Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre may have reached a turning point. This season, after years of seeming to recycle a handful of story-ballet classics over and over, to the point of stagnation, artistic director Terrence Orr is stepping out of the company's comfort zone to offer audiences something different in the form of two Pittsburgh premieres.
In February, for instance, PBT will present Jean-Christophe Maillot's new Romeo et Juliette. And this weekend, at the Benedum Center, PBT opens its season with a contemporary ballet version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.
Set in the Roaring Twenties, the ballet tells Fitzgerald's tragic story of millionaire Jay Gatsby, the turbulent era he lived in, and his eventual disillusionment with the American dream.
"The story is a fascinating intersection of seven characters," says John McFall, the show's co-choreographer and artistic director of the Atlanta Ballet, where this Gatsby premiered last year. "It's almost like an Alfred Hitchcock film where the characters play into one another's lives. Fitzgerald's story creates a beautiful tapestry for a ballet."
A cast of 39 will be decked out in Peter Farmer's period costumes, left over from a standard classical-ballet Gatsby the PBT staged in 1987. The troupe will perform the two-hour ballet in two acts to music from George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Irving Berlin and others. The score includes such familiar tunes as "I Want to Be Loved by You," "What a Wonderful World" and "What'll I Do".
"It is a curious work," says co-choreographer Lauri Stallings. "It has moments in it that are more theater than dance. I even have the dancers eating and speaking onstage." Stallings, Atlanta Ballet's outgoing resident choreographer, provided the bulk of Gatsby's dance choreography, giving the ballet its mostly nontraditional look. She says her approach shakes things up in a way Fitzgerald might have appreciated. Says Stallings: "Fitzgerald lived his life not playing it safe; I don't play it safe in the ballet either."
PBT audiences may recall Stallings' unique brand of athletic ballet movement from last season's Forever Love, a collaboration with local rocker B.E. Taylor. Unlike that somewhat forced pairing, in Gatsby, Stallings is fully in her element, and her collaboration with the stylistically polar opposite McFall is seamless. In a recent viewing of the ballet on DVD, I also got a sense of Stallings' sharp, off-kilter movement style for the ballet. Although her approach did not directly reflect dances from the 1920s, like the Charleston, it certainly hinted at them. Staged like a Broadway play, the ballet had a nostalgic look and lively feel with a storyline that, thanks in large part to McFall's traditional sense of ballet storytelling, was easy to follow.
A mentor of Stallings when she danced for him at BalletMet Columbus early in her career, McFall sees his relationship and collaboration with her here as another way to enhance character development in the show.
"What is good about having the both of us choreographing different scenes for the same characters is that they don't become static," says McFall. "They live through the ballet and evolve with it."
The Great Gatsby represents a move forward for PBT. Whether it and the season's other premiere represent a trend toward rarely seen story-ballet classics, like Le Corsaire and La Bayadere, or contemporary ones like Onegin and Mayerling, remains to be seen. But with the continued success of the Pittsburgh Dance Council in presenting new and challenging dance works from around the globe, area ballet-goers appear ripe for, and deserving of, a similar diversity of programming from PBT.
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre presents The Great Gatsby 8 p.m. Fri., Oct. 31; 8 p.m. Sat., Nov. 1; and 2 p.m. Sun., Nov. 2. Benedum Center, 719 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $20.50-88.50. 412-456-6666 or www.pbt.org