Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre kicks off season with high-energy program
Performers should be up for the works they'll be performing, but over at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, a special excitement is in the air.
The company opens its season with a mixed repertory program featuring three masterpieces with varied concepts, dissimilar dancing styles and diverse musical styles.
“It's really fun for me, because all three pieces are very different,” says soloist Gabrielle Thurlow. “There's something that each one brings to the table that I'm very excited for. It's very physical, this program. There aren't elaborate sets or excessive costumes. It's all about the dancing.”
Pittsburgh Ballet, including its orchestra, will present “Mixed Repertoire #1” from Oct. 23 to 25 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. The program is Jiri Kylian's “Sinfonietta,” William Forsythe's “In the Middle Somewhat Elevated,” and George Balanchine's “Western Symphony.”
“This evening is three great works by three great choreographers, all with a very high degree of energy,” says Terrence Orr, the company's artistic director. “I'm using ‘Sinfonietta' like an appetizer, then ‘In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated' as our leading entrée, and closing with ‘Western Symphony.' ”
Czech choreographer Kylian was 31 in 1978 when he created “Sinfonietta” to celebrate the Czech spirit of freedom — 10 years after the Prague Spring was suppressed by other communist countries. He used music by Leos Janacek, which had been written a half-century earlier to celebrate the unification of the Hungarian cities Buda and Pest.
“ ‘Sinfonietta' is probably my favorite ballet in the world,” Orr says. “It is the third ballet by Kylian in our repertoire. It has an augmented orchestra with 12 more brass that do the opening and closing of the Janacek score. It's very powerful, and the ballet is equally powerful. I thought it would be fantastic in the Benedum to see the orchestra on either side of the stage and in the pit.”
The choreographer's musicality is impressive to Thurlow.
“Kylian really thought through all the nuances,” she says. “The dancing brings out certain nuances in the music, and the music brings about certain steps in the ballet. I think they work together in that way. Synergy is the perfect word for it.”
Principal dancer Yoshiaki Nakano says that, while the ballet is about freedom, as dancers, “you have to follow the rules. The freedom is in the choreography, and in rehearsals we are working really hard to act like we are becoming free.”
William Forsythe created “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” for Paris Opera Ballet in 1987 on commission from Rudolf Nureyev. It is set to electronic music by Thom Willems.
“It is a piece which changed the idea of classical ballet,” says Agnes Noltenius, who performed it under Forsythe's direction and now travels extensively helping dance companies get it right.
“It has all the technique from the technical academy. It was written for Paris Opera Ballet, a very classical company,” Noltenius says. “At the same time, it has a lot to do with contemporary (dance) in the relationship with space. All the technique is really at the edge of physical possibilities. It is always very extended in space. All the lines are really stretched. It just has a fantastic dynamic. That's why it's wanted all over the world.”
“In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” is difficult to rehearse because it's new, she says.
“It's a new way for the audience to look and for the dancer a new way to approach technique,” Noltenius says. “You really have to think and adapt your technique to a new style, a new idea of using it, which can be really confusing at the beginning.”
The dancers feel it – and love it.
“You have to think about moving your elbows all the way down to your fingertips,” Thurlow says. “It's very precise and very impressive, too, the things the body can do in this ballet.”
Among the differences from classical ballet are the way men and women dance together.
“It's balanced,” Noltenius says. “You don't couple. It's more like a way of partnering. You don't have the traditional man trying to hold the lady. Here in the duos, both people are really dancing together.”
The program will conclude with “Western Symphony” by Balanchine.
“It's a really good choice for a finale ballet, high spirited and fun” says Bart Cook, who was 4 when “Western Symphony” was created in 1954. He was 19 when he danced it for Balanchine as a member of the New York City Ballet.
“He was wonderful to do anything for in person,” Cook says. “The newer things he was creating, he was much more focused on. ‘Western Symphony' is one of the old stalwarts. It always works.”
Cook says he feels lucky to be part of the Balanchine heritage, and that, by the time he was dancing “Western Symphony,” the iconic choreographer would watch it from the wings and enjoy the performances.
“When he was there, we were all dancing for him; even though we didn't look at him, you could tell how he felt by his reactions. The ballet was so old by that time, it was ensconced in everyone's mind, and you knew how it was supposed to be and what you could bring to it.”
Cook says the ballet isn't terribly difficult but not easy, either. “It's aerobically hard. The finale is relentless, and everybody moves.”
Balanchine worked with composer Hershey Kay in the creation of the score for “Western Symphony,” which uses a dozen American folk songs.
“I'm Japanese, so I never experienced Western culture,” Nakano says. “But ‘Western Symphony' is so cool, so different. I just love being a cowboy.”
Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.