Ballet West’s Multi-Faceted Iconic Classics

Ballet West’s 52nd season opens with Iconic Classics, a triple bill addressing milestones in 20th-century ballet, from its shifts towards two opposing directions — musical theatre and modern dance — to its classical apotheosis in George Balanchine’s “Symphony in C.“

Opening with Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free,” the company explores not only narrative fare which typically interests a broad public but also the resurgence of ballet crossing over into musical theater. With New York City Ballet dancers Robert and Megan Fairchild (who, by the way, are Utah natives) taking on Broadway roles, the resurgence of Robbins’ work seems relevant on a local and national scale.

Known most widely for choreographing “West Side Story,” Robbins had a knack for choreographing theatrical scenarios with clarity: dancers move deftly and musically between complex phrase-work and simply walking across the stage. In solos exploring male bravado, Chase O’Connell in particular demonstrates a unique blend of character and precision, his long limbs at times held in perfect control and, at others, sent across the space with abandon.

After a recent performance in Minnesota, one blogger raised questions about the relevance of “Fancy Free’s” story-telling. She saw the premise of the piece as problematic, that three sailors on 24 hour leave in the 40s would not successfully vie for a woman’s attention by stealing her handbag. Although it’s true that some of the content seems out of sync with current sociopolitical conversations, it’s undeniable that Robbins had a gift for choreographing a narrative, if not supplying it.

Jiří Kylián’s “Overgrown Path,” is a significant shift in tone. Premiering in 1980, the choreography is based on a piano cycle by Czech composer Leos Janácek that considers the loss of his daughter. A series of lush vignettes spill out of the score and Jenna Rae Herrera and Arolyn Williams capture the combination of strain and frailty that the narrative suggests, with its titles like “A blown away leaf,” “Unutterable anguish,” and “In tears.” Throughout, mournful women clutch skirts to their chest, contract their bodies and fall back into the arms of their male partners.

The structure of “Overgrown Path” is unquestionably ballet, beginning with an ensemble, meandering through small groups and returning to an ensemble. But Kylián’s moving material calls to mind many women of modern dance. In a program of icons who all happen to be male choreographers, this reminder of works by Helen Tamiris or Martha Graham seem as topical as the work’s original dedication to Anthony Tudor.

Kylián’s work served as a touchstone into idioms popular in contemporary ballet, but the program concludes with Balanchine’s “Symphony in C,” a crown jewel of classical ballet. Ballet West has previously performed excerpts but this concert shows the full work and utilizes so many dancers that advanced students are also included to round out the corps de ballet.

Opening night featured a few technical missteps, but if anything, this highlighted the soloists commitment to Balanchine’s aesthetic of fully moving off the leg and manipulating their torso to elongate the body. The women, in white tutus and tiaras, are the embodiment of the ballerina in the jewelry box if her spring was loosened a bit. Unfortunately no such metaphor exists for the men so that the musicality and depth of performances by Adrian Fry and Rex Tilton lack appropriate description.

Ashley Anderson is the director of loveDANCEmore community events as part of her non-profit, ashley anderson dances. See more of her work on  This piece was written for the November edition of 15 BYTES and can be found here.

Photo by Will Thompson of Ballet West principal artists Beckanne Sisk & Christopher Ruud in “Symphony in C” by George Balanchine (C) The George Balanchine Trust


Emeralds, Roughly Cut

In the three years that I have attended Ballet West shows I have been thoroughly impressed by the company’s breadth. Under the artistic direction of Adam Sklute they have grown to be a leading force in the American ballet scene. For this year’s Spring Season Ballet West presented a brief history in ballet. Beginning with one of the most revered ballets from choreographer Marius Petipa, the Grand Pas from Paquita was a lesson in the roots of the classical ballet. Moving to a more modern take on ballet, Emeralds from George Balanchine’s Jewels was presented as the “main event” for this bill. Lastly, a drastically contemporary piece choreographed by Jiří Kylián, Petit Mort closed the evening.

It was not my expectation, but Petipa’s Grand Pas turned out to be my favorite piece of the evening. Originally first staged on the Imperial Ballet in Russia, Petipa ushers the audience into a Spanish royal court. Heavily influenced with Spanish flavor with simple wrist flicks and coquettish smiles much of the corps movement frames and mimics the main action of the principal ballerina (played by Christiana Bennet on April 14). The corps members themselves worked quite lovely as individuals, though they had a particularly challenging time working as a group. While it was not the strongest technical evening for Christiana Bennet, her commanding presence on stage would easily deceive an untrained eye. I will note that she very laudably executed a full 32 fouette turns, a tradition that has been fading out of vogue that I was pleased to see endured. She remains a mature and artistic dancer taking on leading roles with the gravitas and conviction needed. Rex Tilton (in the male role on April 14) brings a similar assertiveness that is as convincing as it is entertaining to witness. He works as an admirable partner and was particularly impressive both in his pirouettes and tours. I would like to acknowledge a singularly exemplary performance by new member Beckanne Sisk whose variation was exceptionally performed eliciting more than a few well deserved “Bravo’s.” Overall, the Grand Pas was a terrific reminder of why classical ballet formats are so enjoyable to watch.

Typically, Balanchine’s Emeralds is shown as the first in a triptych of his Jewels. It serves as a visually glamourous and lyrical interlude to the rest of the ballet. Within the context of Jewels it reads well and lives up to the splendor of late Balanchine work. In regards to the Ballet West production, it seemed to not know it’s place and was, pardon the pun, a little lack luster. The choreography mimics the costumes; refined and delicately embellished. Balanchine knows how to use a corps as both compliment and counterpoint. The ever changing tableaus were charming and easy on the eye, but the lack of development seemed to make me question it’s placement within the program. While the lighting (including a fully lit “emerald” cyc) was very accurately reconstructed, it seemed at times to swallow the attention away from the dancers. Emeralds is also not a piece that I would say accurately depicts Balanchine’s true nature. Perhaps a more appropriate inclusion to the performance would have been Rubies which demonstrates the harsher more angular and even cold personality that is generally associated with Balanchine’s work.

Petit Mort by Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián was the piece I had anticipated the most for this evening. I regret to say that I was not nearly as impressed as I had hoped to be. Kylián created this work in honor of the death of composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart utilizing two of his most beloved piano concertos. The piece begins with a rumbling of drums that sets the tension. As the curtain rises six men are revealed balancing swords upon their fingers. Thisdelicate image was slightly tainted as one of the men was merely holding his sword in his hand. This was the first of several illusions that was not successfully accomplished during the piece. Kylián’s highly demanding work requires not only a deep understanding of artistic development but also a confidence in one’s own actions. Unfortunately, the Ballet West ensemble was unable to evoke the tragic, clever, and sensitive nature that is inherent in the choreography. While they certainly have the chops to pull of the physicality of more contemporary work, there seemed to be a lack of credence and more pronounced uncertainty in the performers’ attitudes.

While Ballet West remains in my eyes a promising and continually invigorating company, this program did not seem to showcase their skills as an entire group quite adequately. I am looking forward to their Season Finale, Innovations running May 18, 19 and 23-26 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center downtown. Here Ballet West Artists are able to showcase their own work which will hopefully showcase their dancers as equally impressive.

Katherine Adler is a BFA candidate at the University of Utah and an intern for loveDANCEmore