Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre knows how to push the boundaries of ballet.
In February 2009, it illuminated the delight and devastation of young love with a bold European retelling of "Romeo et Juliette." That fall, it commemorated the 71st anniversary of Kristallnacht with "Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project," a choreographic interpretation of a Holocaust survivor's journey from normalcy to genocide to redemption.
"I think that's what the arts are supposed to do -- help continue people's education and open up awareness," said artistic director Terrence S. Orr.
This weekend at the Benedum Center, Downtown, PBT will mount its latest drama-packed piece, "A Streetcar Named Desire." It is the first American company to perform Wisconsin-born choreographer John Neumeier's balletic adaptation of the 1947 Tennessee Williams Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
"It's an incredibly powerful and tremendous work," Mr. Orr said. "For us to be able to have the honor by John Neumeier is just huge for us, just like stepping up into that next plate of how good Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is and what kind of mark on the ballet world we can help make."
In 1983, Mr. Neumeier of Hamburg Ballet first staged for Stuttgart Ballet the tattered tale of fallen Southern belle Blanche DuBois as she struggles to come to terms with her post-bourgeois life with her sister Stella and brother-in-law Stanley in New Orleans.
But the ballet is not an authentic translation of the play or the Academy Award-winning 1951 film starring Vivien Leigh and Marlon Brando.
"The way John tells the story, it's much more from Blanche's point of view, and you understand her pain of losing her family and her estate and her husband and her complete decay of this high-society type of life that she had disappear," Mr. Orr said.
Audiences are thrust into the scenes, thanks in part to sets constructed to allow dancers to perform atop the orchestra pit.
"We've never used the stage to this degree," Mr. Orr said.
Sergei Prokofiev and Alfred Schnittke music and costumes inspired by sites and styles Mr. Neumeier observed in New Orleans help resurrect the urbane energy of the Big Easy's working class.
But dancers' technical and artistic execution of the steps are the driving forces behind the dramatics.
"It's a huge challenge, I think, for a company," said Tamas Detrich, associate artistic director for the Stuttgart Ballet, who has been helping PBT refine the choreography. "You reach very different emotional levels of a character, and you have to go deep down to get that out."
Prepping to portray these characters has involved reading the play and watching film adaptations of "Streetcar" and other movies from the period.
"This is very serious content, and I know that we're all very happy-go-lucky people, so it's posing a new challenge in a certain place and setting and setting a new standard for where our artistry stops and starts," said soloist Eva Trapp, who will play Blanche.
For others, getting into character means getting into shape.
"I am mentally preparing, but I have really been physically preparing," said soloist Robert Moore. His character Stanley is a boxer in Mr. Neumeier's version -- a reflection of his domineering and brutish personality -- and is shirtless a lot on stage. "I've been hitting the gym a little more."
Movements have been crafted to convey characters' personas.
"You do have a lot of acting, but the way it is choreographed [Mr. Neumeier] staged it so well the choreography does tell a lot about the characters."
As dancers learn the piece, repetiteurs suggest thoughts and emotions behind the combinations, and Mr. Neumeier has refreshed some choreography specifically for PBT. This means he's inspired by them, Mr. Detrich said.
"Streetcar" is an emotional journey not only for those who dance it but also for those who watch it.
"This is going to be a work in which people understand the power of ballet as an art form and that can tell a story without words," Mr. Orr said.
"I think when people leave, they will have a strong passionate feeling," Mr. Moore said. "Maybe they'll like it a lot, or maybe they won't like it a lot. But it will be an extreme feeling."
Sara Bauknecht: email@example.com . First Published March 8, 2012 5:00 AM