Billed as the “Sundance Festival for dance,” Ballet West’s National Choreographic Festival spanned two weekends and received significant regional support for its presentation of works by five ballet companies and seven choreographers.
Below, Liz Ivkovich considers works from the first weekend while Ashley Anderson responds to the second. The two conclude together in conversation about this new platform.
Trey McIntyre’s The Accidental featured three couples (male and female), in pas de deux to the crooning voice of Patrick Watson. The piece was four distinct segments to four different songs. The almost-mariachi beat drove the dancers, in leafy leotards and flat slippers, through a series of intricate lifts. The partnering was well-executed, yet I felt the Pennsylvania Ballet dancers seemed to miss each other in their focus on the audience.
As the lights rose on Sarasota Ballet performing In a State of Weightlessness, I thought I saw five floating Buddhas. This image resolved into women in light tan leotards suspended in the air above darkly-clad male partners. Throughout the work, composer Philip Glass drove the men as they lifted their female partners like Bunraku puppet masters. I challenged myself to actually see the men, which was difficult because the work seemed designed to draw focus solely to the women. I was struck by the beauty and nuance in Ricardo Graziano’s choreography, where a simple head movement could define the pas de deux.
I wish I could see Nicolo Fonte’s Fox on the Doorstep two more times before I had to write about it. It was perfectly ordinary and extraordinary, folding me into their world.
Fox began with a heavy stage left; a mass of dancers that resolved into duets and solos, to dissolve again into the group. Beckanne Sisk and Rex Tilton discovered the unseen edges of the music with sharp flicks and easy extensions as they danced together, alone, and with others.
A single light shone from upstage down at the audience. At times it became the moon, at others an interrogation. And when it struck the dancers so that we saw them - strength of movement, sweat lines on costumes - they could see us. Performers and observers, we were there together.
A woman contorted in the center of dancers arranged like a flock of geese, while they watched. At moments, they tried to join her, only to stop and watch again, with cold eyes.
The piece seemed to end when the group melted off stage. It began anew with falling snow, and a lone figure (Chase O’Connell) who was joined for a brief moment by a woman in a gray leotard and soft slippers.
I feel odd singling out these few artists whose faces I recognize. If each dancer had performed their own part alone, it would still be captivating, a mash up of the ease of release technique, the intense exploration of Gaga, and iconic ballet lines.
Yet, it was the company’s commitment to really being together on stage that lingers in my memory. I had the feeling that one gets when seeing someone hold their baby - that they are actually touching another person, not performing what it looks like to touch someone.
This connection between the dancers was so lovely in its ordinary-ness that the performance became extraordinary.
Terra is not the first work by Helen Pickett that Ballet West has presented, but it is one of the most lovely. Working from Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, Oregon Ballet Theatre performs both creation and opposition with dancers who appear at once Paleolithic and extraterrestrial. The choreographic structure measures up to several of Campbell’s functions of myth: to marvel at the universe, to show the scientific boundaries of these beliefs, to demonstrate sociological support for this ideas, and to live life within the aforementioned.
This last function, wildly living, falls short at times, perhaps because of the homogenous nature of the group (ballet-trained dancers of the same demographic) and perhaps because of a lack of practice in performing a visceral soundscape (grunts, shouts, etc.). Although vulnerable relationships are presented in a number of mythical contexts and formations from virtuosic masculine circles and romantic pairings to lone and longing women, the dance deals more with the structures and the outward marveling than it does the living.
Before/After by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa makes this concert happily equitable in terms of gender (a hot topic in ballet) and the brief duet presents a refreshing counterpoint to other festival offerings. A sparse text is repeated -- changes, the sound changes, changes, before, after, the light changes -- and each directive comes to pass over the 7 minute work. Light and sound cues progressively change before the “after” of departures from the stage by Angelica Generosa and James Moore. Watching the duet I’m reminded about the powerful form of duets, especially in a regional dance fabric that so values an ensemble: the audience can focus deeply, marvel at intricacies, and also have the pressure of a “masterpiece,” lifted from their shoulders.
The return of Oliver Oguma’s Tremor was exciting and curious. I reviewed the premiere at the Eccles in Park City and had such a remarkably different experience the second time around. I can’t pinpoint changes to the work beyond my own proximity (closer in Park City, from a distance in Salt Lake) that made the androgyny and ambiguity read and the performance by the dancers more keen and structurally refined. Perhaps this viewing was also seeking a hopeful precedent of truly new voices, outside the choreographic canon, to be included in future festivals.
The evening cycled back to explorations of ritual in Dances for Lou, by Val Caniparoli, a previous resident choreographer with Ballet West. The title refers to the accompanying composition by Lou Harrison, known for his use of Asian musical influences. With impeccable framing by visible stage lighting, brief vignettes revealed ideas similar to Terra although more formally framed. The vignettes carried largely the same implications -- wonder, boundaries, and questions about using specific cultural histories on specific, but non-representative casts.
The National Choreographic Festival is certainly a relevant, ambitious pursuit resulting in exceptionally skilled performances presented in Salt Lake’s newest venue. The festival also meets at least one Sundance measure in its vision of a gathering place for new works in ballet. Though ballet receives more public support compared to other dance forms it is also met with unique challenges, namely the expectations of ballet’s oldest patrons (read: Swan Lake).
Yet these accolades, the “broad, diverse, and ever-changing landscape of new choreography that exists today” promised in Artistic Director Adam Sklute’s program notes, are fraught, given that the public funding received by Ballet West is hardly comparable to either the early independent days of film festival metaphor or the payment that any regional choreographer outside of ballet is eligible to receive. Regional, independent choreographers are only eligible for $2,000 a year in public funding, or $4,500 if they are fiscally sponsored. Ballet West received $1.6 million in government grants in the 2014 fiscal year, and the festival garnered an additional $100,000 in support from the Utah State Legislature.
There are both valid and invalid reasons for these discrepancies but it does leave these two writers wondering what the cost of performance will be in an ever-tightened picture of funding. Is a reading of ballet as synonymous with choreography fair? Should models like the National Choreographic Festival promise a festival of new ballet rather than a festival of dance, a promise which Ballet West can unequivocally deliver? Or, could the National Choreographic Festival grow to become, like Sundance, a festival that “actively advances the work of independent storytellers” from a wider range of aesthetics, expertise, and identity?