In a mid-sized company like Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, a corps de ballet member is usually a face in the crowd -- a villager, one in a group of friends, a supporting player. Once in a while, he or she will perform a solo role.
Still, it was a surprise to see Stephen Hadala take center stage at the Benedum Center in April, surrounded by the entire company, after his final PBT performance as the foppish nobleman Gamache in “Don Quixote.” In fact, it was the first time in more than 40 years that PBT had so honored a member of the corps de ballet.
Maybe that was because the 16-year veteran was in a class by himself, above the usual distinctions between principal dancer, soloist and corps. During his career, he never coveted a promotion. His steadiness, work ethic and sense of humor made him a “rock” of the company, his colleagues say, and his retirement was as significant as those of the four other dancers who departed this year.
Mr. Hadala was studying with Jordeen Ivanov, a former principal dancer with PBT, at Marygrove College in his native Detroit when the PBT toured there with its production of “Dracula.” Ms. Ivanov urged then-ballet master Roberto Munoz to take a look at the tall teenager. He was invited to take a company class in October 1997 and arrived at PBT’s graduate school in January 1998. By the end of March, he was offered a contract.
Robert Vickrey, assistant to the artistic director, recalls how the graduate student would attend a full day of rehearsals at the PBT studios in the Strip District and walk back and forth to a full-time job at a Rite Aid in Shadyside.
“It was his determination and perseverance,” Mr. Vickrey said. “He never slacked off. He kept his nose to the grindstone and was always in class. But there was no one in the world who was more fun than Stephen. You could say anything to him and he had an answer for it.”
Julia Erickson, now a PBT principal dancer, arrived a few years after him. She knew Mr. Hadala from previous visits to Pittsburgh to see friends and her future fiance, Aaron Ingley. As it turned out, she was paired with him in the season’s opening performance, a repeat of Dwight Rhoden’s “7th Heaven” outdoors at Hartwood Acres.
At first, the two young dancers assumed that they would understudy another couple because “7th Heaven” is an extraordinarily complex contemporary ballet. But artistic director Terrence Orr saw a connection and scheduled them to dance. While Ms. Erickson initially did “an internal freak out,” she and Mr. Hadala worked hard and performed well.
“Dancers sometimes take themselves too seriously,” she said. “Yes, Stephen was fun, supportive and caring, but he was nothing less than professional in rehearsal or on the stage.”
Ms. Erickson admitted she sometimes had to turn away on stage to avoid laughing when Mr. Hadala played roles like the scene-stealing grandfather in the party scene of “The Nutcracker.’”
Mr. Hadala quickly began to show a gift for such character roles, making his mark as Dracula, Mitch in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Dr. Coppelius in “Coppelia.”
“I never saw myself as Franz [the leading man]. I wanted to be Dr. Coppelius,” Mr. Hadala said. “And I didn’t want to do Frederic, but Dracula instead.”
He gradually developed into a secure partner, which all ballerinas crave, and debuted in parts by contemporary choreographers such as Mr. Rhoden and Kevin O’Day.
“Stephen personalized roles no matter how big or how small,” Ms. Erickson. “He made something out of everything.”
A turning point came when he met his future wife, Maghen, and made a transition to fatherhood. Their family now includes Ian, 2, and a pair of dogs -- Honey, a Cairn terrier, and Lola, a Yorkie/poodle mix.
Mr. Hadala was a union representative for 14 of his dancing years, negotiating four contracts, It’s something he said “every dancer should know. I also learned how to talk to management about problems.”
He won the respect of management and fellow dancers. More experienced dancers sometimes consulted him about partnering issues, and new dancers were sent to him right from the start.
“He was like a big brother to everyone and could give sound advice,” Ms. Erickson said.
But time was ticking. This season, PBT brought back Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room.” Mr. Hadala wasn’t sure that he would get to dance it again. But he earned a spot as one of the Stompers to begin the season on a high note. He never let up through that last performance in “Don Quixote,” obviously relishing each moment on stage.
Not too many dancers escape serious injury or have the maturity and discipline to last 16 years. In the middle of the 2013-14 season, Mr. Hadala made the choice to retire.
“I feel good. This was the right decision,” he said.
He returns to Detroit so he and his sister can take over the Allard Academy of Dance, the place where everything began. He will also teach classes at Marygrove College and finish his dual degrees in dance and business.
“He’s going to make a great teacher,” Mr. Vickrey said.
And much more than just a face in the crowd.
Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at email@example.com. She also blogs at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.