By Karen Dacko
The curtain has lowered on Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s (PBT) mainstage season but the bourrées and ballonnés continue as preparations are underway for two outdoor events this month: Open Air: A Series in Celebration of the Performing Arts, from Thursday, June 9, through Sunday, June 12, and the annual Ballet Under the Stars showcase on June 26.
“It’s great to end the season with something like this — it brings the audience closer,” says PBT soloist Diana Yohe, who will perform on PBT’s mobile stage at the Allegheny Riverfront in Sharpsburg during the Open Air run and at Hartwood Acres Amphitheater as part of the Allegheny County Summer Concert Series.
Lesser known than the sprawling Hartwood hillside, the Allegheny Riverfront site in Sharpsburg “is a beautiful space,” says Harris Ferris, PBT’s departing executive director, who was instrumental in securing funding support for the more intimate Sharpsburg site from the Mosites Company and Allegheny County’s Gaming & Economic Development Tourism Fund.
Open Air, which underscores PBT’s ongoing commitment to making the art form accessible, was launched in September 2020 during the pandemic shutdown after a four-month whirlwind of brainstorming and fundraising that resulted in an $800,000 portable stage delivered to PBT’s Strip District parking lot. The Richard King Mellon Foundation, Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust, Jack Buncher Foundation and Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation donated funds for the stage.
Participants in the curated series receive tech support and free use of the stage. They also set their open ticket prices.
“But the event is not free to PBT,” says Ferris, adding that funding for this incarnation is significantly less than for last season’s two-week extravaganza, which took place in Schenley Park.
On tap are excerpts from “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake,” with choreography by Marius Petipa and Artistic Director Susan Jaffe (who grand jetés to New York’s American Ballet Theatre mid-season), plus contemporary works by Gemma Bond, Sasha Janes and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa.
For Open Air and the Hartwood showcase, Yohe’s dance partner is also her life partner, husband Joseph Parr.
“I love when we get to dance together,” she says.
The pair performs Bond’s lushly fluid and sweepingly romantic adagio “Depuis le Jour” (2012) on June 10 and for the Hartwood showcase, they are readying Petipa’s bravura “Don Quixote pas de Deux,” a physically demanding, virtuoso showpiece.
The well-known “Pas” is crammed with technical fireworks, but Yohe says, “The challenge is not the technique.” Instead, it’s maintaining the stamina needed to “make that technique happen.”
Sixty emerging professionals enrolled in the Company Experience Workshop will also take the Hartwood stage June 13-26 in solos and ensemble dances by Lew Christensen, Arthur Saint-Léon, August Bournonville and Petipa, as well as in premieres by company artists Christian García Campos and Joanna Schmidt and guests Rika Okamoto and Alexander Brady.
Now in its eighth season, the workshop is geared toward replicating the professional workday. It previously culminated with an in-studio presentation, says PBT School Director Marjorie Grundvig. Relocating to Hartwood ups the level. And, limited enrollment facilitates “putting on a show that makes sense,” she says.
Grundvig focuses on generating educational opportunities for the dancers — from working with choreographers to learning via ballet’s passed-down traditions.
Last year, Jaffe engaged a Royal Danish Ballet répétiteur who shared his insights into Bournonville’s “Napoli” (1842) with company dancers who in turn are imparting those stories to the cast of the work’s buoyant seven-minute “Tarantella.”
Grundvig brims with enthusiasm for the premieres and hopes the energy and exuberance of 60 dancers on stage in the Okamoto/Brady collaboration — which closes the show — conveys “a feeling of joyfulness” that the audience carries away.
Open Air: A Series in Celebration of the Performing Arts takes place at 1 19th Street in Sharpsburg. PBT performs at 8 p.m. June 9-11, with bleacher seating for 500 patrons per show. Tickets are $20. A full schedule of other participants (including Pittsburgh Festival Opera, Attack Theatre and Confluence Ballet), performance times and ticket availability can be found on the festival’s website.
Ballet Under the Stars takes place at Hartwood Acres (4070 Middle Road) in Allison Park on June 26 at 8 p.m. Admission is free.
Karen Dacko is a dance writer and critic whose work has been featured in Dance Magazine.