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Arts, Sports & Culture

Pittsburgh Ballet returns to Benedum Center with classics and a world premiere

When Susan Jaffe started her new job as artistic director at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, it was July 1, 2020 – not even four months into the coronavirus pandemic. As with most of the nation’s performing-arts calendar, the final shows of PBT’s previous season had been postponed, and the group was weeks from canceling its announced fall shows.

But the venerable company pressed on, moving into filmed programming and outdoor performances. And this week, the PBT opens its first full in-person season at the Benedum Center under its new artistic director. The program includes a world premiere by rising dance-world star Jennifer Archibald; a work by prominent choreographer Helen Pickett; and two classics: “Diamonds” (1967), by George Balanchine, and “Grand Pas Classique” (1949), by Victor Gsovsky.

Days before opening night, Jaffe said she’s been inspired by this fall’s return to a full-troupe rehearsal schedule at its Strip District headquarters. “There’s just so much energy going on,” she said. “We’re all very excited. We can’t wait to be performing again.”

The program opens with “Petal” (2008), which Pickett once said she created to conjure “the vitality of spring”; the internationally known Pickett herself set the work on the company, which will perform to music by Philip Glass and Thomas Montgomery Newman.

In contrast to that more contemporary work, “Grand Pas Classique” is a classically styled piece by the renowned Russian choreographer, says Jaffe. It features a score by Daniel-Francois Auber, performed live by the PBT orchestra.

The program goes contemporary again with “Through the Window,” which Archibald created for the PBT this past summer. Archibald is founder and artistic director of New York City’s Arch Dance Company, resident choreographer for the Cincinnati Ballet, and her works have been performed by troupes around the country. She said the new work for 10 dancers, set to songs by Swedish composer Uno Helmersson and Danish composer Frans Bak, was inspired by the silent reflection that sometimes accompanied the forced downtime of the pandemic.

“The idea of ‘Through the Window’ is just about taking honoring the quieter times and perspectives of our deeper self,” Archibald said.

She spoke by phone from Tulsa, Okla., where she was working with Tulsa Ballet to stage “Breakin’ Bricks,” her evening-length multimedia work recalling the infamous 1921 Tulsa Massacre that receives its own premiere next week.

Archibald’s style fuses ballet with contemporary, modern and hip hop. She said approaches like hers continue to make inroads with ballet companies better known for traditional story ballets, like “Swan Lake” and “Giselle.”

“I think audiences are interested in seeing what else the dancers can do,” she said. “I think we’ve got a lot of ballet dancers in the industry that are a lot more versatile than they used to be. And just having them do contemporary works is exciting, and it makes them kind of push their boundaries.”

The PBT’s season premiere concludes with the legendary Balanchine’s “Diamonds,” which is one-third of his three-act ballet “Jewels.” Set to Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 29, it’s as traditionally styled as 20th-century ballet gets, given that he meant it to honor the classicism of late 19th-century imperial Russia.

The program receives three performances at the Benedum, Fri., Oct. 22, through Sun., Oct. 24. More information is here.

Like most of the city’s large performing-arts venues, the Benedum is requiring patrons to provide proof of vaccination and to mask while indoors.