Pittsburgh Ballet Theater’s New Artistic Director Has Bold Plans
Susan Jaffe, a former American Ballet Theatre superstar, is the half-century-old troupe’s second woman artistic director.
Susan Jaffe has a list of goals she wants to accomplish as Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s sixth artistic director: increasing PBT’s touring and roster size, invigorating the repertoire and enhancing the dancers’ strengths. But her immediate priority since she took the position in July 2020 has been installing pandemic precautions to safely return dancers to the studio for classes and rehearsals.
Following lengthy meetings to develop protocols for capacity limits, spacing and cleaning procedures, the troupe was one of the first mid-sized professional companies to reboot in-studio activity.
“I love working with the dancers. They are focused, hungry and excited,” says Jaffe, who teaches company class twice weekly.
In-studio, she stresses bone-on-top-of-bone body alignment to work effectively, correct muscle engagement, use of head, arms and shoulders and excellent articulation of steps. “I tell the dancers, ‘Don’t feel depressed. I will be on you like a wetsuit until you get it.’”
“Susan is adamant about breaking bad habits. She watches and gives individualized corrections — it feels like a private lesson,” says soloist Jessica McCann, whose rib cage and back caught Jaffe’s scrutiny.
As a choreographer, Jaffe favors a collaborative creative process that shapes movement around the strengths of her dancers. She coaches them as the piece develops, explains principal dancer Yoshiaki Nakano, who is impressed by her positivity, generosity and drive. “She asks us, ‘How does this feel? How does this work?’ She cares about what we are doing,” he says.
Jaffe says the biggest challenge has been familiarizing herself with the organization since she took over from Terrence Orr, who remains on call for “SOS questions.” Jaffe, a former American Ballet Theatre superstar, is the half-century-old troupe’s second woman artistic director.
“The picture has changed since Patricia Wilde’s time (1982-1997). Women are leading major professional companies in New Zealand, Finland, Canada, Miami, Cincinnati and Charlotte. We have the same expertise and vision as our male counterparts,” she says, adding that the position requires “creativity, organizational and decision-making abilities, leadership skills — in ways that are positive and life-affirming — and expertise in the dance world.”
“I had thought many times about being an artistic director,” says Jaffe, the former Dean of Dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Opportunity didn’t knock until October 2019, when the vacancy at PBT arose.
Under Orr’s supervision, PBT maintained a repertoire of classical, neoclassical and contemporary works, a balance Jaffe plans to preserve — but fashioned around her own artistic vision for the 30-member troupe. She is seeking out guest choreographers who create the unexpected (but is vehement that profanity and nudity are not in the mix). Her wish list includes Cincinnati Ballet’s resident choreographer Jennifer Archibald, British choreographer Michael Pink, Canadian choreographer Aszure Barton and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s Robert Battle.
“After 20 years, it’s time to update full-length productions,” she says. Targeted for a refresh are “Dracula” and “Swan Lake.” She plans to dive into “Swan Lake” herself with a traditional interpretation reflecting her style and storytelling. “The steps are the words on the page, but not the story — the storytelling has to be truthful,” says Jaffe, who worked with a dramaturg during her performing career.
Although the pandemic shuttered theaters and canceled the 2020-21 season, under Jaffe’s guidance, PBT offered a televised mini-version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a digital “Fireside Nutcracker,” live performances at the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hall of Sculpture and launched the Open Air Series, an outdoor showcase of classical ballet excerpts and contemporary ballets performed on a 44-foot wide, mobile proscenium stage. From April 19-25, PBT releases online the first of two, 20-minute virtually accessible showcases filmed at WQED and next month presents its second Open Air Series, details pending.
As the 2021-22 season approaches and plans solidify, Jaffe says, “I am excited about where we are going, how we’re going to get there and how Pittsburgh will experience PBT.”
A year from now, “I want to be able to ask, ‘How has your viewing experience changed?’”
Coming in May
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, Open Air Series, classical ballet excerpts and works by Susan Jaffe, Annabelle Ochoa Lopez, Helen Pickett, Sasha Janes and award-winning Pittsburgh native Gina Patterson. pbt.org