At 88, former PBT artistic director Patricia Wilde is still making history
August 14, 2016 12:00 AM
Gene Puskar/Courtesy of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Patricia Wilde in 1989. She served as Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's artistic director from 1982 to 1997.
Gene Puskar/Courtesy of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Patricia Wilde at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 1989. This weekend, she was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's hall of fame.
Susan Cook/Courtesy of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre
Patricia Wilde in class at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in 1994. Her career and life are the subject of the new book "Wilde Times: Patricia Wilde, George Balanchine and the Rise of New York City Ballet" by Joel Lobenthal.
From left, current Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Terrence Orr, principal dancer Amanda Cochrane, PBT founding artistic director Nicolas Petrov and Patricia Wilde, PBT artistic director from 1982-97, at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 45th anniversary gala at the Benedum Center in April 2015.
Patricia Wilde in George Balanchine's "Allegro Brillante" New York City Ballet circa 1960.
Patricia Wilde in "Allegro Brillante."
Patricia Wilde from "Concerto Barocco" choreographed by George Balanchine, for The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1945.
By Sara Bauknecht / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In the heyday of her dance career, Patricia Wilde was living history.
By her 20s, she was a veteran of Marquis de Cuevas Ballet International and the famed Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. In 1950, she joined New York City Ballet — just two years after its founding — and danced nearly every major role in its repertoire. Before taking the reins of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre as artistic director in 1982, she helped renowned choreographer George Balanchine set up the school for the Grand Theatre of Geneva, served as ballet mistress for American Ballet Theatre and was appointed director of ABT’s school. She retired from PBT in 1997.
Nowadays, at age 88, she’s still making history. On Saturday, she was inducted into the National Museum of Dance’s Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., during its annual gala. Photos and mementos from her more than 50-year career will go on display in the museum. Also this summer, a book was published about her life by Joel Lobenthal, associate editor for the quarterly Ballet Review. “Wilde Times: Patricia Wilde, George Balanchine and the Rise of New York City Ballet” is the first biography about her.
“It was quite a surprise,” she says about her hall of fame induction, which she attended with her children and grandchildren. Several of her former colleagues and friends from PBT made the trip, too.
“It’s a wonderful chance to have so many of my friends meeting my family.”
Ms. Wilde gave a speech about her love of dance. “That’s what got me going and kept me going. I’ve enjoyed my life because of dance. It’s made me a very happy person.”
As a professional dancer, she was revered for her speed and technical agility, signs of which are still evident in the way she walks and talks. During a visit earlier this month to PBT’s headquarters in the Strip District, she greeted familiar faces. As she spoke, her arms curved with the poise of a refined port de bras.
“I still feel the joy of movement. I do my yoga classes, and I do all kinds of other exercises,” she says. “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Candid accounts from her storied career fill Mr. Lobenthal’s book. After speaking with her at length for other articles, he wanted to learn more.
“She’s like a founding matriarch of American ballet,” he says. “She has a great deal to say. She’s sort of no-holds-barred at this stage. That’s a lot of fun and stimulating and refreshing.”
The biography covers her childhood in the outskirts of Ottawa, Canada, and her rise as a young star. It also explores the evolution of New York City Ballet during Mr. Balanchine’s tenure through Ms. Wilde’s insights from 15 years as a principal. She recalled lots of “long, long telephone interviews” for the book.
“He’d be like, ‘What was the program from Naples in 1953?’ Well, I know we did ‘Concerto Barocco’ because a cat came on stage. Those are the kinds of things you do remember.”
On occasion, there were friendly debates about details he uncovered in other publications. “I think sometimes newspapers get things wrong,” she says, referencing a review that she says names the wrong dancer with whom she was performing.
Near the end of the book, there’s a chapter about her path from New York City to Pittsburgh, a city she’d visited only a handful of times “at the period of time when it was filthy” while dancing with Ballet Russe. She never envisioned herself directing a dance company (or living in Pittsburgh, for that matter), but PBT’s board members “were very persuasive,” she says.
Under her leadership, the company grew its repertoire, sharpened its technique, especially in the Balanchine style, and expanded its studio footprint. She also was able to recruit some of the dancers she helped to train in New York.
Upon her retirement, she stayed in Pittsburgh and now lives in Verona. She has family that lives in the area, as well.
“There’s a lot going on now,” she says, mentioning that she frequents local lecture series and theater, opera and dance performances.
“You have to be a millionaire [to live] in New York, and that was the only other place I’d consider.”
Even after Terrence Orr succeeded her as artistic director (a move she facilitated), she regularly instructed classes and still consults with him when the company stages a Balanchine piece, such as last season’s “Western Symphony.”
“She’s a great teacher, a hard teacher,” he says.
She continues to attend company productions -— sometimes multiple performances to see the different casts -— and is proud of how far PBT has come since her earliest days here. She praised the caliber of the current dancers and the young choreographic talents Mr. Orr is helping to foster.
“I think it’s just beautiful,” she says.
Nevertheless, she keeps championing for changes she believes will further push PBT forward. Some of her hopes for the future include more performances of main stage productions, more touring opportunities and a live orchestra for more shows.
“I think I’ve talked to a few of the right people,” she says. “I keep trying.”
Sara Bauknecht: email@example.com or on Twitter and Instagram @SaraB_PG.
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