The Dancers' Vision: ‘New Works’ from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Seven dancers put in the work off stage, and this month they’ll premiere original choreography in Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s first “New Works” showcase.

Photo by Kelly Perkovich

The slipper is on the other foot for seven Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre dancers as they temporarily step away from the footlights into roles as choreographers. When the curtain rises on PBT’s “New Works” showcase at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, these artists will watch as their creations take center stage.

“We’ve never done this before,” says Terrence Orr, PBT’s artistic director, of the unprecedented programming move. In the past, programs have included works that dancers choreographed for the 48-year-old ensemble, but this is the first mainstage event exclusively featuring premieres by troupe members: Amanda Cochrane, Julia Erickson, Jessica McCann, William Moore, Yoshiaki Nakano, JoAnna Schmidt and Cooper Verona.

Orr selected the participants, each with different strengths, but all with some degree of choreography experience.

Orr is intent on facilitating the creative process by attempting to accommodate aspiring, in-house choreographers with dancers, studio space and time to experiment. In 2016, as part of an ongoing residency with Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Orr oversaw the launch of “Millennial Movement,” a showcase of premieres created by the troupe’s emerging choreographers, including Verona, a member in the corps de ballet.

“It is a huge opportunity to now create work for the mainstage — it has been my dream for a while. All my previous work has led to this,” says Verona, who has choreographed for PBT’s annual Hartwood Acres showcase and for students at the academy and university levels.

The Connecticut native discovered his interest in choreography while studying at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he took composition classes and picked up skills through on-the-job interaction working with internationally acclaimed choreographers. He hopes to transition into choreography as a second career.

“A good choreographer needs a clear artistic vision, must be able to articulate it and have something to say to the audience — I try to emulate that,” he says.

Photo by Aimee DiAndrea

For Cochrane, a principal dancer, choreography is “an exciting adventure.”

“It has definitely given me insight into the field and provided a way to continue to work with dancers and remain close to the art form I love,” she says.
Cochrane created a ballet for last season’s “Millennial Movement” showcase and previously choreographed for students locally and in her home state of Washington. “Preparation is the key to a successful rehearsal,” she says, adding that she enjoys drawing on various dance-making approaches that mix movement play with set material.

“I do my best thinking in the shower,” she admits. “While on bad days, I hate everything I’ve done, there are magical moments when the movement is new and fresh.”

Corps member McCann is passionate about movement and foresees herself as a dancer/choreographer. “It’s exhilarating to make a vision into a reality,” says the Californian, who joined PBT in 2015. “As dancers, we are told what to do. As a choreographer, it’s totally my vision.”

McCann, who has choreographed for PBT’s Dancers’ Trust showcase and in Japan, says she uses a wide range of styles but finds movement in the music.

For this program, “Terry requested a contemporary piece with pointe shoes,” she says, noting she will be channeling her inner William Forsythe. “Not everyone will like my piece, but that’s the nature of art.”

Organizing this project was “a mammoth bite to chew,” says Orr, who divided the choreographers into two groups, permitting crossover opportunities for them to dance in their colleagues’ ballets.

McCann focuses on themes of positivity and negativity for her chalk-dusted cast, while Verona offers “Thick White Sheets,” an exploration of power and powerlessness. Their ballets, along with Erickson’s vignettes for 10 dancers unified with a strand of poetry, comprise one program. Cochrane’s 22-minute ballet, inspired by Claude Debussy’s music and the Impressionist Movement, joins works by Moore, Nakano and Schmidt on the alternate bill.

“I don’t see this as a one-off thing,” Orr says. “I hope audiences will see the dancers in a new light — as creators.”  

(March 16-25; August Wilson Center for African American Culture, 980 Liberty Ave., Downtown; 412/456-6666,

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