Presenting the ballet “Romeo and Juliet” in 1971 in Pittsburgh was one of many highlights of Nicolas Petrov’s life in dance. It began in the Balkans during the early years of the Cold War and included founding both the dance department at Point Park University and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
The Pittsburgh Ballet performances of “Romeo and Juliet” on Oct. 8 and 10, 1971, at Heinz Hall, with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra playing the score, were likely the first American full-evening productions of Sergei Prokofiev’s masterpiece. Now 80, Petrov is retiring with a final revival of one of his signature accomplishments.
Point Park Conservatory Dance Company will present seven performances of Petrov’s production of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” starting Dec. 10 at Pittsburgh Playhouse in Oakland.
“I have great admiration for him,” says Terrence Orr, Petrov’s successor as artistic director of the ballet. “I’ve watched people start companies. He took on a whole big world when he started the dance program at Point Park and PBT almost simultaneously. He had the opportunity and ability to choreograph and brought in big name stars, not only from American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet but also more world-renowned artists.”
Petrov was born in Novi Sad in northern Serbia, where his Russian father had moved after the revolution which took Russia out of World War I. As a boy, he was more certain what he didn’t want to do than what he did. He found his father’s law books boring and didn’t want to be a lawyer.
His country was occupied by the Nazis during World War II and was then a satellite state of the Soviet Union.
“After the war, they started ballet schools in the satellite countries, like Serbia, Rumania, Bulgaria and Hungary. We had auditions in our regular school. I was in middle school, 11½ or 12, when they asked me if I wanted to go to ballet school,” Petrov recalls. “I was puzzled. None of my friends knew what ballet was about.”
When he was told ballet dancers get extra food stamps and two weeks vacation on the seashore, his interest perked up. But at home, his father was not pleased. He wanted his son to be a doctor or a lawyer. His mother, on the other hand, said maybe he’ll be good and it might keep him out of trouble.
Petrov studied at Belgrade Dance Academy and Belgrade University and, after graduation, danced with the operetta and opera companies in Belgrade. With touring groups coming to the city, Petrov’s perspective was broadening. He went to Paris to further his command of ballet and studied dance with Olga Preobrajenska.
Paris was the base of Petrov’s life from the mid-’50s to mid-’60s. He toured extensively with Ballet de France and Theatre D’Art de Ballet. As his career blossomed, he performed often for the legendary choreographer Leonid Massine and also worked as a dancer and producer for the television station ORTF in Paris.
For all his touring as a dancer, by the mid-’60s Petrov had never set foot in the United States, except for a stopover in Alaska on a flight to Japan. He was intrigued when a friend from Zagreb who was teaching at Point Park asked him if he would be interested in teaching dance in Pittsburgh. He was, and in due course received the offer to be an associate professor.
In 1967, Petrov took over the Pittsburgh Playhouse dance department and soon thereafter began the academic dance program at Point Park. He taught ballet and hired other teachers for jazz, modern dance and other styles. More than 800 dancers have graduated from Point Park over the past 44 years, many going on to perform on Broadway, dance with professional ensembles, appear on film and television, teach and form their own companies.
In 1969, he became choreographer for Pittsburgh Opera. At the same time, he was trying to establish a dance company and accepted offers to perform at festivals and anywhere else he could get exposure.
The crucial step to the establishment of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre occurred when Petrov met Lotti Falk, and she agreed to be on his board of directors. He says she talked with her husband and friends to create a budget for the new company.
In its early years, the ballet performed a few full-length ballets, such as “The Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake,” but mainly performed mixed programs of shorter works.
When Heinz Hall opened in 1971, Petrov decided to stage Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” for opening festivities. He picked young dancers to match the age of the characters and scored a coup by engaging recent Soviet emigrees Alexander Filipov to play Romeo and Gennadi Vostrikov as Mercutio. The Juliet was 19-year old Edra Toth, a Hungarian dancer with Boston Ballet. The production, with the Pittsburgh Symphony playing Prokofiev’s score, received a favorable review from New York Times dance critic Clive Barnes.
Petrov regularly brought in stars for leading roles in ballet production. He also sought out leading dance figures to teach at Point Park, including Natalia Makarova, Violette Verdy, Edward Villela and his old European master Leonid Massine.
“One of his great attributes was to be able to pull together talent in the form of dancers, musicians and designers,” says Judith Leifer-Bentz, who danced with Martha Graham’s company for five years before joining the faculty at Point Park. “Even from the business end, he was very smart about it. The ideas that he had for the works were large. His vision was very large. His gift to pull together talented dancers was beneficial for him. In rehearsals, he was a strong director.”
Leifer-Bentz danced in Petrov’s 1973 Pittsburgh Ballet production of “Romeo and Juliet.” She saw a video of the 1971 production, saw the role of Lady Capulet and said to herself, “I can do that.” When she approached Petrov about performing the role, he said, “Of course.”
“He double cast everything for security. Some things were triple cast,” she recalls.
The morning after the first rehearsal, Leifer-Bentz saw she was no longer on the first cast list and asked him about it. He told her he didn’t like her interpretation.
“I was so angry I got together with a friend who was an actress, a very expressive actress, to work on the role. It was stop and start. ‘This is valid.’ ‘This is not.’ It was an incredible experience,” she says.
After the next rehearsal, she was back on the first cast list.
“He said to me, ‘You proved your point.’ That was the way he worked. If you did the job, you got the job.”
Petrov and the ballet parted ways in 1977, after behind-the-scenes disputes with the ballet master. Still eager to produce ballet, he formed the American Dance Ensemble at Point Park.
Pittsburgh native Douglas Bentz, who is married to Judith Leifer-Bentz, was one of the original members of the American Dance Ensemble. He had gone away for college and his early career, but returned to successfully audition for the ballet in 1975.
The next fall, after summer-stock musical-theater performances, Bentz returned to the ballet and was tapped by Petrov to teach jazz dance at Point Park, where he is a professor.
“That was a really fun time in my life,” Bentz says. Petrov “was like a father figure, a friend. We fought; we laughed; we’d go have a beer and then go back to rehearsal. It was really cool, a lot of great energy.
“There was no Point Park dance program when I was young. I might have thought of going to it. I left before he came to Pittsburgh. The city owes him so much. He founded the dance department which saved the college in many ways and brought back the Playhouse in the early ’70s and ’80s.”
Looking back over his life in dance, Petrov says, “There was good and bad. I was not one of those people dreaming of a life. I was living it. I was living on my own at 14, supporting myself. Male dancers were not abundant after the war, so very early I got on stage. Obviously, it was interesting and also satisfying.”
He stopped dancing when he was 40 and was so busy with teaching and administration that he says he hardly missed performing.
Dancing also enabled Petrov to see the world. “We toured to the Far East and Middle East and Africa and all of Europe. Touristically, too, it was a fantastic, excellent life.”
Mark Kanny is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or email@example.com.