Pittsburgh Ballet starts 45th season with classic 'Sleeping Beauty'
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will celebrate the opening of its 45th season with one of the jewels of its repertoire, a popular and iconic ballet it last presented five years ago.
“‘The Sleeping Beauty' is just one of those very special ballets, starting with the story but also because of the music,” artistic director Terrance Orr says. “Tchaikovsky's score is phenomenal. What it did to dance is to take music at that level and match it to the ability of the dancers. It's very important to me that we do it with a live orchestra.”
The company will present four performances of “The Sleeping Beauty” from Oct. 24 to 26 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Martin West, music director of San Francisco Ballet, will conduct the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra. There will be one intermission, before the third and final act.
Anniversaries naturally prompt reflection and gratitude.
“I've been thinking about our founders, Loti Falk and Nicolas Petrov, who forged the footprint that is Pittsburgh Ballet Theater,” executive director Harris Ferris says. “And all the artistic directors, including Patricia Wilde later on (who) forged such deep roots that it continues to grow. There was a period when the company stumbled, but we harken back to the values and determination of this company in the first place.”
Ferris just completed his eighth season as executive director, every one in the black.
The story of “The Sleeping Beauty” is derived from Charles Perrault's 1697 fairy tale “La Belle au bois Dormant” (The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood).
The ballet's course is set in the Prologue, in which the king and queen celebrate the birth of their daughter Aurora. The evil fairy Carabosse casts a spell so that, on the infant's 16th birthday, she will prick her finger and die. The Lilac Fairy protects Aurora, casting her own spell making it so the girl will not die but, instead, will sleep for 100 years and be awakened by a prince's kiss.
Act 1 tells the story of Aurora's fateful 16th birthday, with the Lilac Fairy also casting a spell for the kingdom to sleep until Aurora awakes.
Act 2 takes place a century later and introduces Prince Desire, out with a hunting party. When the prince is finally alone, he meets the Lilac Fairy, who entrances him with Aurora's beauty and tells him how to find her. At the castle, he defeats Carabosse before finding Aurora, kissing her, declaring his love and proposing marriage.
Act 3 is filled with celebrations leading to the wedding and final blessing from the Lilac Fairy.
The ballet's production is based on the original choreography by Marius Petipa but more elaborate.
“I think all the Petipa (ballets) have to be updated because dancers keep getting better and better,” Orr says. “This is truly the best company we've ever had, and I like to take advantage of that.”
One way Orr does that is by using rotating casts, with different dancers for the leading roles at each performance.
Orr points to Yoshiaki Nakano, who became a principal dancer this season and will perform as Prince Desire at the Oct. 25 performance.
“Yoshi has an easy time doing eight or nine pirouettes, whereas I did nine only once in my life,” says Orr, who was a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre 30 years ago.
Amanda Cochrane, who joined the ballet in 2009 and was promoted to principal dancer in 2014, is looking forward to dancing Aurora for the first time.
“It's another one of the ballets I've been watching since I was a little girl. It's a very classical ballet and a great opportunity to work on my technique and control,” she says. “It's a lot of fun.”
She says the first act is very exciting, like being shot out of cannon because of its gigantic leaps and quick pace. But the first act also includes the Rose Adagio, in which maintaining balance is a big challenge. She loves Tchaikovsky's score. The Rose Adagio may be her favorite, she says, and a passage midway through it always brings out wonderful emotions.
Most of all, she loves the first act because she can have a very playful interpretation of Aurora's feelings on her 16th birthday.
“Aurora is an ethereal being in Act 2. Both the prince and her are dreaming. It's not real. It's sort of her maturing moment,” Cochrane says. “When you come to the third act, they are adults who have found true love, so the dancing is more regal.”
Julia Erickson will be performing in her third “Sleeping Beauty” and counts herself fortunate to be performing three roles in the rotating casting: the villain Carabosse, the heroine Aurora and the benevolent Lilac Fairy.
“Honestly, it's very indulgent and fun to play a villain, but the meat of the dancing is Aurora and it's ultimately more gratifying,” she says. “It's hard to compare.”
Erickson says it is the purity of the dance in “The Sleeping Beauty” that is mesmerizing.
“One of the most difficult things about it, and also one of the most rewarding things, is that you can't just throw it away. You have to stay controlled, and that's OK,” Erickson says. “Once you have rehearsed for a number of hours, you get to the point where you start making art out of it and play. Paradoxically, there's a lot of freedom within the confines of classical choreography. I find it so gratifying to hem myself in a little and then expand upon it for the character to grow and explore the lushness of Aurora's personality.”
Obviously, Erickson enjoys the process of building her interpretations.
“I just had a rehearsal with Marianna (Tcherkassky, ballet mistress),” she says. “Of course, I know the choreography, so it's solid. She talked about a few adjustments, which opened up so much for me that I was in the sweet spot. Then the world is your oyster.”
Alejandro Diaz will be dancing Prince Desire for the first time now that he has been promoted from the corps de ballet to soloist.
“It's pretty scary,” he says. “Sometimes, I think that as a corps member you're given some leniency on how you approach a role and even what happens onstage. Now, as a soloist, you have to raise the bar and challenge yourself to be even more exact and more open to correction. You want to be better, set an example to the dancers around you. The pressure is on.”
He's been working on his role since late summer and performed the Act 3 pas de deux on Aug. 18 at Hartwood Acres. He's been working with his partner, Alexandra Kochis as Aurora, for the past month.
He thoroughly enjoys the second act, where the Lilac Fairy guides his character and where he sees Aurora as a vision for the first time.
“If you feel the music, it allows so much for interpretation,” he says.
Diaz says the third-act pas de deux is challenging on many levels, including stylistically. He notes that the prince's arms are kept quite low, and that the gestures come from the solar plexus because it is grand and princely.
“His variation is so manly,” Diaz says. “It is the epitome of classical ballet's ode to the man.”
Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.