Pittsburgh Ballet's New Artistic Director Explores Live Dance During A Pandemic

Aug 14, 2020

Susan Jaffe didn’t merely start work as artistic director at Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre during the coronavirus pandemic: She actually was still involved in the interview process in the pandemic’s early days. And after she was offered the position, in March, she worried about moving to Pittsburgh and taking on her new role in the midst of a huge public-health crisis.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre presents "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in a pre-recorded performance airing on the CW Network. 7 p.m. Sun., Aug. 16

Jaffe eventually settled in, starting work in early July as successor to Terrence Orr, who’d spent 23 years in the job (and who prior to that was a mentor of hers during his time as a ballet master at American Ballet Theatre).

But the pandemic rages on. And as with every other performing-arts administrator in the nation, Jaffe’s response to it will largely define her role for the foreseeable future.

Asked recently about her vision for the venerable company, she started not with long-term goals, but with plans for navigating the pandemic. “That is my reality at this moment,” she said in the interview at PBT headquarters, in the Strip District.

On weekday afternoons for most of the year, the building is bustling with activity, including youth dance classes, and perhaps rehearsals by the PBT's professional troupe. In early August, it was quiet save for Jaffe and a few staffers. Indoor, in-person classes were suspended in March. But live performance is still on Jaffe’s mind.

Jaffe came to PBT fresh from her role as dean of dance at North Carolina School for the Arts. Previously, she’d been a famed ballerina with American Ballet Theatre, in New York, and dance mistress with that company. She’s also choreographed internationally.

But staging ballet live during a pandemic is a fresh challenge. As of this writing, PBT’s regular theatrical season is still set to begin Oct. 23, with a program titled “Balanchine + Tchaikovsky with the PBT Orchestra.” Many performing-arts groups have postponed or canceled the remainder of their calendars for 2020 and beyond, or else moved them online, and Jaffe said she couldn’t yet comment about what PBT would do. But she's already embracing alternatives.

The troupe has a small mobile stage in its parking lot that it plans to use around Labor Day for some performances that will be socially distanced for both audience and performers.

“I can't say today where that performance will be, but it's going to be wonderful,” she said. “Just the fact that we will be able to get some dancing in front of a crowd.”

For safety, the dances will be mostly solos or else duets danced by couples who live together, she said.

This fall, PBT is planning a series of dances in porches and front yards.

“That's another way to keep everybody safe and and still performing, and have audience members still able to see performance without going into a theater,” she said.

Another adaptation arose after PBT had to cancel its traditional free August show at Hartwood Acres. Jaffe said KDKA-TV approached PBT about filming a performance on the county park’s grounds.

With that sylvan setting, Jaffe said, “It just occurred to me we should do ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream.’”

She had yet to move to Pittsburgh at that point, but using Felix Mendelssohn’s score she worked with PBT’s dancers to develop a show. “The dancers went on Zoom and they choreographed on their groups of people,” she said. “And then they went out on Hartwood Acres the day before the filming, and they chose all the scenes where the shots were going to be taken.”

The performance will air Sunday at 7 p.m. on Pittsburgh’s CW network. (Viewers can also watch online through the Allegheny County Parks Facebook page or YouTube channel immediately after the CW broadcast.) The program will also feature children from the community providing synopses of the action.

Looking longer-term, and beyond any performance schedule, Jaffe said she considers diversity, equity and inclusion to be priorities for PBT. Ballet is a very white world, both on stage and in the seats. Jaffe said students in North Carolina School for the Arts’ dance program started becoming vocal about such issues several years ago.

She said that while her dance faculty at that school was all white, and not subject to high turnover, “We brought in a lot of diverse guests every semester, every year.”

“I also made sure that I was programing performances … with diverse choreographers in mind,” she said. “I used to think, ‘OK, what’s the best piece of choreography that I can bring?’ Now I’m thinking, ‘What’s the best choreography I can bring – and where is the diverse choreography that I can bring?'”

Classic full-length ballets like “Swan Lake” and “Cinderella,” which are very popular in Pittsburgh, don’t provide much opportunity for diverse choreographers, she said. However, the PBT’s frequent mixed-repertory programs do provide that opportunity, and Jaffe intends to capitalize. (This past spring, the 51-year-old PBT was set to stage its first-ever premiere by a Black woman choreographer, Pittsburgh-based Staycee Pearl, when the show was postponed because of the pandemic. The performance has been moved to April.)

Currently, two of PBT’s 32 company dancers are Black. Jaffe said the troupe is examining its hiring practices and looking to expand its scholarship program for students of color and those from underserved communities.

“We're really serious about it, and really want to make huge strides as quickly as possible,” she said. “Everything is organic and things do take time. You can't, overnight, change. But we are, with all of that in mind, moving forward and moving forward joyfully to create a more diverse organization.”