Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers in 'Nutcracker' play quick-change artists

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Whether it's your first or 101st time seeing "The Nutcracker," there's still something new to take away from the classic holiday ballet, says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Terrence S. Orr.

"They see a story filled with magic because I have all kinds of magic that happens through it, like a magician," he says. "The kids and the adults are amazed by some of them. They still can't figure out how the magic happens."

Mr. Orr's adaptation of the E.T.A. Hoffmann tale set to a Tchaikovsky score invites audiences on a scavenger hunt of Pittsburgh references peppered throughout the performance, including the Kaufmann's (now Macy's) clock, the F.W. McKee residence in Shadyside, and area surnames such as Heinz and Kaufmann. Keeping it all fresh night after night is a cast of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School students and company members juggling multiple roles, sometimes within a single show.

The public will have 19 chances to see what new morsels of magic they can spot when PBT stages "The Nutcracker" Friday through Dec. 30 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

In 11 years of the Pittsburgh "Nutcracker," Mr. Orr has sometimes substantially switched things up, updating costumes or adding characters. Other times, the adjustments are more subtle. This year, he's not handing out hints about what's different.

'The Nutcracker'
  • Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.
  • When: 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Dec. 14-15, 20-22 and 28-29; 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15, 22 and 29; noon next Sunday, Dec. 16, 23 and 30; 4:30 p.m. Dec. 16 and 23. The Dec. 14 performance will be audio described. Assistive listening devices can be obtained from ushers. Large-print and Braille programs also will be available.
  • Tickets: $25.75-$95.75 at www.pbt.org or 412-456-6666.

"I want them to look at it," he says. "I find when I don't [tell what's new], I hear so much more feedback because they're looking for all of these new things because it's so full."

Much of the production's variety and depth can be attributed to the company's members, many of whom are tasked with eight or more roles each season.

"The rotation between roles really helps you to keep it interesting," says corps de ballet member Gabrielle Thurlow, who is in her sixth year with the company. She has been adding more characters to her repertoire each "Nutcracker" run and will be dancing this time nine or 10 parts, including the Sugarplum Fairy, Snow Queen and the doll in the first party scene.

Soaking up so much choreography in a month can present its challenges. "It can be a little overwhelming, but it's certainly an honor to learn new things," says corps dancer JoAnna Schmidt.

This will be her first holiday season with the company, although she performed in "The Nutcracker" for two years as part of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre graduate program. "Some people suggested getting a copy of last year's DVD and watching a lot of the roles in my spare time."

Experimenting with ways to keep a longtime role from growing stale or predictable is an obstacle veterans face.

"There's the challenge of finding yourself within the role," says corps dancer Stephen Hadala, who has been with PBT for 15 seasons. "Someone can tell you you're supposed to be doing that, but as artists, finding your own portrayal of these roles is an added challenge."

To keep from falling back on how he interpreted a role in a previous year, he regularly asks himself how he could do something differently or give a humorous character more comedic flair.

"Also, I watch my fellow dancers and see what they do," he says.

Dancers' chemistry with one another also sprinkles each performance with spontaneity.

"Even if they repeat a role again, they're doing it with different people," Mr. Orr says, "so the reaction is going to be different. It makes it a very creative experience for everybody."

The sheer demand of the performance helps keep dancers literally on their toes. For Mr. Hadala, some shows' character changes are more drastic than others, such as when he's doubling as the grandfather in the first act and the Arabian man in the second.

"I'll have to spray my hair with the silver hair dye and make wrinkle lines and walk half over for about a half-hour," he says. Then he squeezes in a shower so he can transform into the Arabian. "It is kind of a challenge to switch roles that quickly."

"Really [you have to] just try to be quick on your feet and know what you're doing behind the scenes," Ms. Schmidt says. In the end, the marathon of quick changes is all about creating a memorable holiday experience for the audience.

"Some of the amazing athletic prowess the dancers have maybe will amaze people coming to the Benedum," Mr. Orr says.

"I want to make them laugh and smile and have a two-hour experience that's completely pleasurable."


Sara Bauknecht: sbauknecht@post-gazette.com.


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