- 1980: PBT School launches the Intensive Summer Program. Subscriber base reaches 6,000.
- 1982: Loti Falk appointed executive director; Patricia Wilde becomes artistic director.
- 1984: PBT moves into its current Liberty Avenue studios in the Strip District.
- 1986: PBT School launches the Schenley Program for high school students.
- 1987: Loti Falk retires as executive director. PBT begins performing at the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts.
- 1989: PBT’s first arts education and engagement programs begin.
The Company’s repertoire continued to diversify in the 1990s as PBT explored new artistic ground. Throughout her tenure, Patricia Wilde cultivated emerging choreographers and commissioned a total of 32 works, including the world premiere of Ohad Naharin’s acclaimed Tabula Rasa, which has since entered the repertories of companies worldwide. The Company also premiered an original new story ballet, the baseball classic The Mighty Casey. As she marked 15 years of leadership, Wilde approached Terrence S. Orr, American Ballet Theatre ballet master, when she decided to retire. Orr had visited the Company in the 80s to set Rodeo and other works from the ABT repertory. In 1997, he returned to Pittsburgh as artistic director. A former ABT principal dancer, Orr brought a vision shaped by some of the nation’s leading ballet companies and a strong gift for storytelling. He continued building the repertoire with new full-length story ballets, original works and artistic collaborations, like the Indigo in Motion program, inspired by Pittsburgh’s rich jazz history and cultural roots.
Repertoire Highlights: Lisa de Ribere’s The Mighty Casey, George Balanchine’s Square Dance, Concerto Barrocco, Serenade, and Jewels; Indigo in Motion, Kent Stowell’s Carmina Burana
Defining Moments of the 90s:
- 1991: PBT completes $1.5 million stabilization campaign.
- 1993: PBT launches the $18 million Campaign for Permanence to expand endowment and improve facilities.
- 1997: Terrence S. Orr succeeds Patricia Wilde as artistic director.
As PBT moved into the millennium, the company continued to draw inspiration from its hometown while stretching the city’s conception of classical ballet. In 2002, Orr premiered his Pittsburgh-inspired production of The Nutcracker, engaging artists with a new creative endeavor and audiences with a production set in their city. In addition to modern masters like Twyla Tharp and Paul Taylor, the company commissioned works by rising choreographer Dwight Rhoden and ballets merging mainstream American music with classically based choreography. While PBT continued to celebrate legacy classics like Giselle, it also entered new dramatic territory with Jean-Christophe Maillot’s unconventional Roméo et Juliette and the evocative Light / The Holocaust and Humanity Project.
Orr would go on to commission 18 world premiere works for the Company. Meanwhile, a successful “Say it with Music Campaign” to restore the PBT Orchestra would jump-start a growing period of financial stability for continued artistic growth.
Repertoire Highlights: Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette, Stephen Mills’ Light / The Holocaust and Humanity Project, Paul Taylor’s Company B, Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, Known by Heart (Junk Duet) and Octet; Derek Deane’s Alice in Wonderland
Defining Moments of the 2000s
- 2002: PBT premieres Terrence S. Orr’s Pittsburgh-inspired The Nutcracker.
- 2004: Endowment tops $4 million.
- 2006: Harris N. Ferris is named executive director. PBT launches the Say it With Music campaign to restore the orchestra.
- 2007: PBT’s debt reduction program succeeds, and the company completes fiscal year with an operating surplus.
- 2008: PBT presents the North American premiere of Derek Deane’s Alice in Wonderland; company ends second consecutive fiscal year in the black.
Fifty-four years later, the founders’ legacy stands strong. PBT has evolved into a critically acclaimed company with international reach. Today, the company ranks among the largest performing arts organizations in Pittsburgh and is home to 31 full-time dancers, who come from 12 states and six countries to live and perform in Pittsburgh. Sharing the same studio space, PBT School cultivates the next generation of professional dancers, who come from around the country—and the world—to train with PBT. Together with the celebrated PBT Orchestra under Maestro Charles Barker, PBT encompasses a rich family of dancers and musicians. Through more than 50 performances each year at home and on tour, PBT stays true to the vision of its founders—to be Pittsburgh’s source and ambassador for extraordinary ballet experiences.
Repertoire Highlights: John Neumeier’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Mark Morris’ Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes, Maelstrom, and Sandpaper Ballet; Jiří Kylián’s Petite Mort and Sinfonietta; Jerome Robbins’ The Concert and West Side Story Suite; James Kudelka’s The Man in Black; Petipa’s La Bayadère; William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated; Derek Deane’s Romeo and Juliet (North American premiere); and Jorden Morris’ Peter Pan, Moulin Rouge®–The Ballet, and world-premiere production of The Great Gatsby.
- 2010: PBT School opens first student residency, Byham House, and installs sprung floors in all five studios.
- 2012: PBT performs in Israel’s 45th-annual Karmiel Dance Festival, the company’s first overseas tour in 20 years.
- 2013: PBT becomes first professional company in the U.S. to present a sensory-friendly version of The Nutcracker.
- 2014: PBT ends its eighth consecutive year in the black and marks 64 percent in its debt reduction program.
- 2016: The Byham Center for Dance, with state-of-the art studio and training space, opens on PBT”s campus.
- 2018: PBT completes a $21 million dollar capital campaign.
- 2019: PBT launches its 50th anniversary season and celebration.
- 2020: Susan Jaffe named artistic director
- 2023: Adam W. McKinney named artistic director