PBT's 'Nutcracker': Dancing into different roles

| Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, 8:56 p.m.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre routinely uses rotating casts for its productions, giving different dancers the opportunity to perform coveted roles. But this season's casting of “The Nutcracker” takes the process to another level, with some dancers tackling a dozen or more roles during the run of performances.

“It's an inspirational thing to do,” artistic director Terrence Orr says. “If you perform the same role over and over, it can become boring. Some roles are very hard, others not so physically difficult. Being on stage with different people makes you create a different performance. Each one is different. That's fun for me, too.”

But before the fun, Orr had to puzzle over casting. It took him 28 hours over five days to fill in all the 3,280 roles of the 20 performances — 164 per performance, including soldiers, clowns, children, birds, dragon, sheep, bees, storybook characters and mice.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will present “The Nutcracker,” starting Friday and continuing to Dec. 30 at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

The ballet's production, which debuted in 2002, is by Orr and set in Pittsburgh. It opens outside a home in Shadyside, in which a Christmas Eve party is being hosted by the parents of Marie — the girl whose dreams of dancing and romance take a fantastic turn during the two acts.

Caitlin Peabody will perform a dozen roles during the run of “Nutcracker,” including Marie and the Sugar Plum Fairy. She danced with Boston Ballet for two seasons before joining Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's corps de ballet in 2009.

“I feel much more involved and more alive doing so many roles,” she says. “Sometimes, to be honest, it does get confusing. One of the most confusing is the Shepherdesses. It's only three girls and very few differences from lead to side girls. You have to concentrate to not mess up.”

Yet, context helps with most of the roles she plays.

“Different costumes put me in the right mood for the role. Marie is a such a young character in her nightgown. The Sugar Plum Fairy is very regal, and makes you feel like a ballerina. I'm very excited, a little nervous but more excited. The Sugar Plum is my first solo in tutu, a pas de deux — classical, classical ballet.”

“ ‘Nutcracker' comes together rather quickly. It has to,” says ballet mistress Marianna Tcherkasky. “It's always harder for some of the brand-new company members. This year, we're lucky they were in our school and know our ‘Nutcracker.' But new dancers have a lot on their plate.”

Tcherkasky always enjoyed studio work during her own dancing career, which rose to principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre in New York City. She still enjoys rehearsals, especially working with new dancers helping them find confidence in their roles. That's part of what's fun about “The Nutcracker” for her — so many performers, so many young dancers having chances for featured roles.

The ballet runs a refresher course in the choreography, and will group four couples in the studio for some numbers.

The eight casts for the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier were broken up into two studios. “We need steps different for each of them,” Tcherkasky says. “We like dancers to be able to find themselves in the role. They might benefit from seeing what someone else is doing in the role. It's important for principal dancers to have time. With a principal dancer, you always have in your mind that they want to try and be better and grow.”

The men help each other in the fairly complex partnering with the Sugar Plum Fairy. Issues such as where the man's hand goes on the woman's hip and who initiates movement are some of the biggest challenges, she says.

“I dance almost every guy part (15 in all) there is,” says Nicholas Coppula. He says he has to catch himself because he tends to concentrate on the bigger roles he's performing and the smaller ones need attention, too.

“There's more dancing and a little more pressure in the iconic roles,” he says. “The Cavalier's grand pas de duex is a principal's role. The nephew is a main story part in which the dancing is stretched out and a little less technical than in Cavalier. You need to rehearse every day or think about it every day.”

Drosselmeyer, the uncle who brings magical toys to the party, is not technically difficult according to Coppula but has its own challenges.

“You have to know the tricks you do and know the storyline and fix any errors. There are so many people involved, from the little kids doing the mice to company members, you have to adjust on the fly because (mistakes) happen almost every time,” he says.

Performing multiple roles helps during a run of 20 performances, says principal dancer Alexandra Kochis says. She'll perform Marie, the Sugar Plum Fairy, Snow Queen and lead Shepherdess this season.

“It keeps it interesting. We've all been doing this for a long time and ‘The Nutcracker' posts the most shows in the whole season. This helps kill monotony. Because we've been doing it so many years and seen other dancers doing these roles, there's lots of inspiration to draw from. You try to digest it into your own body.”

With practice, details become second nature to the dancers, she observes, emphasizing it's also necessary to think a little ahead in the choreography.

“I guess we've all gotten good at compartmentalizing our brains,” Kochis says. “One thing I like about dancing is you have to put everything else out of your mind. You rehearse for a long time. The situation is set by musical cues. Once it comes time to perform, you can't think about anything else. If you're doing the matinee, you can't think about the evening. It's sort of cool. Time sort of stops, and you're in the moment.”

Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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