Last night I was fortunate to attend the season-opener of Ballet West (which runs through next weekend at the Capitol Theater). As another Salt Lake critic duly noted in her review, it was nice to have a season begin with engaging new repertory rather than some of the crowd-pleasing ballets audiences might expect. The three pieces included a re-staging of Helen Pickett’s “But Never Doubt I Love”, Val Caniparoli’s premiere of “The Lottery”, and a second look at Nicolo Fonte’s “Bolero”. The writing below negotiates my own bias as a modern dance choreographer. I address the work at hand from that perspective and navigate the friendships I’ve forged along the way.
When I was 17 I saw Ballet West perform “Artifact II” and I don’t remember much aside from enjoying the white floor. I didn’t know it then but the dancer who re-staged it, Douglas Becker from the Frankfurt Ballet, would become a great friend and mentor throughout my MFA program. I didn’t know still that I would go on to administrate the thesis works of future graduates of that program, one of whom was Helen Pickett, another longtime dancer of the Frankfurt Ballet. And last night, in the magnificent circle of concert dance, there I was again at the Capitol Theater watching her work on (presumably) the same white marley.
It is my knowledge of Helen as a dancer that gave me an entry into her work which others might not experience quite the same way. She is able to extract a unique combination of precision and freedom that makes following the dancers a delight. This was visible not only in the final performance but in an early rehearsal I was lucky to see. I find that Helen is skilled at isolating and inverting the traditions we expect of ballet. The musician is there beside the dancers following each movement through a sheer veil, something impossible from the pit. And the dancers often break from the structure to watch one another and respond. These varying calls and responses create an earnestness not present in a good deal of ballet. Yet, traditional stage set-ups continue to unfold which kept the audience (at least my small portion of it) engaged in the action and created true surprise as the final pas de deux is shadowed by a second that appears behind the veil and beside the pianist. “But Never Doubt I Love” stays in conversation with itself and keeps a few secrets.
“The Lottery” of course kept the very large secret of who would be sacrificed at the end of this Shirley Jackson story adaptation. The marketers at Ballet West have done their job and made it very clear that no one knows who will perform the tragic concluding solo. I think the audience was excited (if not suspicious) when the prima ballerina drew the lot on opening night. But just as my relationship with Helen colors my view of her work, my relationship with modern dance traditions colors “The Lottery.” While it wasn’t clear who would perform it was certainly clear what they would do and I’m not sure how different it would be with a different dancer. I applaud the risk but longed for something more — to see a dancer truly yield to a concept and not hover over it. Even with all my nay-saying the ballet was beautifully crafted from the set design to the partnering and use of space. It was almost as though Merce Cunningham had choreographed “Appalachian Spring” rather than danced it, there was something spirited and traditional but also something inquisitive.
The final work on the program is one that wowed everyone around me but “Bolero” left me feeling flat — both last night and in 2011. The premise of the work is that as the crescendo builds, marking the score, metal plates are lifted to reveal more and more of the dance. Confusingly, a red curtain drops at the end to capture the female soloist. I think others found this exciting but to me, it was cumbersome and begged the question “isn’t the dance enough of an end?” In the case of Adrian Fry the dancing was certainly enough. While some dancers struggled to stay in the rhythm of the extraordinary live music Adrian was riding the wave, unafraid to engage his spine and slowly reach extension, really getting to what any bolero is all about, the body engaging with song.
Ashley Anderson coordinates loveDANCEmore as part of her 501c3, ashley anderson dances. You can read more about her work at www.ashleyandersondances.com