Born: Pittsburgh (North Hills)
Joined PBT: 2005
Just mention Nick Coppula’s name around Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the word “genius” repeatedly crops up. It’s just indicative of successful dancers: a sharp intelligence, strong work ethic and creative imagination. This North Hills native originally made his mark at PBT’s school, where he demonstrated a confident style that landed him an early spot in the company.
But there is a lot more to Nick than meets the eye. His technical talents run the gamut, from a multi-media presentation for the “Alice in Wonderland” party a couple of years ago with Aaron Ingley and Luca Sbrizzi (three screens on a loop with company photos interspersed by assorted “Alice” footage), lighting for the Pittsburgh Ballet Trust performances, lighting and stage manager for PBT student and No Name Players performances, company photography, handyman around company houses…the list goes on and on.
“I’ve always been interested in anything that uses electricity or wires,” Nick begins. “In fact, my parents let me play with extension cords that weren’t plugged into anything.” That all happened at age five. But as he got older, Nick wanted to do it for real. His skills are mostly self-taught, but they were enough to get this handsomer-than-most computer geek first place in a robotics competitions during his senior year in high school. It’s something he wants to explore after he’s done dancing, perhaps building robots that would disarm bombs or other other military applications that would protect troops on the front lines.
“They seem to go together,” Nick explains of the relationship between art and engineering. “Designing and engineering are arts in themselves. There is artistry and creativity in more elegant solutions to problems. Just give me three days and I’ll think of something outside the box.”
He even thinks outside a box of a house, using his real-life talents to fix company members’ houses, along with his own. Nick bought a house at age 19 in Lawrenceville, yes, a fixer-upper only “a minute away” from the PBT studios. After gutting and re-finishing his new home, Nick has produced what he calls “a man-cave,” filled with various computers and electronics. Working with former PBT member Ingley, he formed MDK Studios, where they work on the development of video projects, including the educational DVD project for PBT’s “Light/The Holocaust & Humanity Project.”
With so many interests, it would be easy for Nick to take his focus off the dancing. But that won’t happen anytime soon. “I’m doing what I love every day,” he says. But after that? Military engineering is a strong possibility for a second career. It’s something he knows he can do when he’s 50 or 60. But maybe he can still find room for ballet videos for his home company.
Born: Grosse Pointe, Michigan
Joined PBT: 1998
These days Stephen is the senior member of PBT’s corps de ballet. He lives with wife Maghen on Polish Hill, where the couple enjoys the “crazy amounts of energy” from Honey, their Cairn Terrier (think Toto) and occasionally knitting together (a great way to soothe the stresses of ballet). He also can move around the kitchen and to grill outside.
Stephen came to PBT’s school from Detroit’s Marygrove College, where he was a double major in dance performance and business, with the thought of opening up a ballet school. As it so happens, he studied with Jordeen Ivanov, a former principal dancer with the company. Then PBT ballet master Roberto Munoz came to visit, observed Stephen in class and arranged for him to come to Pittsburgh.
As it so happened, the first PBT ballet he saw was Coppelia, an event that would foretell how his career would evolve. “I wasn’t interested in Franz or Franz’ best friend,” Stephen explains. “I wanted to do Dr. Coppelius.” As it so happened, he had been involved in the theater program in high school (Carousel, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, The Secret Garden and Guys and Dolls, where he was dance captain).
So the seeds were planted.
After one year, Stephen was accepted into the company, although artistic director Terrence Orr once admitted that he wasn’t sure how the young dancer would develop. As Stephen puts it, “I started late [around age 17] — I didn’t know how I was supposed to dance.”
But he was surrounded by professional mentors. Stephen learned “how to move being someone taller” from 6’3″ Stanko Milov and not to “bash things out at 100 percent,” again being someone taller, from 6’3″ Steven Annegarn. Jiabin Pan helped him with double tours and different jumps.
Stephen finally got his first big role as the traitor Pothinus in Cleopatra, where he not only had a pas de deux, but also “got a chance to do what I love, which is character roles.” Fellow corps member Kelly Ocharzak gave him some advice to “just enjoy it now, because you’re not always going to be on top. The next show could find you in the back of the corps.” Stephen admits, “I’ve had time to relax into that. It was hard, once you got a taste of being in the spotlight. But it’s kind of evened itself out within me.”
He even has some tips for prospective corps members. When a ballet is structured, like George Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, he tries to maintain a “cookie cutter” attitude in the ensemble. The same is true for the big story ballets. But when a central pas de deux is going on, it’s important to develop a character. How did you get invited to the party? What do you think of that couple over there? Maybe you don’t like them? “It keeps the stage alive.”
Among his many solo roles, “The Nutcracker’s” Drosselmeyer is Stephen’s favorite because “I get to do it every year.” He loves how Drosselmeyer orchestrates things, from the burgeoning relationship between his nephew and Marie to the parlor tricks for the children. But Dr. Coppelius is the most fun, being “full of little nuances and idiosyncracies, being the town crazy man/dollmaker.”
Even at this point, Stephen doesn’t mind the repetition of “Nutcracker,” and, speaking of repetition, wouldn’t mind taking on a six-day a week Broadway show, even tap dancing through a show like Forty Second Street.
After all, it’s just a different set of “dancin’ feet.”