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Director keeps fresh approach to timeless 'Nutcracker'

Andrew Russell
| Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016, 9:50 p.m.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Corps de Ballet member, Diana Yohe costumed as Aunt Gertrude smiles from the wings Benedum Center during Tech Rehearsal for The Nutcracker, downtown, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Corps de Ballet member, Diana Yohe costumed as Aunt Gertrude smiles from the wings Benedum Center during Tech Rehearsal for The Nutcracker, downtown, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer Amanda Cochrane places her tiara for her role as the Snow Queen before Tech Rehearsal of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center , downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer Amanda Cochrane places her tiara for her role as the Snow Queen before Tech Rehearsal of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center , downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Dancers playing the Snowflakes in the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of The Nutcracker wait for the start of the Snow Scene in the wings of the Benedum Center during Dress Rehearsal, downtown, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Dancers playing the Snowflakes in the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of The Nutcracker wait for the start of the Snow Scene in the wings of the Benedum Center during Dress Rehearsal, downtown, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer Hannah Carter stretches before the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Tech Rehearsal of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center, downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer Hannah Carter stretches before the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Tech Rehearsal of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center, downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
A dancer rehearses before going on stage during Tech Rehearsal for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center , downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A dancer rehearses before going on stage during Tech Rehearsal for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center , downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Corps de Ballet member Danielle Downey fixes her wig for her role as Grandmother before Tech Rehearsal of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center , downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Corps de Ballet member Danielle Downey fixes her wig for her role as Grandmother before Tech Rehearsal of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center , downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
The Snowflakes perform in the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center during Dress Rehearsal, downtown, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
The Snowflakes perform in the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center during Dress Rehearsal, downtown, Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Corps de Ballet member JoAnna Schmidt prepares for the show before Tech Rehearsal of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center , downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Corps de Ballet member JoAnna Schmidt prepares for the show before Tech Rehearsal of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center , downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre students, Olive Cooney, 8, of  Millvale (left) and Annie Mohn, 9, of Fox Chapel joke with each other during rehearsal of  the Nutcracker, at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the Strip District, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre students, Olive Cooney, 8, of Millvale (left) and Annie Mohn, 9, of Fox Chapel joke with each other during rehearsal of the Nutcracker, at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the Strip District, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre pre-professional student, Sean Sullivan waits to rehearse with stilts on during of the rehearsal of The Nutcracker, at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the Strip District, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre pre-professional student, Sean Sullivan waits to rehearse with stilts on during of the rehearsal of The Nutcracker, at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the Strip District, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer Julia Erickson fixes her wig as Mrs. Stahlbaum  before Tech Rehearsal of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center , downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer Julia Erickson fixes her wig as Mrs. Stahlbaum before Tech Rehearsal of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center , downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Corps de Ballet member, Joseph Parr puts on the makeup to play Grandfather in the Tech Rehearsal of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center , downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Corps de Ballet member, Joseph Parr puts on the makeup to play Grandfather in the Tech Rehearsal of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center , downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Artistic Director, Terrence Orr, talks to a group of student dancers during rehearsal of the Nutcracker, at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the Strip District, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Artistic Director, Terrence Orr, talks to a group of student dancers during rehearsal of the Nutcracker, at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in the Strip District, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
A row of Pointe Shoes sits at the ready for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer Amanda Cochrane before Tech Rehearsal of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center , downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A row of Pointe Shoes sits at the ready for Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre principal dancer Amanda Cochrane before Tech Rehearsal of The Nutcracker at the Benedum Center , downtown, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016. The ballet, which is celebrating it's 15th anniversary, runs through Dec. 27.

Having overseen almost 400 performances over 15 years, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Artistic Director Terrence Orr guarantees no two performances of “The Nutcracker” are alike.

“I want to make it interesting for everybody and also just come up with better ideas,” Orr said as this year's cast rehearsed for Friday's opening night. “Sometimes I think of something while I'm watching the 26th performance (of a year). I think about, and I'll write down some notes, and say, ‘Next year, we've got to do this.'”

Orr was named Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre director 20 years ago, and after several years, he decided to remake “The Nutcracker.” It took him three years.

His version has a distinct Pittsburgh tone. It is set in Shadyside around the turn of the 20th century and includes references to Kaufmann's and a set with a view of Mt. Washington. While the basic structure of the ballet has remained intact, Orr is committed to refining each performance.

Aside from keeping audiences coming back, he tries to keep the show engaging for the cast. With 150 dancers, 210 costumes and 26 performances each year, dancers have the opportunity to perform two or three parts each year.

“The dancers have something to think about,” Orr said. “They're coming out here, and they're working with a new partner. They might have done the same part two days ago, and now they're doing it with another partner. Not that they haven't rehearsed it before together, but it gets mixed up. So when they get into the party scene, there's something interesting happening. It's not the same old, same old party.”

This year's performances run through Dec. 27.

An hour before final dress rehearsal, backstage at the Benedum Center is chaotic. A nervous energy permeates the air. Student dancers cluster together chattering. Professional and preprofessional dancers make last-minute adjustments to their costumes or stretch their legs. Stage hands move massive pieces of the set into position. As the house lights go down, the noise drops to a whisper.

As the music starts, the backstage activity becomes machinelike, fulfilling months of work.

“Realize that we start this in September, and we have to put together the school and put together our preprofessional, and we put together our professional, and then we start mixing these two, those two, and then all three, and we're still in this, and we're now into December,” Orr said.

Over the years, “The Nutcracker” has become a Christmas tradition. Orr credits this partly to the depth of Tchaikovsky's music. He tries to mirror that depth while still attempting to keep the performance fresh by updating each show.

“Now you have different generations that like watching it. You have grandparents come watch it. They look at it very differently than you and I do,” Orr said. “Children look at it differently, too. They see different things. The parents relate to it in a different way. I find that people come back every year that have been watching for 10 years that go, ‘You know, I like what you did new this year.' And I always ask them because most of the time, it's been in there for 10 years; they just never saw it. There's just so much material to look at.”

Andrew Russell is a Tribune-Review photographer. Reach him at arussell@tribweb.com.

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