Compared to many of the popular story ballets it stages, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre is quite young. While works like Swan Lake and Cinderella premiered in the 1800s, PBT was founded (by Point Park's Nicholas Petrov) in 1969.
Still, considering that regional ballet companies like Ballet Florida and Ohio Ballet have recently fallen victim to the economy, lasting 40 years is a feat of endurance. And as it begins its anniversary season with one of those classics, the company is both counting its blessings and looking toward the future.
"We have survived ups and downs in the economic climate, including a 35 percent drop in our corporate endowment," says PBT executive director Harris Ferris. Yet the company continues to evolve, with a recent influx of new dancers well suited to the classical repertoire.
Ferris says one reason for the company's success was planted long ago. "This company has tremendous rootstock," he says. "From the beginning PBT has had a strong tradition of presenting high-caliber art, and you can't talk about a strong company without strong art."
Another factor in PBT's longevity might be its choice of artistic leaders who over the years have blended time-honored classics with contemporary classics and new works.
Now in his 12th season as PBT's artistic director, Terrence Orr has returned to that formula for the company's 40th-anniversary season. PBT will present a trio of story-ballet classics along with works by choreographers Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp, as well as a contemporary ballet work by award-winning choreographer Stephen Mills.
The new season begins Oct.16-18, at the Benedum Center, with four performances of The Sleeping Beauty. The 1890 ballet classic, with music by Tchaikovsky, made its PBT debut as a full-length in 1996 and has become a regular in the repertory. It's been re-staged by Orr and will be performed with a live orchestra.
Sleeping Beauty, adapted from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, tells the story of Princess Aurora, who is plunged into a 100-year slumber after pricking her finger on a poisoned needle thanks to the evil fairy Carabosse.
Reprising her key role as Carabosse at selected performances is newly promoted principal dancer Julia Erickson. The innocent-faced Erickson will portray Carabosse more as a dark-hearted figure than as the familiar grotesque fairy.
"I see her being like the wicked stepmother in Cinderella: beautiful but evil," says Erickson. "She is a fairy like the others in the ballet, it is just her heart has become a little bit perverted."
"She is poised and regal but is also very sly," Erickson adds. "It is fun trying to get inside her head and seeing how I would react if I were her."
Leaving pretend lands behind, on Nov. 12-15 the company explores a starker reality. Mills' Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project reflects on horrors of the Holocaust while paying homage to the resilience of the human spirit.
"The ballet isn't something we would normally do," says Orr. "To me it helps to illustrate what I have always felt, that the arts are an important part of the continuance of everyone's education and enlightenment."
In December, PBT again presents Orr's 2002 interpretation of The Nutcracker (with orchestra). The holiday favorite, set in 1900s Pittsburgh, will have new additions, including an aviary scene with butterflies, dragonflies and several birds.
February will find the company swinging as only a Paul Taylor work can. The choreographic icon's Company B, set to the music of the Andrew Sisters, shares the evening with the Twyla Tharp masterwork In the Upper Room, with music by Philip Glass.
PBT's anniversary season closes in April, with one of ballet's crown jewels, Swan Lake (performed with orchestra) -- a fitting end to the company's milestone season.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre performs The Sleeping Beauty Fri., Oct.16-Sun., Oct.18. Benedum Center, 719 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $20-88. 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org