By Sara Baukneckt
31 August 2020
Susan Jaffe remembers her reaction when she learned she would be Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s next artistic director.
“I was pacing back and forth. I could feel the tears coming down my face. I was hyperventilating, really,” she recalls. “Then I sat down and said, ‘Wait a minute. I can’t come. We’re in the middle of a pandemic.’”
She took the job anyway, reassured by PBT’s board that the company is financially sound and could weather the COVID-19 storm. Nearly two months in, she’s determined to help make sure that happens.
PBT announced last week that, due to pandemic restrictions and theater closures, it will hold open-air performances in lieu of indoor shows, beginning with shows next month outside its headquarters in the Strip District. For now, the 2021 portion of its schedule will remain as is.
The “Open Air Series” will run Sept. 10-14 and include appearances by Pittsburgh CLO, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Opera, Jevon Rushton Group and special guests presented by the August Wilson African American Cultural Center.
PBT’s mainstage season had been set to open in late October with “Balanchine + Tchaikovsky” at Benedum Center. That will become a socially distanced outdoor experience in a new “mobile performing arts venue” outside PBT’s building. “The Nutcracker” is also being reimagined beyond a traditional theater setting.
Executive Director Harris Ferris says Ms. Jaffe is the right choice for artistic director “especially because of the adaptability that’s required with COVID-19 and the programming innovations that are needed. If we can’t get on the stages, we’ve got to figure out another way.”
Doing so comes with many questions, Ms. Jaffe says. How do you get students back in class safely? What about company dancers? Should only those who cohabitate be in a studio at the same time? Dressing rooms, or no dressing rooms?
Paying it forward
When Ms. Jaffe’s time on stage ended, her career as an educator, choreographer and administrator began.
“I really felt like it was my responsibility to give back,” she says. “Now I’m in service to ballet and to dance and to nurturing and bringing forth the next generation.”
In 2003-10, she taught in the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School of American Ballet Theatre and co-founded, owned and directed a dance studio. For two years, she worked as ballet mistress for ABT. She also created works for the company and other arts organizations across the country.
In 2012, Ms. Jaffe became dean of dance at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. She’s also a board member for the Youth America Grand Prix and Dance Magazine Awards.
She was working in North Carolina when she was approached by a search firm about the PBT position.
“I had built a very strong program and was very happy there,” she says. “But then I reminded myself that to be an artistic director was a lifelong dream for me, or at least through my adulthood.”
Her final interview was in March, shortly before COVID-19 shutdowns took effect. Concerned about getting on a plane during a pandemic, she drove to Pittsburgh from North Carolina for a two-day visit. Her personality, background and vision were deemed a match and she was unanimously approved by the board.
“She’s extremely approachable and amicable,” Mr. Ferris says. “She’s got the emotional stability that can steady the ship and keep everyone positively focused.”
Beyond navigating COVID-19, Ms. Jaffe has big ideas for PBT and its growing school. She wants more diversity in choreography, more collaborations with museums and other institutions and someday, perhaps a choreographic festival in Pittsburgh. In regards to the PBT School, additional satellite locations are being considered as a way to bring ballet into more communities.
Read the full article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.