SALT LAKE CITY — Drama, poetry and power merged during Ballet West’s mixed-repertory performance Friday night at the Capitol Theatre. With a world-premiere story-ballet bookended by two returning abstract pieces, the evening showcased the many shades of contemporary ballet.
The season-opener kicked off with Helen Pickett’s “But Never Doubt I Love,” set to selections by Felix Mendelssohn and Franz Liszt. Pickett’s program notes include a verse from “Hamlet” about unfaltering love — an apropos line for the poetic pas de deuxs to follow.
Arolyn Williams and Christopher Sellars proved a beautiful pair during the first segment in what felt to be a nod to young love. Like Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, Williams and Sellars painted a picture of impassioned urgency tempered by inexperience and timidity.
The couple validated that rapture, newness, naivety, longing and innocence could be danced just as precisely as penned. Many memorable choreographic feats were achieved during the piece, specifically when Sellars gripped Williams’ pointe shoe during an attitude and lifted her through him, while she untangled herself with an effortless leap.
Other standouts included the love-hate pas de deux between Elizabeth McGrath and Beau Pearson. McGrath is a seasoned dancer who has grown into a strong, expressive force. Pearson, whose distinguished brow gives him the look of a gallant Jane Austen gent, is always the strong and stately dancer, but this role allowed him to flex other muscles in portraying a torrent of complicated emotions.
Katie Critchlow and Tom Mattingly also deserve a nod for their precise — if not a bit too careful — rendering of Pickett’s work.
Next up was the night’s centerpiece: Val Caniparoli’s world premiere of “The Lottery.” Set to a newly commissioned score by Robert Moran, the music takes us on a wild ride, bouncing among Americana optimism, Hitchcockian suspense and Stravinsky-like abandon.
The scene begins with a joyful “gathering” of sorts. Men and women in '40s-era attire cheerily gather stones as if amassing a harvest, greeting the other married couples, conversing, dancing and celebrating. It’s like a scene out of Mayberry, the white picket fences crisscrossing a close-knit town.
Then, each couple introduces itself to the audience with a gentle pas de deux.
Caniparoli's choreography evokes a Jerome Robbins style: the twist of shoulder, the open, relaxed steps; the tilted axis of leaps and turns, the thrown arcs and slides. The piece feels like a revival of early contemporary dance, which may (or may not) have been Caniparoli’s aim, based on the era in which the story is set.
After seven couples dance, with a few dissenting expressions about what looms ahead, the ballet gets down to business. The music darkens with the percussion clanking and droning, and the dancers become somber as they make their way toward a black box from which they draw their lots. Slowly, as the audience's stomachs tie in knots, they open their pieces of paper and — without looking — display them outwardly.
At this point, the dancers are at the mercy of fate as much as the characters they are portraying. The drawing is truly random, and as they spot the mark of the Chosen One on the paper of a fellow dancer, they drop their own lot to the ground. Within moments, it becomes clear to the bearer of the marked lot that her fate is sealed.
On opening night, the “unlucky” lot (as luck would have it) belonged to Christiana Bennett, Ballet West’s premiere principal ballerina.
So, without missing a beat, Bennett put into play what she and the rest of the cast had rehearsed in the event that they became the Chosen One. Suddenly an outcast, even turned on by her husband (expertly played by soloist Adrian Fry, whose style and strength make him one to watch), Bennett embarks on a dance of death much like Vaslav Nijinsky’s “Glorification of the Chosen One” section in “The Rite of Spring.” The music likewise morphs into a tribal, dissonant, Stravinsky-esque feel.
Bennett, a towering, regal perfectionist, was now challenged with instinctive, convulsive, writhing movement — like a trapped and terrified animal. It’s a long and demanding solo, especially considering she didn’t know whether she’d be the one doing it. And the movement is foreign to her long, elegant bearing. Bennett’s acting chops are finely tuned; the emotion was there.
In a final flash, the dancers reach for stones and propel their arms toward her. Then, in decisive punctuation, a storm of stones falls from overhead and the curtain drops.
“The Lottery” is an absolute thrill-ride for audiences and dancers alike. Truthfully, it’s the concept that drives the piece, but that’s not to say there aren’t some engaging choreographic moments: like the wrenching pas de deux between Emily Adams and Christopher Ruud, where, at one point, he whirls her with such fluidity it was as if the floor had turned to ice. But it’s hands-down the very real drama that makes this work a winner.
Finally, a repeat performance of Nicolo Fonte’s abstract and compelling “Bolero” rounded out the evening. The company performed the work a week ago during its annual gala, and the piece lived up to earlier admiring reviews. However, the all-star cast, with muscle and grace on full display, differed from last week with Easton Smith and (again) Bennett at the helm — it really was her big night, as luck would have it.