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


“What We See” from learning to loveDANCEmore volume 8

The latest edition of our performance journal, edited by New Media Coordinator Samuel Hanson, will arrive this coming week. Volume 8, displacement, features the work of many talented artists and critics from Utah and beyond. It’ll be available at Daughters of Mudson, get your tickets here. To whet your appetite, here is a piece by Ashley Anderson, which deals with how we see dance from ballet to Monica Bill Barnes.

What We See: Thoughts on Ira Glass, Monica Bill Barnes and The Rite of Spring

Several weeks back I got to see Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass perform Monica’s choreography as part of Ira Glass’s show at Kingsbury Hall, and later on I got to see Ballet West’s Rite of Spring. Both experiences left me asking questions about what frames my experience as a viewer, and also placing myself in the position of other audience members. The writing below is my way of grappling with my identity in relation to my peers in an audience. I am trying to see what they see, which is a task I don’t always consider while writing (or thinking) about dance.

I have long loved Ira Glass’s radio show This American Life on NPR. The show transports me to other parts of the country, but also to empathetic and interior parts of myself. When I had finished my MFA and was feeling extremely deflated at the difference between the work I was creating in the supportive environment of a liberal arts college versus my first apartment in Philadelphia, This American Life was one of the only things I enjoyed about my week trudging to and from a day job as a paralegal.

When I learned that Ira Glass was sharing the work of Monica Bill Barnes as part of This American Life performances and later, planning an entire tour, I got heated. My feelings about her works I’ve seen are best summarized by a piece by Andrew Boynton in the New Yorker (November 13, 2012). The title of the article is “Dance that tries too hard”. I’ve always felt that the jokes were just to get a laugh, and that it made me feel talked (or danced) down to. In addition to my hesitance about the creative work itself, I became frustrated that Ira Glass got to  “discover” modern dance for all these people in the audience. In descriptions of the project, modern dance, a vast tradition, was deemed generally unlikeable or un-gettable, by Glass himself. It made me wonder why people couldn’t discover something without it having been curated as extremely palatable for them. What if, instead, I was the person curating someone’s first viewing of modern dance through some of my most favorite things…

…Emily Wexler with walnuts pouring out of her skirt in Yvonne Meier’s Mad Heidi or better yet, her black boots narrowly missing colorful glass bottles in her own solo Fact or Fancy inspired by her grandmother’s radio program of the same name.

Naughty Bits by Jen McGinn where some dancers wear tails, feathers or priest collars while performing the most difficult and intricate musical patterning I can imagine.

…Children’s Dance Theatre teenagers embodying Water Study and trying to explain to their parents the importance of silence and breathing.

…Katie Meehan lying on the floor listening to the Beach Boys playing out of a seashell covered television; Leah Nelson & Cortney McGuire pulling dresses over pregnant bellies before a re-staging of a duet they made as fivefour; Linda Denise Fisher-Harrell performing Cry in rehearsal in the smallest studio at the American Dance Festival; Dawn Springer breathing life into cover song after cover song in a token of one’s affection; Tara McArthur first performing Duet for Ririe-Woodbury, looking so unbelievably cool; Miguel Gutierrez working on Retrospective Exhibitionist in the small basement studio of the Dana Science Building at Hollins University as my childhood best friend Sarah Crass strides through having no prior knowledge about the artist she will witness and no suspicion of how well-known this piece will become…

Why would those introductions to modern dance be things that anyone would get “less” than highly choreographed jokes? They might not be inherently better than the introduction provided at Kingsbury Hall that night, but would they be as awful as Glass made the rest of “dance” sound?

A week or so later, in the Capitol Theater I watched Ballet West’s The Rite of Spring. The evening featured the title work by Nicolo Fonte, Forgotten Land by Jiri Kylian and Divertimento No. 15 by Balanchine. I experienced the same phenomena of an audience viewing something fresh while I saw different things living inside the dancing.

In the opening piece by Kylian, the audience gasped as the dancers did backbends or offered any kind of yielding in their partnering. What they found surprising I found to be comforting, as I could see inside it the dancing of Jose Limón and Helen Tamiris, or Alvin Ailey’s careful groupings, Doris Humphrey and every other modern dance choreographer who was inspired by the Shakers. While I know the piece is uniquely inspired by visual art, I can see inside of it numerous dances that share the same themes or physicality.

This isn’t to say the choreography is derivative because it wasn’t, it was complex and fascinating. But, in my viewing of both concerts, dances became houses for memories of other performance experiences. And in both cases, the people around me seemed, for the most part, to be watching something new, something singular rather than simultaneous. It almost gave me envy, of what I might experience if I had seen somewhat less.

After Kylian, an overlong Balanchine piece rolled around. The friends I was with asked how I could possibly like something so boring and conventional. My only reply was that based on my experience in ballet class, it seemed like it would be fun to do. I’ve always loved the slightly off kilter petite allegro of Balanchine because I’m good at it; that’s why I was watching his work enthusiastically. Maybe Balanchine is my Monica Bill Barnes, something I find infectious or likable despite my objections to the particular hierarchical structures of ballet including endless pas de deux and stationary corps. It’s something I like just because it makes me personally happy.

Ballet West’s final piece, a new Rite of Spring by Nicolo Fonte, was another exercise in viewing a real life performance simultaneously with other things, namely, Pina Bausch’s dancers running through the dirt and my toddler son watching a T-Rex brutally murder a brontosaurus on a VHS tape of Fantasia in the living room of my childhood home. For others in the audience this Rite, leather clad and featuring an industrial set characteristic of the choreographer, was their first taste of a narrative that, to me, was already distinctly experienced.

Despite it’s newness, ballet audiences can recognize The Rite of Spring the same way they recognize a Bolero, as a system where new ideas can play out rather than a purely new work. I remember in college learning that during the reconstruction of the original Rite, pointe shoes were examined to explore the steps. We all called it “Ballet CSI” but really it’s more magical than that, and speaks to what I’m after here–– that steps performed fleetingly do hold a lot more of a moment inside them than we offer credit for when we engage in conversations about the way in which dances disappear in time. While this wasn’t my favoriteRite, it does remind me just how many exist and that’s a kind of gift.

Despite my preferences, or those of the New Yorker writer mentioned above, the audience at Kingsbury Hall and Capitol Theater on those nights seemed to be eating up what was presented, whether it was because of a witty radio host or an astute artistic director. The landscape of performance is inevitably dominated by what we are told is likable or good rather than what we may find on our own.

As I write this I can already predict the response from my peers: “but don’t you think Ira Glass opened the doors for people to think differently about dance?” My answer is unequivocally no–– it only opens doors for people to think differently about Monica Bill Barnes, a person they’ve now been given permission to understand. I significantly doubt that anyone left Kingsbury Hall choosing to look into what modern dance offerings were made by comparable regional artists. Similarly, I’m curious if Ballet West audiences were motivated as viewers to seek out other Rites, or if they simply enjoyed the work of Nicolo Fonte, who will make many more ballets for the company, then left the theater.

All of that is fine. Beyond my curiosity over my relationship with other dance goers, I ultimately left both theaters glad that people enjoyed dance. It’s the same way I felt when my young students at the American Dance Festival enjoyed Pilobolus. You couldn’t have payed me to watch the concert, but when something seems magical or fresh to you, it just is.

Ashley Anderson is a choreographer based in SLC. Her recent work has been presented locally at the Rose Wagner, the Rio Gallery, the BYU Museum of Art, Finch Lane, the City Library, the Ladies’ Literary Club, the Masonic Temple and Urban Lounge.

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

Aspen Santa Fe

Aspen Sante Fe Ballet came to Park City last weekend, and were well-received by a stylish audience. It was my first visit to the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, which is a large, beautiful theater attached to a public high school. I have never seen arts programs so well-endowed in the public sector. Keep up the good work, Utah!

It was clear that this renowned company had been to Park City before, as the Park City Performing Arts Foundation gave them a warm and familiar welcome. A smallish, spunky group hailing from the Intermountain West, they bely their regional roots with world-class ambition and professionalism.

The first piece of the evening, "Over Glow," was commissioned from Finnish-born Jorma Elo, Resident Choreographer of Boston Ballet. As the dulcet strings of Mendelssohn filled the air, curtains parted to reveal a muscular male dancer, shirtless, in what appeared to be skin-tight denim pants. A plethora of quirky ballet-inspired steps followed, as other men and women took the stage, in denim and taffeta day-glo tennis dresses, respectively. Although the onslaught of technical prowess lost its appeal gradually, I never stopped marveling at the cool confidence of the women. One looked so much like Courtney Cox, another reminded me of Charlize Theron. It could have ended after that first section, and I would have believed that this is all the glamorous panache that Aspen could want in a ballet company.

It did not end after the first section, and to my surprise, I grew to love these quirky characters, and their subtly sweet duets with the butt-hugging denims. So much so that when one of them died, and her denim-man mourned her with such unglamorous, anti-panache, I was indescribably sad. His bare arms were like useless things, shaking and quaking in their confusion, when they did not have the job of holding her. He tried to drag her from the stage, and when it did not work, he stood next to her in his ignoble grief, like an animal mother over the lifeless body of a cub. Not understanding, not calling out, not transcending his grief—he simply stood. I thought it could have ended there, and I would have believed that this incredible turn of events signaled a brave departure from the typical narrative arc.

It did not end, but continued, and more movement followed. The story was absorbed back into compositionally-based ensemble dancing, and when the two lovers found each other again at the very end, I didn’t know what to think anymore. I guess it was perfect for the audience that wants pure-dance, a heart-breaking love story, and then pure-dance again.

This piece was followed by "Stamping Ground," the Aborigine-inspired Jiri Kylian classic. The piece, the dancers, and the set were all beautiful. The structure relies on sinewy and percussive solos and duets. Lines are stretched and distorted, pelvises are thrusted, dancers are forever eyeballing us with the curious stares of roadside wildlife. If you think we are odd, they seem to say, then why are you watching? The rippling, metallic curtains at the back of the stage allow for sudden and surprising entrances and exits; At one point, two collapsed dancers are pulled by invisible hands, sliding through the curtains as though disappearing into the next life. It seems that the boundary between worlds is both permeable and mysterious, and the dancers play with that tension, passing with ease to where we would fear to go.

Ultimately, Kylian’s piece is haunted by the racial overtones of a project that he documented in the film Road to the Stamping Ground. In the film, he describes his creative process in culturally-sensitive terms, taking care to impart that his piece, which takes inspiration from the movement observed in an Australian Aboriginal community gathering, is not cultural appropriation because he does not copy the specific dance movements of the Aborigines. He simply uses their ideas, which he admits are “surprisingly sophisticated” choreographically, to inspire a movement language all of his own. It is “his take” on their culture. I maintain the position that, in exchange, the community that welcomed him into their midst should also be allowed to comment choreographically on Western European culture. Perhaps a two week visit to a ballet camp in the Netherlands would suffice, and then they could present a work of choreography that is inspired by Europe. This seems ridiculous, but it would mirror Kylian’s intentions. I think that it could generate some interesting revelations and discussion, if undertaken sincerely.

Although this choice in repertory brought some heat to my mind, it was a welcome controversy. Certainly it sparked a lively dialogue post-show, whereas the final piece, the relatively lackluster "Where we left off" did not. In the interest of closing this already-lengthy review, I will simply conclude with my current mantra: See dance, talk about it! Be nice when you can and honest all the time! I hope you make it to a dance concert soon, and when you do, I will see you there.

Kitty Sailer is pretty much done with her MFA (thank goodness). Before living in SLC she went to Vassar and danced/made dances in Montana.