There aren’t many who have stuck around for the long haul at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. The nature of the ballet company beast would have it so, with the relatively short careers of dancers, the gypsy nature of this artistic business and the small salaries that push staff onto a different lifepath.
As the 4oth anniversary season opens this weekend at the Benedum Center with “Sleeping Beauty,” I’ve seen just about all the PBT had to offer, yes, from those gangly early performances at the Pittsburgh Playhouse to the professional expertise that the company now displays at the Benedum. While the company has released good news in this economic climate — three years in the black and the hiring of Charles Barker to conduct and administer the orchestra are reason enough to celebrate — it might be fun to look back at a list of dancers.
The dancers all shared one thing — a clean technique and attention to detail. In a ballet world where more (extension, turns, speed) is the norm, sometimes at the expense of clarity, Patricia Wilde and Terrence Orr in particular maintained a traditional discipline in their stylistic approach. The funny thing is, to my eyes, other companies sometimes can look unbridled as a result.
As I combed through my stash of programs, I recalled many wonderful memories produced by hundreds of dancers who bourreed, jeted or simply passed through the company doors. These Top Ten dancers have all made major contributions to the legacy of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre over the years and are listed in order of their PBT careers. If you have any other favorites, tell me why at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. New York City Ballet’s Violette Verdy, who with Edward Villella, helped jump start the fledgling Pittsburgh company with several seasons of guest appearances during the early years. It’s hard to decipher which one had the bigger impact. But their combined undeniable star power in works like “Swan Lake” gave Pittsburgh audiences a sense of what to expect from ballet. After a stellar career at NYCB, Verdy is now a Distinguished Professor of Music (Ballet) at Indiana University and was awarded the French Legion of Honor (Chevalier) in June for her contributions to the field of dance. Villella, of course, is the artistic director of Miami City Ballet.
2. Alexander Filipov (1971-76). The Russian dancer was a natural for “Romeo and Juliet” and was PBTs first bona fide heartthrob. Dancers whispered how he did 10 pirouettes in the studio and held a balance at the end, but it was his flamboyant presence on stage that brought him accolades from fans. Filipov shared his time at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre as a soloist at American Ballet Theatre and principal dancer at San Francisco Ballet and currently teaches in New York City.
3. Tamar Rachelle (1978-95). The first of PBT’s long-term ballerinas, Rachelle was a first-rate dramatic actress who was transformative on the stage, easily bridging such diverse roles as Giselle and the Cowgirl in “Rodeo.” In one of the most dramatic finishes to a PBT career, Rachelle took a leave of absence in 1995 due to a knee injury. Working on her own for virtually two years, she came back to perform one final time in Bruce Wells’ “Romeo and Juliet.” Married to former PBT soloist Ernest Tolentino, she continues to teach ballet and Pilates at several Pittsburgh locations, including PBT.
4. Laura Desiree (1982-1998). Another dancer who consistently made her way up the company ladder. Like Rachelle, whose PBT path ran virtually parallel to hers, Desiree will be remembered for her versatility — and a quiet intensity. Favorite roles for which she will be remembered include”Swan Lake,” Lizzie Borden in de Mille’s “Fall River Legend.” Desiree also played a leading role in developing major roles in “American Dream,” a 1995 triple bill of women choreographers, where romped in overalls to Pete Seeger’s feminist-inspired “Engineer.” She and her husband, former PBT principal character dancer Brian Bloomquist currently live in the Washington D.C. area.
5. Maria Teresa del Real (1984-86). This spitfire of a dancer added a real confidence boost to the women’s roster. Her technique was such that she had scored a bronze medal at the International Ballet Competition in Varna (the first American in ten years) before coming here, where she performed in such diverse roles as “Swan Lake” (a particularly spectacular Odile) and Ohad Naharin’s “Tabula Rasa,” which is my all-time favorite PBT commission (but that’s another list). She left with fellow principal dancer Pablo Savoye to dance in Europe, and notably wound up her career at the English National Ballet. Del Real currently teaches at Central Ballet School in London, which is a feeder school for Northern Ballet Theatre.
6. Nanci Crowley (1987-97). Able to create wondrous arcs with her uncommonly long legs and beautifully arched feet, Crowley made her mark in the Balanchine repertoire before taking on “Swan Lake,” where she was particularly well-suited for Odette. She went on to join The Joffrey Ballet and then Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and LaLaLa Human Steps in Montreal. Seemingly indestructable, she moved south to Ballet Arizona for two seasons under Ib Andersen, former PBT ballet master, ending her career, rightfully so, with a performance in Balanchine’s “Agon.” She currently runs the company school.
7. Stephen Annegarn (1993 – 2002). Annegarn brought with him a very British, proper approach to line and stage deportment that was much admired by company men. On stage he was the perfect prince, but could also handle character studies like the title role of “Dracula” and was regarded by the women as a terrific partner. Annegarn had a year’s break in service when he went to Pacific Northwest Ballet, but returned to marry company member Erin Halloran. He continues to influence the company in his role as ballet master.
8. Willy Shives (1993-97). Shives arrived with an American can-do attitude and quickly progressed from soloist to principal dancer. While more athletically inclined, he broadened his artistic focus with princely roles in all the ballet classics. Even though he officially retired, The Joffrey Ballet’s Gerald Arpino convinced Shives to return to the stage with his company. Following his retirement there, he continues with the Joffrey as ballet master, but still has a considerable fan base here in Pittsburgh.
9. Ying Li and Jiabin Pan (1994-2004). Okay, it’s cheating. But rarely did you hear a sentence containing one without the other. It was always “Ying and Jiabin” and likewise they were often paired together. Pan learned to embrace contemporary dance, American-style, in premieres like “Ballad of You and Me” and “Indigo in Motion,” where he used his panther-like quality to good effect. Li made her Pittsburgh debut as one of the four little swans in “Swan Lake,” but it was apparent from the start that she was queen material. After a gala good-bye in one more “Swan Lake,” the couple returned to their native China, where they head the country’s newest ballet company, one of only seven, in the city of Suzhou at a new facility, Suzhou Science and Cultural Arts Center, near Shanghai. The pair continue to choreograph, with Pan showing an interest in the techniques he learned under Dwight Rhoden and Kevin O’Day.
10. Maribel Modrono (1997-09). Trained in the Balanchine tradition, she came with her twin sister, Mabel, to do the classics. But when Mabel left due to injury, Modrono ramped up her personality to twice the size. Reinventing herself over the years, she used her buoyant personality and fearlessness to infuse both classical (“Carmen,” “Swan Lake”) and contemporary (“Rubies,” “Carmina Burana”) works. Offstage she was an extra arm for the publicity department, extending her goodwill to patrons and students alike.
There were other favorites. From the early days: Dinko Bogdanic (Stuttgart Ballet) and PBT’s version of the baby ballerinas, Jordeen Ivanov and JoAnn McCarthy. And the virtuosic Peter Schaufuss, who went on to head companies like English National Ballet and Danish Ballet. From the Wilde years, the elegant Pablo Savoye and Scott Jovovich plus Janet Popeleski, a dancers’ dancer and mighty soloists Alexander Nagiba and Ernest Tolentino. And the recently retired and already much-missed Christopher Rendall-Jackson and Kaori Ogasawara.