PBT stages elaborate new production of 'Beauty and the Beast'
Valentine's Day is a special time of year in dance, because romance is one of ballet's strong suits.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre has invested heavily in a special offering this season, one that many of its leaders remember from performing early in their careers: Lew Christensen's “Beauty and the Beast,” which he created in 1958 for the San Francisco Ballet.
“The old moral reads that beauty is only skin deep. So, this ballet says, is beastliness. To love is to be human, and it is no less to humanize,” Christensen said.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will present nine performances of “Beauty and the Beast” from Feb. 6 to 15 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. The music is by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
“Beauty and the Beast” was the most popular ballet Christensen created while artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet from 1952 until his death in 1984. It was performed every season from 1958 to '67 and intermittently thereafter. It was second in popularity only to “The Nutcracker,” which his older brother William introduced to America in 1944 when he was artistic director of the San Francisco company.
When he came here 18 years ago, the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's artistic director Terrence Orr decided he want to revive “Beauty and the Beast,” but negotiations to do so bogged down.
In 2013, Orr heard that the San Francisco Ballet was getting rid of the production and took action to buy it. The Pittsburgh company secured a $100,000 grant from the Pittsburgh Foundation's A.D. and J.W. Wilson Fund and the Jean Hartley Davis and Nancy Lane Davis Fund to purchase the production and fund its premiere here. Support from presenting sponsor PNC Bank will enable the ballet to present Christensen's work in future seasons. Orr also hopes to tour with “Beauty and the Beast,” as well as to rent the production to other companies.
The company's revival required building some set pieces at its shop in the Strip District and renovation and construction of costumes.
“The costumes we purchased were beautifully designed and made, but there were some key components missing. We're re-creating them,” costumier Janet Campbell says. “The fun part is they're the most magical ones in the show.”
The re-created costumes include the one used for the Beast's transformation, as well as for Beauty's elegant appearance in the Beast's castle. Campbell has also created a new necklace and tiara for Beauty.
“I used Swarovski jewels for the tiara,” she says. “They really sparkle. They're my favorite.”
The ballet has made a new headpiece for the Beast because Orr wasn't pleased with the one which came with the purchased costumes.
“The Beast's head is incredible,” Campbell says. “Svi Roussanoff, a very talented craftsman, a genius, actually made a cast of the headpiece (we purchased). Then, he stretched a piece of thermoplast over it, the same kind of material as the Nutcracker headpiece. When you heat up thermoplast, it gets real pliable. It was pulled over the cast and shaped. Then, you let it cool and dry, and it gets really hard. An extra challenge is that the Beast's mouth has to open, so the whole lower jaw is a totally separate piece.”
Orr is one of four people at the ballet who performed “Beauty and the Beast” with the San Francisco Ballet. The others are Robert Vickrey, assistant to the artistic director, ballet school director Dennis Marshall and ballet school faculty member Andre Reyes.
Orr was at the San Francisco Ballet School when his break came.
“I was studying with Michael Smuin around 1960 and had learned to sustain in the air,” Orr recalls. “Smuin saw it and said to wait a minute and left. When he came back with Lew, he asked me to do it again. The next week, I was in ‘Beauty and the Beast.' I did a couple of roles: the stag, the marmoset, a simian and lead courtier — but never the Beast.”
The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers who are preparing “Beauty and the Beast” are as enthusiastic about it as Orr.
“I really enjoy dancing Beauty,” principal dancer Amanda Cochrane says. “She has a pretty complex character, as I see it. When she first meets the Beast, she is very terrified of his features and aggressiveness. But when she flees and feels his absence, she realizes she loves him. It's a great production.”
Cochrane appreciates the challenges of performing Christensen's choreography.
“It has some very emotional moments, which I've been enjoying, working on an expanding my emotional range. There's a lot of slow, controlled movement as well as fast and precise.”
She's also enjoying dancing with Nurlan Abougaliev, also a principal, who is her partner as the Beast.
He loves the ballet, too. “We all have seen the Disney cartoon movie. It's pretty much like that. There's very exciting music at the beginning and end of the first act. The music makes everything more interesting.”
The Beast's costume poses some challenges, and not only the headpiece. Abougaliev says the huge nails and gloves make partnering harder, but that everything is falling into place during rehearsals.
“The story is timeless, a wonderful legend that teaches a great lesson to young people, and people of any age,” says Vickrey, who was 21 when he first danced it.
“I'd never done anything like that in my life,” Vickrey recalls. “There I was on the stage of the San Francisco Opera House with a huge audience. I was absolutely in awe and not about to miss a beat.”
He says that Christensen used the Theme and Variations movement from Tchaikovsky's Orchestra Suite No. 3 in “Beauty and the Beast,” music which also was used by Balanchine.
“Balanchine was a neoclassical master, but Lew took that music and heard and saw it entirely differently,” Vickrey says. “He used it in a dramatically sensitive kind of way, sensitive from the point of view of Beauty.”
Christensen studied with and danced for George Balanchine, creating the male lead in “Apollo,” one of Balanchine's great collaborations with composer Igor Stravinsky. Orr hopes to revive other Christensen works, such as “Symphonium.”
“I think it's important to do Lew Christensen's works,” Orr says. “I'm not saying he was as great a choreographer as Mr. B., but I don't know any who are.”
Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.