“You don't know an audience until you're sitting with them, and I do that all the time,” says Jaffe, a highly accomplished dancer and choreographer who now serves as the dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA).
Jaffe plans on doing just that when she moves to Pittsburgh to take on the role of artistic director at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT). She will succeed Terrence S. Orr, who has led the company since 1997 and plans to retire in June 2020 after the company’s 50th anniversary season.
However, Jaffe may have to wait for the chance to mingle with Pittsburgh audiences as the COVID-19 crisis has canceled in-person arts and cultural events for the foreseeable future.
While stepping into a new role during a pandemic may seem like a tall order, PBT executive director Harris Ferris called Jaffe an “extremely impressive and a fabulous candidate who is up to the challenges that the world is currently facing,” adding that she has “pivoted her own organization to address the coronavirus.”
For example, Jaffe ushered dance into UNCSA at Home, an online portal showcasing both past and present performances by students and faculty from all five of the university's conservatories. Among the showcased performances is the upcoming online premiere of Polovtsian Dances, which Jaffe choreographed and is described as reimagining “the exotic dances that occur in Act II of Alexander Borodin's opera Prince Igor.”
Jaffe says it was the desire to focus more on choreography that drew her to the new role at the PBT. Besides a distinguished career as a dancer, which includes stints with several internationally renowned ballet companies and performing with huge names like Mikhail Baryshnikov, she has also worked as a choreographer, creating works for companies, universities, and colleges all over the United States.
“One of the things that really attracted me to the company is it has such a broad range of repertory,” says Jaffe, citing PBT's slate of full-length classic and contemporary ballets, including Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland, as well as its mixed-repertory productions, such as the choreographer showcase Here + Now taking place at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. “I look forward to programming.”
Beyond the stage, Jaffe plans on continuing her mission of improving dancer health and well-being. At UNSCA, she developed a six-hour workshop called "The Effect of Intention: A Dancer’s Mindset," for which she translated around 25 years of professional experiences into life lessons that help dancers and other creatives.
“I struggled with a lack of confidence, and didn't understand why I was nervous going onto the stage,” says Jaffe. “I believe artists need to get to know who they are because once you know yourself on a deep level, you understand humanity and you're able to tap into more authenticity and more confidence as an artist.”
She says the PBT board has been responsive to many of her ideas to keep dancers “safe and healthy,” including measures to reduce the number of injuries and speed up recovery.
“Everyone is really excited to do that, it's not going to happen overnight,” says Jaffe, “but it definitely will happen.”
While the future of dance on stage remains uncertain into the summer, when Jaffe steps into her new role, she remains impressed by how her industry has persevered during this crisis.
“What really has been extremely heartwarming is how the dance world has shown up during a pandemic,” says Jaffe, adding her amazement at the sheer amount of online content, including dancers streaming in their own homes and studios. “It just really shows that, the way dancers operate, even during a pandemic, they can't stop. The love of dance just keeps them marching on.”