The first time Stephanie Pitts performed the short ballet “Variations for Six” she had an epiphany.
“I felt like a real dancer. When I started doing it, I was like, ‘Oh my God, THIS is dancing,'” recalls Pitts, a former dancer from Ballet Oklahoma, the predecessor of Oklahoma City Ballet.
The fact that the piece was choreographed by Bryan Pitts, Ballet Oklahoma’s longtime artistic director and father-in-law, only multiplies the meaning of “Variations for Six” to her.
“It was one of my first ones that was more abstract, no story, no real musical influence on how you were supposed to move with it. So that was my first instruction to be able to play something like that. … I’m just so grateful for the chances he gave me as a dancer and then to be able to continue with this company administratively,” said Stephanie Pitts, who is now head of the company. Community and Social Media Engagement of OKC Ballet.
“He’s put his heart and soul into the business for 22 years…so I think it’s just a great way for us to be able to honor his time.”
In memory of Bryan Pitts, who passed away on September 5, 2019 at the age of 66, OKC Ballet resumes its “Variations for six” from February 18 to 20 at the Civic Center as part of a mixed program of short ballets entitled “Made in the USA”
The mixed bill will feature several American works
Featuring works created by American choreographers, the program will also include “2 & 3 Part Inventions” by legendary “West Side Story” choreographer Jerome Robbins, with piano music by Johann Sebastian Bach performed live on stage; the official debut of Jessica Lang’s ‘To Familiar Spaces in Dream’, originally created in 2005 for the Richmond Ballet; and the world premiere of Nicolo Fonte’s “Of Dreams and Dice”, a new work created especially for OKC Ballet for six weeks while the choreographer was in residence.
To honor the 50th anniversary of OKC Ballet, “Made in USA” will begin with a Grand Défilé, a tradition of the Paris Opera Ballet. Essentially a parade, it will showcase the company’s performers, starting with the youngest students of the Yvonne Chouteau school through the principal dancers of the professional company.
“It’s my first experience with it…so I’m interested in seeing it,” said Stephanie Pitts. “I think it’s great for Oklahoma City to see the work the school is doing and to visually understand that if they have a student in the school, they could, like me, stay in Oklahoma and have a career as a professional dancer.”
She was Stephanie Foraker when she started dancing with Ballet Oklahoma.
“I joined the company in 2006. It was kind of a slow time, but it was enough for me because I was just happy to dance professionally. But they definitely had their ups and downs,” said she declared.
“I really think Bryan was committed to the public and trying to bring what he could here.”
The director guided the ballet through the lean post-oil years
Born October 5, 1952 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Bryan Pitts began his professional ballet training at age 14 at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He then continued his studies at the School of American Ballet, the official school of New York City Ballet. He was 17 when he joined New York City Ballet, and he spent eight years with the company before dancing with Zurich Opera Ballet, Los Angeles Ballet and Dallas Ballet.
Pitts, alongside his wife Laura Flagg-Pitts, served as artistic director of Ballet Oklahoma from 1986 to 2008, guiding the company through OKC’s difficult post-oil crisis years.
A prolific choreographer, he has created numerous ballets, including “Prey,” a collaboration with Grammy-winning composer Stewart Copeland, the founder/drummer of rock band The Police.
Pitts also launched Artsreach, OKC Ballet’s longtime community engagement program, which has brought more than 120,000 students from across the state to the Civic Center to see ballet.
“When you talk to people in his day who danced for him, it was a family atmosphere. … We would have a Christmas party together, and often dancers who were from out of town would come over for Christmas dinner or Thanksgiving with Bryan and his family,” said Stephanie Pitts, who danced with the ballet until 2014, when she retired from performing and joined the staff.
“He was always committed to taking care of his dancers, first and foremost, if it meant paying out of pocket for someone to have a job over the summer.”
“Variations” shows the roots of the former artistic director
Pitts originally premiered his “Variations for Six” at Dallas Ballet in 1983.
“Laura and Bryan and I started at the same time (at Dallas Ballet) when Flemming Flindt took over the company in 1981. So we were all very young, and it was exciting,” said the former dancer and ballet master of Ballet Oklahoma. Jacob Sparso, who helps OKC Ballet stage “Variations for Six”.
“It was the first piece he choreographed. He had just become a ballet master and had the chance to do a job. … I always found it exciting and fresh when someone choreographed on you. You’re right there and you’re helping create a job for someone, and I’ll remember we always had such a great time.”
The piece is on Igor Stravinsky’s “Duo Concertant” for piano and violin.
“It’s a great little piece for dancers. It’s simple, but beautiful and complicated for dancers because of Stravinsky’s music. It’s not easy. … But I think it’s a perfect piece to show off Bryan’s talents,” Sparso said.
Pitts staged his “Variations for Six” at OKC at least twice. The title refers to the four dancers and two musicians who share the stage in the piece.
But when her future daughter-in-law performed it with Sparso during her second season of Ballet Oklahoma, there were no musicians on stage.
“I don’t think we could afford it at the time, so I’m thrilled to see the music performed live with it,” said Stephanie Pitts, who is married to Christian Pitts, the eldest of Bryan’s two sons and Laura, in 2010.
“His background was primarily with the New York City Ballet, where George Balanchine was artistic director, and then Jerome Robbins. So I really think this ballet reflects that influence on his choreography. It’s neoclassical and has a lot of those Balanchine elements: hips forward, hands bent, parallel positions…. It’s an excellent one that sums it all up in one piece and showcases his style of choreography.
In 2008, Ballet Oklahoma came to a vote of its board of directors to cease to exist. That summer, the board rejected a possible merger with the Tulsa Ballet as well as an option to dissolve the company, instead voting overwhelmingly to reinvent the organization as Oklahoma City. Ballet. Former Oklahoma Ballet dancer Robert Mills, who recently stepped down during his 14th season as artistic director, and Sparso helped turn the company around.
“Look at the company, look at the success it’s had,” Sparso said. “I don’t envy any director, especially when it’s a nonprofit. It’s hard, nerve-wracking work, trying to make it what you want it to be. and the quality you want it to be. But was it worth it? Absolutely.
Since Pitts’ widow and sons still live in Oklahoma City, his daughter-in-law is thrilled to see OKC Ballet honoring his legacy.
“There were tough times leading up to 2008, into 2008. It’s all really a testament to the work he did. He was trying to build the audience, keep the company going, and keep the dancers employed and paid. And I think it’s honorable,” said Stephanie Pitts.
“Made in USA” by Oklahoma City Ballet
When: February 18-20.
Or: Civic Center, 201 N Walker.
COVID-19 Protocols: Masks are mandatory at the Civic Center.
Tickets and information: www.okcballet.org.