Pittsburgher en pointe: Susan Jaffe joins PBT as artistic director
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Pittsburgher en pointe: Susan Jaffe joins PBT as artistic director

Before taking the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre role, Jaffe danced for American Ballet Theatre for 22 years, opened a dance school and served as UNC's Dean of Dance.

Susan Jaffe. Photo courtesy of Susan Jaffe.
Susan Jaffe. Photo courtesy of Susan Jaffe.

Ballet has always held a kind of magic for Susan Jaffe.

“I was very much in the world of fantasy when I was a kid,” Jaffe recalled. “Ballet was a place where I could exercise that imagination and live in the world of fairies and princesses and beautiful things.”

So, Jaffe leapt into what would become 22 years as a principal dancer for American Ballet Theatre and then into several teaching roles after she retired at age 40.

Susan Jaffe partnering with Vladimir Malakhov in the late 1990s. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor

Now, Jaffe, 58, is onto her next venture – artistic director for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre – a job she describes as a “dream come true.”

The role is hefty: Program five major annual performances, choose the works, cast the performers, oversee the dance school faculty and navigate it all during a global pandemic.

“I am very courageous or stupid, I’m not sure which,” Jaffe said. But, she added, “I also believe very strongly that if you embrace life, life will guide you.”

For Jaffe, the approach is time-tested. She was hesitant to teach when she retired from professional dance, thinking she was too self-centered. Despite her qualms, Jaffe took a position at ABT. She loved it.

“It was just literally like Cupid pierced my heart, and I fell madly and deeply in love with teaching,” she said. “I recognized how amazing it was to help a young person strengthen and empower and discover themselves and to become better technically.”

After ABT, Jaffe opened a dance school, returned to ABT for a ballet mistress role and later served as dean of dance at University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

Susan Jaffe dancing with Ethan Stiefel in the romantic ballet Giselle in the late 1990s. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor.

For Jaffe, ballet is a way of connecting with something bigger. Sure, she has touchpoints with organized religion: The daughter of a Jew and a Southern Baptist, Jaffe has sampled Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism. But Jaffe said that dance and meditation better help her tap into her deepest, most authentic self.

“My highest calling as a dancer was to purify myself and my technique in such a way that I was readying myself to be a conduit of a much higher energy,” she said.

She helps others cultivate the same experience with Effect of Intention, a workshop originally created to help dancers “become a vehicle for a much larger force.” It now targets a broader audience.

But Effect of Intention is just one of Jaffe’s many commitments. As Jaffe wrapped up her UNC role and started onboarding at PBT, she was mired in the frenzy of two jobs, three email accounts and four calendars, all while preparing for her big move to Pittsburgh.

“You have to figure out a whole new world in a very short amount of time,” she said.

Jaffe’s days proceed allegro with back-to-back Zoom meetings from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. as she prepares for performances and a virtual summer intensive anticipating more than 200 participants.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre also is working to increase diversity in several ways, like boosting access to ballet for kids in many neighborhoods and making sure diverse groups of people feel welcome, according to Jaffe.

She already has big visions for PBT like meshing classic and new, innovative choreography, and helping others develop a deeper connection with themselves through dance.

“One of my greatest joys is to empower people to be their best selves,” she said. “I feel very lucky and excited to do this job.” PJC

Kayla Steinberg can be reached at ksteinberg@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org

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