Director keeps fresh approach to timeless 'Nutcracker'
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 email@example.com.