Emerging Dance: TransformingPittsburgh Ballet

by Jane Vranish | originally posted in Dance Currents on Dec 17, 2021

The Transformation Scene in The Nutcracker, where Marie dreams that everything around her grows exponentially, is one of the highlights of any production.

But there is a real transformation taking place at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s “Nut,” one that is surpassing the annual impact of the scenic choreography.

Apparently artistic director Susan Jaffe’s open-hearted style of ballet is taking hold. Rumor has it that PBT actually devoted more time to Aszure Barton’s upcoming world premiere in March (already creating excitement in the company) than to Nutcracker rehearsals. But the opening night audience would never have known that, judging by the exuberant performances in Terrence Orr’s production, now in its 20th year(!).

There were no cobwebs or cracks to be seen. In fact, Orr’s choreography never looked so musical, particularly in the Snow Scene, with the corps de ballet blithely whipping up breezy patterns in the falling stage snow. Snow Queen Jessica McCann and Snow King Lucius Kirst had a commanding presence as they reigned over the Mt. Washington landscape, with McCann applying crystalline exclamation points during her porte bras, brilliantly emphasizing the accents in the Tchaikovsky score.

Snow King Lucius First and Snow Queen Jessica McCann 

It seemed that the whole company knew how to draw audience applause. As a result, the audience could be termed hyper-engaged. This may have been the first time in a long while that I heard gasps and reactions from children in the audience on opening night, usually a rather subdued adult group. 

Even the mime sequences were crisply executed with a new largesse in the first act, from children and adults alike. And with the dancers ending their technical passages with a fabulous flair, applause was fast and frequent.

Orr once again tinkered with some details, among them Drosselmeyer’s (a warm and inviting Corey Bourbonniere) larger white kerchief that flew around the stage and, by Orr’s own admission, American Sign Language that was inserted in the first act. (That’s something I missed, but will look for when I go back.)

This “Nut” was definitely a product of the pandemic. Some of the children wore flesh-colored masks and there may have been a reduction in numbers, but who’s counting? PBT was able to avoid New York City Ballet’s solution, using older teens in the children’s roles. I’m sure it hasn’t been easy.

Despite that, it was readily apparent that the feet were fleet. The women, from the sparkling Diana Yohe (Marie) on down to the Flowers, were definitely articulating their footwork in a new way. That translated into beautifully pointed arches, better balances, more confident pirouettes. Again, a substantiated rumor offered an explanation: Jaffe preferred that the women soften their pointe shoes.

Diana Yohe and Joseph Parr

If that’s true, it worked.

There was another adjustment. Maybe it was the excitement of the first live Nutcracker in two years, but like the leaping lords in “A Partridge in a Pear Tree,” the dancers soared. Yohe unleashed her sublime grand jete to new heights and the Snowflakes followed suit.

But then, virtually every company dancer had a dazzling improvement. Tommie Kesten (Columbina, Shepherdess) is learning to harness her considerable charismatic talents, giving more nuance to her roles. And Grace Rookstool (Spanish) is one to watch.

CMarisa Grywalski and Cooper Verona in Arabian

The remarkably lithe Marisa Grybalski (Arabian) is honing her mystique, duly supported by Cooper Verona. And the popular trio of Russian dancers (Masahiro Haneji, Josiah Kaufman and Jonathan Breight) had a spectacular ease to their split jumps. While the entrancing Amanda Cochrane (Sugar Plum Fairy) continues to gain strength after a difficult injury, Yoshiaki Nakano, a superb Cavalier, captured a classic ballon in his jumps, where he seemed to hover suspended in the air.

Yoshiaki Nakano and Amanda Cochrane

But the biggest story might have come from Joseph Parr, an 11-plus year veteran of the corps, who performed the role of the Nutcracker Prince. Blessed with wonderful proportions, he had trouble coordinating his gifts in the past. No longer. He exuded considerable charm and aplomb onstage and revealed a more stylish technique, something that has been a long time coming.

Maybe The Nutcracker is a fairy tale, but a real life version is unfolding onstage. Now is the time to catch PBT in its multiple transformations and enjoy the ride.

For more information and ticketing visit: https://pbt.culturaldistrict.org/production/74872/the-nutcracker

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