Storytelling in Motion Sneak Peek: “The Exiled”

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s first production of the 2022-2023 season is Storytelling in Motion, a mixed repertoire showcase of contemporary ballet. The production features Helen Pickett’s piece The Exiled, which diverges from traditional ballet in both content and set design. 

The Exiled features a large plexiglass room, where three of the five characters are confined during the entirety of the piece. The three incompatible strangers are destined to spend eternity together in the room, while two characters called the Proprietors function as the story’s curators and instigators, creating a cat-and-mouse dynamic. The Proprietors also serve as narrators, diverging from ballet tradition with a spoken performance. 

For choreographer Helen Pickett, the unusual set of The Exiled was created to “investigate the concepts of containment: limited space to move and negotiate and the physical responses to the forced confines, which included an actual wall to bump up against,” Pickett explained. “In addition, I wanted to combine the above ideas with the psychological wall/barriers between three strangers who are locked into a one-room space. How do three vastly different individuals cope with each other? How are alliances built, destroyed and accepted?”

Former Artistic Director Susan Jaffe is well acquainted with The Exiled, having seen it during its first ever performance and knew it would be a perfect fit for Storytelling in Motion as she planned the 22-23 season. 

“I actually got to see The Exiled in Atlanta, where it premiered,” Jaffe recalled. “I drove eight hours from Winston Salem just to see that work. I was so impressed with it. We did Helen Pickett’s Petal last year during Season Premiere, and now we’re doing The Exiled.” 

According to Jaffe, “My interpretation of that plexiglass box is a place where you can’t get out – you are captured in that space. But it’s also transparent, so to me, it’s like being a voyeur. It feels like looking into an apartment building or even looking at a television set. It’s one step removed, but in a way it magnifies what the dancers are doing and what they are saying and makes it unusual enough that you’re hyper focused on the work.” 

Pickett echoed Jaffe’s interpretation, stating that, “With this ‘a-day-in-the-life’ story, I wished to set up an even more pronounced voyeuristic aspect for the audience. A transparent wall creates a greater sense that we might be watching something we shouldn’t and it forces questions about the fourth wall barrier as well. On this day of reckoning, we, the audience, are directly asked to participate as witnesses by The Proprietors. We learn that the three other characters, all strangers to each other, are in this space because of their life choices. The Proprietors see their job as a service, and have invited us to join ‘the fun.’ The antics ensue and eventually the three strangers face their realities. 

I put enough people inside the space to make the movement puzzle more challenging. I knew The Proprietors could breach the confines, creating more tension for the confined three. ”

On the intended message of the piece, Pickett commented that, “There is no intended message. It is a study in human nature. These PBT dancers are exceptionally generous in their storytelling, both with their physical and emotional space.” 

According to Jaffe, Pickett actually reworked and rewrote part of the script specifically for PBT dancers. Pickett will come to Pittsburgh to teach the piece in person to the company dancers. 

“Helen is one of the top female choreographers in the world, and we’re really fortunate to be able to perform her work,” Jaffe remarked.

Pickett reflected that, “I want to thank the extraordinary Sarah Hillmer who contributed greatly to the development and furthering of The Exiled. And I wish to thank Susan Jaffe, who saw the premiere of The Exiled, and the entire PBT organization. We are better together!” 

Make sure to see The Exiled, along with two other innovative contemporary pieces — Nacho Duato’s Duende and a new piece choreographed by PBT’s own principal dancer Yoshiaki Nakano — in Storytelling in Motion, running Oct. 7-9 at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. Check out the preview video here.

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Teacher Feature: Kaila Lewis, Head of the Children’s Division


Meet PBT School’s Head of the Children’s Division Kaila Lewis! A Pittsburgh native, Kaila has been teaching with PBT School since 2006, but her history with the School goes all the way back to her early years as a dancer. Kaila trained at PBT School, where she went through the student division, the high school program and the graduate program. Read on to learn about her journey with PBT and her passion for teaching ballet to young children! 

How long have you been teaching at PBT School?
I have been teaching at PBT for 16 years. I became the Children’s Division Coordinator 8 years ago and just recently became the Head of the Children’s Division.

What drew you to teaching children?
I was naturally drawn to working with children and I just love how genuine and magical they are.

Can you share why you believe that dancing ballet is rewarding for young children?
I think ballet offers many things that can be carried with someone, even after they have finished dancing. Ballet offers discipline and structure, and eventually students must learn time management. It also can create a lifelong passion and appreciation.

Kaila Lewis dances alongside two young dancers
Photo: Aviana Adams
Photo: Aviana Adams

As a graduate of the student division, high school program and the graduate program of PBT School, how have you seen the school progress during your time with PBT?
It has been exciting to watch the school expand over the years. I was also proud to watch how the school adapted and persevered during the pandemic.

How do you stay calm and organized during teaching?
I have always been an organized person and I always carry a notebook and a planner with me. I implement discipline and structure from the very beginning with my students. I work hard to carry those expectations through their primary years, so that it is never an issue.

What is the most rewarding part of teaching?
My favorite thing about my job is that I get to facilitate a child’s love for ballet. I get to create magical experiences that turn ballet into a passion.

Interested in enrolling your child in our Children’s Division classes? Join us for a free Open House at the Children’s Division New Family Day on Friday, August 26 from 10 a.m. – noon! 

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PBT School Graduate Students Take Center Stage

A male dancer holds hands with a female dancer on either side of him as the three leap across the stage

A major part of the PBT School experience is the opportunity for students to perform on the big stage. The most recent opportunity for PBT students to perform was at Open Air: A Series in Celebration of the Performing Arts, which was held this year from June 9 – 12 at the Allegheny Riverfront. 

However, PBT School student performance opportunities were not just limited to Open Air this year; many graduate students saw the opportunity to perform in Susan Jaffe’s Swan Lake with the PBT Orchestra last May as well as previous productions of The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker.

Three graduate students from the PBT School — Cecilia Hernandez, Gracie Jean Joiner and Jesse Joiner — reflect on the performance opportunities that PBT has offered and what they’ve learned from their experiences onstage.

What is your favorite part about performing? Least favorite part?

  • Gracie: My favorite part of performing is the sense of calm I feel when I step on stage. I also love that you can be anyone on stage. Playing a character and having an audience respond is amazing! My least favorite part of performing is that there just isn’t enough of it. Even with all the performance opportunities, I would always love to be on stage more.
  • Cecilia: My favorite part about performing is anytime I am on stage. I love the adrenaline, the freedom and getting more energy from the audience. And my least favorite parts are the moments right before getting on stage where I stress about what could go wrong. But that quickly ends once I step on stage, and then it’s my favorite part!
  • Jesse: My favorite part of performing is getting ready and into costume and getting into character. There’s nothing in the world that’s as incredible as dancing on stage with lights and costumes with your friends. I honestly don’t have a least favorite part of performing. During long runs of shows like The Nutcracker, it’s a lot of hours and shows and it feels draining and tiring, but as soon as the curtain goes up you forget all about it.  

What is your favorite type of dance you’ve performed?

  • Gracie: I started ballet at a later age and trying to catch up to more advanced dancers initially left me without much confidence in performing classical ballet. As I’ve continued my training with PBT School and gained confidence, classical ballet has become my absolute favorite.
  • Cecilia: I’ve performed many styles of dance (modern, jazz, hip hop, contemporary) but ballet will always be my favorite to perform!
  • Jesse: My favorite type of dance I performed is classical. Classical is the style I feel most comfortable in because you rely on your technique and rehearsals once you get on stage.
A male dancer poses on stage with one female dancer on either side of him.
Lexi Troianos, Jesse Joiner and Gracie Jean Joiner perform the pas de trois from Swan Lake at the 2022 production of Open Air: A Series in Celebration of the Performing Arts | Photo: Aviana Adams

How was your experience with Open Air this year? What role did you dance?

  • Gracie: I had a great experience with Open Air this year. We all felt so much love and support from the other dancers, instructors and audience members! It was an honor to represent the PBT school dancing as second girl in the pas de trois from Swan Lake.
  • Cecilia: Performing in PBT’s Open Air this year was so fun! I performed the role of Kitri in the Don Quixote Act III pas de deux. Working with my partner and sharing the outdoor stage after lots of hard work was a beautiful experience. It was also lovely to see the other dance organizations from Pittsburgh performing. The Open Air collaboration truly highlights and shows appreciation for the Pittsburgh dance community.
  • Jesse: I had a great time in Open Air this year; it was a great performance opportunity! I danced the role of Benno in the Swan Lake pas de trois.
A female dancer in a red dress leaps across a stage.
Ceclia Hernandez performs the Don Quixote Act III pas de deux in the 2022 production of Open Air: A Series in Celebration of the Performing Arts | Photo: Aviana Adams

What has been your favorite performance experience with PBT?

  • Gracie: It’s difficult to narrow down my favorite performance experience with PBT because I’ve had so many wonderful opportunities over the last three years. This year, I particularly loved performing the pas de trois from Swan Lake in the Spring Showcase and Open Air. We were able to rehearse the piece with several instructors who guided us and also let us make it our own.
  • Cecilia: My favorite performance experience with PBT was performing in Susan Jaffe’s Swan Lake with the PBT Orchestra this past May. I had the pleasure of dancing the Swan corps and Czardas corps. It was an absolute dream to be a part of the rehearsal and performance process. My favorite moment is when the Swan corps open Act IV with a slow dance. The music and the strength and unity of the swans is such a special moment that I will never forget. 
  • Jesse: My favorite performance with PBT has been The Sleeping Beauty. Getting to dance with a professional company for the first time was an experience I will never forget.

How does dancing alongside company dancers and other students inform your own dancing?

  • Gracie: There is always something to be learned from dancing alongside or even just watching other dancers, whether in class or during performances. When watching company dancers and fellow students, I like to focus on the little nuances that make their performances spectacular and emulate those in my own way.
  • Cecilia: Watching and observing company members has certainly helped me understand what company life is truly like. There’s a level of professionalism and collaboration that they present that motivates me. In rehearsals, they are quick to ask questions and work together to make the final product as clean as can be. Many company members would help me with understanding the music and spacing of certain dances. I have learned so much from my fellow Graduate students as well. They have guided me in adapting to longer dance schedules. They have encouraged me on my off days and I would do the same for them. We motivate each other in classes and rehearsals and offer suggestions to help improve our technique and artistry. We are like a family!
  • Jesse: Every time I dance with company members I learn something new, from how they work in rehearsal to their class work. There is always a chance to learn in any setting.

How has your experience performing with PBT helped to shape you as a dancer?
Gracie: I came to PBT with lots of technical knowledge, but absolutely no clue what to do with it. Having so many opportunities to perform with PBT in different locations and styles has helped me to improve both the consistency of my technique and artistry.
Cecilia: Performing with PBT has helped me grow more professional and developed how I present myself on stage. I’m so grateful to have had many performance opportunities to help me experiment with who I am as a dancer.
Jesse: PBT has shaped me into the dancer I am today. I came to PBT four years ago and this is where my technique has been shaped and created. Dancing alongside the company has really helped me learn how to work smart and work hard in class and rehearsal.

PBT Completes Live Music Appeal

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre (PBT) is pleased to announce that its $6 million Live Music Appeal, which was launched at the start of the organization’s 50th season in 2019, has been achieved. This momentous occasion, which was accomplished under the leadership of outgoing Executive Director Harris Ferris, ensures that the PBT Orchestra will provide live music at PBT performances for the next 50 years and beyond.

“When this important campaign appeal was announced in the fall of 2019 no one could have predicted that within 6 months the season would be closing due to COVID-19,” says Harris Ferris. “I am proud to announce that friends of PBT can rest assured that the current level of orchestral music will continue to be a part of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s annual season.”

This transformational gift of 50 years’ live music both delivers on our mission of creating extraordinary ballet experiences and ensures organizational sustainability,” says PBT Board Chair Mary McKinney Flaherty. “This would not be possible without Harris’s vision; the financial support of our anonymous donor, leading foundations and numerous individuals; and, of course, the skill and artistry of all of our amazing PBT Orchestra musicians.”

Since 2010, a single individual, who has chosen to remain anonymous, has been instrumental in supporting two to three programs every season with the PBT Orchestra. In support of PBT’s Live Music Appeal, this same individual pledged a $3 million gift to double every donation made to live music since the appeal was launched in October 2019. “We are deeply grateful for the anonymous donor’s support, along with several leading foundations who contributed to this goal, including The Hillman Foundation, Hilda M. Willis Foundation, Heinz Endowments, Audrey Hillman Fisher Foundation and so many other organizations and individuals,” Ferris says. 

The announcement of this achievement was formally recognized at PBT’s launch party of Open Air: A Series in Celebration of the Performing Arts on Thursday, June 9. Open Air was hosted this year in a picturesque setting overlooking the beautiful Allegheny River in Sharpsburg, due to the generosity of and partnership with The Mosites Company, which owns the 52-acre property. 

Both Open Air and the success of the PBT’s Live Music Appeal come at the end of Harris Ferris’ successful 15 year tenure as executive director of PBT, during which he fostered a harmonious relationship with the PBT Orchestra. The completion of the Live Music Appeal is a remarkable, crowning achievement in Ferris’ legacy at PBT. 

The musicians of the PBT Orchestra are deeply grateful to the donors and patrons of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre for believing what we have always believed: great ballet deserves great live music. We look forward to being an integral part of PBT every season for many years to come,” says PBT Orchestra Oboist Cynthia Anderson.