Dance preview: 'Moulin' a challenge for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers


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Be whisked away to the city of romance, without leaving Pittsburgh.

This Valentine's Day weekend, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will present the local premiere of "Moulin Rouge -- The Ballet" at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

"It's a beautiful ballet, and it's of course set in turn-of-the [20th] century Paris, and it is the Moulin Rouge, the most famous cabaret," says artistic director Terrence S. Orr.

'Moulin Rouge -- The Ballet'

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.

Tickets: $25.75 to $95.75 at www.pbt.org or 412-456-6666.

Although the ballet is new to Pittsburgh, choreographer Jorden Morris is not. He choreographed PBT's 2011 production of "Peter Pan" and created "Moulin Rouge -- The Ballet" for Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet, which debuted it in 2009 with strong box office sales. The ballet also has enjoyed success on tour. PBT has seen such steady ticket demand that it added a Saturday matinee to the schedule.

"From pointe shoes to almost character dancing to the tango to very theatrical stuff, there's a lot of stuff for people to see and absorb," Mr. Morris says.

The ballet follows the roller coaster romance of struggling artist Matthew and launderette-turned-performer Nathalie. Passion, heartache and rivalry ensue, especially once Moulin Rouge proprietor Zidler grows increasingly infatuated with Nathalie.

"It's a spectrum of emotions," says soloist Luca Sbrizzi, who will perform as Matthew.

Others cast in the role are principal Christopher Budzynski and corps de ballet member Nicholas Coppula. Principals Christine Schwaner and Alexandra Kochis and corps dancer Caitlin Peabody will take turns as Nathalie.

The ballet is a pas de deux of historical fact and fiction, with some characters who are inspired by real people and others whom Mr. Morris made up.

"I worked in Paris a few times and went back and did some more in-depth study on the culture and what was happening in the arts community at that time," Mr. Morris says. "I spent a lot of time researching the actual Moulin Rouge itself."

He preserves the period by featuring music of the era, such as "Clair de Lune" and "La Vie en Rose." In total, the score spans 27 works from 14 composers. Mr. Morris also infuses traditional ballet steps with popular dance styles of the time, including the can-can and tango.

Visually, the production is a feast of vividly colored costumes, inspired by Parisian fashion and paintings of the Moulin Rouge by Toulouse-Latrec. Preparing for the performance has stirred in dancers an interest in the history of the Moulin Rouge. Many are reading books and watching films about the art mecca.

"I couldn't really tear myself away," Ms. Kochis says, after she first Googled the venue's background. "It was a heady mix of people and excitement, and reading about the Diamond Dogs of the Moulin Rouge, the very creme de le creme dancers that were there, ... it sounded like such an amazing time to be alive."

For dancers, bringing that atmosphere to the stage, coupled with the choreography's complexities, is one of the ballet's greatest challenges.

"To tell a story as complex as this ... and having the sensual side and the romantic side and the comical side, it's not just for little girls in tutus. It's a complex, robust art form," Ms. Kochis says.

So far, dancers have been up to the show's tough tasks. "There are some really special dancers here who are going to do some very magical things with the roles," Mr. Morris says.

PBT hopes audiences will agree.

"Every time I see it [elsewhere] there's been a standing ovation," Mr. Orr says. "It's a warm wonderful evening of feeling like you're in Paris."

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Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com or Twitter @SaraB_PG.


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