Ballet Careers

Steel City Strength: Terrence Orr's Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Offers Dancers a Supportive and Secure Career

Orr coaching principal Julia Erickson during a rehearsal for La Bayadère. Photo by Aimee DiAndrea, Courtesy PBT.

“I was tricked into it," says Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre artistic director Terrence S. Orr, recalling his introduction to ballet. As a young boy, he wanted to learn acrobatics, but when there wasn't a beginning class available, the studio owner put him in ballet. By the time he realized he'd been duped, Orr was already enjoying it. He kept dancing, becoming a principal with San Francisco Ballet by 17. He then rose through the ranks at American Ballet Theatre, where he also served as ballet master and répétiteur.

These days it's hard to imagine the forthright but affable Orr, now 72, being fooled by anyone. His commanding presence and clarity of purpose have helped position PBT as one of the nation's top regional ballet companies and training schools.


In 1997, Orr replaced former New York City Ballet star Patricia Wilde as director of the company, which was founded in 1969 by Nicolas Petrov and Loti Falk. His accomplishments at the AGMA-participating troupe are noteworthy. After guiding PBT through financial troubles in the early 2000s, Orr oversaw the remodeling of its five-studio facility and acquired housing for out-of-town high school students in PBT School's pre-professional division. Most recently, he spearheaded another expansion of the school, including two new studios and a wellness center.

Orr's vision for the company goes back to when he applied to be artistic director. While Wilde had introduced more Balanchine works to PBT, Orr advocated for a more varied repertoire of full-length classics, famous ballets the company had never done and brand-new creations.

Orr gives instructions to the Willis backstage in a production of PBT's "Giselle." Photo by Aimee DiAndrea, Courtesy PBT.

In recent years, he has pushed to expand all three facets of that approach. “My dancers are a very talented and strong group from the corps up to principals," he says. That confidence in his artists has led to PBT's first full-length productions of La Bayadère and Le Corsaire; Pittsburgh premieres of influential works by Jirí Kylián, William Forsythe, John Neumeier and Jean-Christophe Maillot; and world premieres by Dwight Rhoden and Viktor Plotnikov. With that, the company's budget has also grown from $7.3 million in 2010 to $9.8 million in 2016. This October, PBT will open its season with another ambitious production: Orr's newly restaged Giselle.

Principal Christopher Budzynski is just one of the dancers attracted to PBT's diverse repertoire. He describes Orr as a “very demanding but friendly and nurturing director. He encourages us not to be afraid of trying different things and doesn't hold it against us if we fail." Budzynski also likes the diversity at PBT. “The company is not cookie-cutter. There are different body types and personalities."

Dancers tend to stick with the company for many years. Principal Julia Erickson, now in her 15th season, says, “we are everyone else's cheerleaders. There is a respect for hierarchy, but a support system exists within the ranks."

Dancers also benefit from the expert knowledge of Orr's wife, company ballet mistress and former ABT star Marianna Tcherkassky. “It's an education for them to have a ballerina of her stature around," says Orr. Though he expects his dancers to work diligently and develop as artists, his specific expectations can differ for each person. “I am pretty patient," he says. “If somebody gets into the company, I know that I have brought them in for the right reasons."

Orr also encourages his dancers' own creative interests. Several have choreographed for the school and company, most recently principal Yoshiaki Nakano. Erickson runs Barre, a line of energy bars and wellness products for dancers, with her husband, former PBT member Aaron Ingley.

A newer tradition that makes PBT stand out on a national level is its sensory-friendly performances geared toward children and adults on the autism spectrum. In 2013, PBT was the first American professional ballet company to produce an adapted Nutcracker, and they've since performed special evenings of Peter Pan and Beauty and the Beast, with quieter audio, less startling effects and more relaxed house etiquette.

In addition to continuing these performances, Orr says he'd like to add a few dancers to the roster and keep growing the school. He's also interested in having more live music and touring. All of this upward momentum can be summed up by the person who knows Orr best. His wife, Tcherkassky, says, “Terry points us in a direction and says, 'Hey, you want to go there? This is how we can do it.' "

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre At a Glance

Number of dancers: 30

Length of contract: 38 weeks

Starting salary: $1,028 per week

Performances per year: 50

Website: pbt.org

Audition Advice: One of the best routes into the company is through the PBT School. The company also holds an open audition in March and accepts videos year-round. If Orr is interested, the next step may be joining the school's graduate program or being invited to take company class and meet with him for one-on-one interviews.

“The look of the dancer is very important," says Orr, “and that can be defined in all kinds of ways. I want dancers who are not only great technicians but also gifted actors. An equally important part of the audition process is having conversations with the dancer to get to know their heart and how they will fit in."

The Conversation
Site Network
James Whiteside (Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine)

Say you're perpetually impeccable designer Thom Browne. Say you're planning your Spring 2020 Paris menswear show along a "Versailles country club" theme. Say you want a world-class danseur to open the show with some kind of appropriately fabulous choreography.

Who do you call? James Whiteside, of course. On Saturday, the American Ballet Theatre principal—wearing pointe shoes and a glorious pinstriped tutu—kicked off Browne's presentation at the École des Beaux-Arts with a 15-minute, show-stealing solo. Whiteside choreographed the piece himself, with the help of detailed notes from the designer.

Keep reading... Show less
The Royal Ballet's Vadim Muntagirov and Marianela Nuñez in La Bayadère. Photo by Bill Cooper, Courtesy ROH.

Do you ever wish you could teleport to London and casually stroll into The Royal Opera House to see some of the world's best-loved ballets? Well, we have a solution for you: The Royal Ballet's 2018-19 cinema season.

Whether live or recorded, the seven ballet programs listed below, streaming now through next October, will deliver all of the magic that The Royal Ballet has to offer straight to your local movie theater. Can you smell the popcorn already?

Keep reading... Show less
Ballet Careers
Garry Corpuz and Wang Qingxin in an ad campaign for Hong Kong Ballet. Design Army and Dean Alexander, Courtesy HKB.

"Opportunities always come when you least expect them," says Septime Webre. In 2016, he'd left The Washington Ballet, after 17 years as artistic director, to focus on his choreography career. Halfway around the world in East Asia, Hong Kong Ballet was hiring a new director for its following season, and Webre's agent convinced him to submit his resumé. "I ended up on a call with leadership and the energy between us was great," says Webre.

Keep reading... Show less
Irina Kolpakova in the studio with Katherine Williams. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe.

Being coached by a treasure like former Kirov prima Irina Kolpakova is an experience most dancers only dream of. But company members at American Ballet Theatre have been the lucky beneficiaries of her wisdom since 1990. Thanks to Instagram, where pros like Gillian Murphy and James Whiteside share snippets of their sessions with Kolpakova, any ballet lover can be a fly on the wall during rehearsals with the famed ballet mistress.

Keep reading... Show less