"Romeo and Juliet" was the ballet that virtually started it all for Nicolas Petrov. It was the first professional production that he saw as a student in Yugoslavia. Later, as the founding artistic director of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, he created the first American production in 1971. Now he will come full circle as the full-length ballet is revived at Point Park University, marking his final bow in a 67-year dancing career.
"That's a lot of plies," he quips dryly in a thick Eastern European accent.
"Romeo and Juliet" runs Tuesday through Sunday at the Pittsburgh Playhouse.
Where: Rockwell Theatre, Pittsburgh Playhouse, Oakland.
When: 8 Tues.-Fri.; 2 and 8 p.m. Sat.; 2 and 7 p.m. Sun.
Tickets: $9; www.pittsburghplayhouse.com or 412-392-8000.
As a boy living in a small Yugoslavian town after World War II, Mr. Petrov had no clue that he would one day meet ballet greats in Paris and bring them to Pittsburgh to help give dance a foothold in the local arts scene. He didn't reveal what life was like under the postwar Communist regime as we sat in Point Park's airy lobby adjacent to the spacious dance studio complex. He just noted that the Soviet Union, finding itself with an abundance of dancers and few jobs, sent its artists out to satellite countries to establish ballet schools. They showed up at his public school to audition potential students.
"Ballet? What is ballet?" he thought.
Among the benefits for dancers was special "VIP" food and a two-week paid vacation. Still his father said, "What do you want to do in ballet? You want to be a clown?"
However, his mother thought it was better for him to be in the school than out breaking windows with the other boys. And so he set about studying the art of ballet at age 12 in Novi Sad.
The students got to be extras in various productions, at first with small "boring" parts but progressing into more difficult roles. There were other perks: The students were taken to Belgrade, where a young boy saw a Russian touring production of "Romeo and Juliet." It would have an enduring impact.
After graduation he gravitated back to join the ballet company at the National Theatre in Belgrade. There, French choreographer Janine Charrat saw him and invited him to Paris. He went for a visit and "forgot to return."
There were a lot of jobs in the City of Light. He brushed elbows with the balletically rich and famous, taking classes at Olga Preobajenska's famed studio, where he met Leonide Massine, choreographer for the classic film, "The Red Shoes," and met fellow Yugoslavian Frano Jelincic, among others.
With the National Theatre troupe and the Charrat Company, he toured Italy twice. He saw the balcony and tomb of Juliet and started a photo album that would become useful down the road. There was another tour to Japan, where he discovered a fear of flying. So he grounded himself and did "a zillion TV shows. I didn't see daylight for a month."
In the meantime, Mr. Jelincic had migrated to Pittsburgh to direct the Pittsburgh Playhouse. He called to offer Mr. Petrov a one-year contract. With few trained dancers, Mr. Jelincic was starting virtually "from scratch," just as the Soviets had done in his hometown.
That job ended, however, when the Playhouse closed due to financial difficulties. Mr. Petrov tried New York, but studio space was too expensive. Then he got a call from Mr. Jelincic to come back to Pittsburgh, this time at what was then Point Park College. Soon there were 160 students, with enough talent to start a company.
Although he had financial backing from PBT chairman Loti Falk, the budget was still tight. So he began to choreograph himself.
"I was there and I had to do it," he recalled.
His "Romeo and Juliet" was the first American production, an original full-length ballet culled from his own memories. He would go on to bring historic figures to fertilize his fledgling group, including teachers Edward Caton and Vitale Fokine, dancers Edward Villella, Violette Verdy and Frederic Franklin and mentor Leonide Massine before he left PBT and moved to Point Park full time to nurture the dance department there.
Eventually, Mr. Petrov would create 10 full-length ballets and more than 50 shorter works, some at Point Park, others in professional groups such as American Dance Ensemble and Ballet Petrov, that he formed in association with the college.
It made for a lot of memories ... and memorabilia. Right now, he's cleaning up his office. "It's a nightmare," he admits.
As for future plans, maybe he'll go to Hawaii and "do the hula." It's a far cry from that small Yugoslavian town, but he might enjoy the flight this time.
Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at email@example.com. She also blogs at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.