Ballet West’s Adam Sklute's first encounter with Joffrey Ballet founder: 'Get out of my sight'

Published: Thursday, Dec. 27 2012 7:21 p.m. MST

A scene from choreographer Robert Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker," included in “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” which KUED will Friday, Dec. 28, at 8 p.m. Adam Sklute, Ballet West artistic director, danced the lead role of Herr Drosselmeyer in the ballet while he was a member of the Joffrey Ballet.

Courtesy of Herbert Migdoll

Adam Sklute’s first encounter with the legendary Gerald Arpino was in the rehearsal studio “while I was working very hard.” Yet the Joffrey Ballet choreographer “screamed out to me from the front of the studio, saying, ‘You there. You, with the spatulas at the end of your legs. Get out of my sight.’”

Recalling the initial experience with Arpino, Sklute explains, “Some dancers might have been crushed, but I thought, ‘Gee, he noticed me,’ so I knew I was doing something right.”

Sklute continued to be noticed, more often much more favorably, as a member of the pioneering ballet company for 23 years, until he joined Ballet West as artistic director in 2007. He recalls this story in a Deseret News interview and related it as one of the Joffrey Ballet associates included in PBS’ American Masters series, “Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance,” which KUED will premiere Friday, Dec. 28, at 8 p.m.

The informative documentary profiles Arpino and Robert Joffrey, founders of the revered dance company “that changed the way we looked at the art form,” Sklute says.

“The Joffrey Ballet made ballet more for the people. The company made it more popular. Yes, the company focused on great works of historical arts, but it also started combining popular music with popular dance forms, along with classical dance. So the company really just redefined the way we look at ballet.”

Sklute was one of the last two dancers to be personally invited into the company by Joffrey, “and that is something I hold very close to my heart," he said.

To explain this fondness for the founder, Sklute says, “Mr. Joffrey was very intellectual, rather cerebral, always very calm. He was a man of great, great vision and great artistic taste and style. Mr. Arpino was very emotional and very passionate about his art form, (and) could easily get angry at the drop of a hat and kick everyone out of his studio while he was rehearsing.”

“Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance” is not the first time Sklute has been included in a televised production associated with the Joffrey Ballet. His TV credits include the Joffrey Ballet’s “Dance in America” telecasts of Vaslav Nijinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps” and Arpino’s production of “Billboards,” as well as the role of Herr Drosselmeyer in Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker.”

Balancing the humorous recollection of his encounter with Arpino, Sklute says that Joffrey “was a funny man. When he hired me, he looked at me — he was a very small man and had kind of a high-pitched voice — and said to me, ‘Well, Adam. I’m taking you into my company against my better judgment. But you’re very smart and I know you’ll succeed.’ ”

Sklute found much success with the company, rising from a young dancer to ballet master and then associate director. He also came to the attention of ballet observers.

Of his dancing at the time, one admiring reviewer called Sklute “one of (the Joffrey Ballet’s) most youthful and appealing all-American dancer-athletes,” while the New York Times wrote that he “danced with a fine sense of form, infused with contemporary energy.”

“When I saw the Joffrey Ballet perform, I decided that I wanted to be a ballet dancer,” he says. “The Joffrey dancers were so vibrant, so athletic, so exciting. It wasn’t what one would think of as ballet. It was energetic and powerful. And I thought, ‘I’ve got to be a part of that.’”

The Joffrey Ballet continues its influence on dance in America and directly on Ballet West through Sklute’s membership in the company.

“Robert Joffrey had a great respect for history,” Sklute says. “And when I came here to Ballet West one of the things I was so proud of was to join a company that had a great history and legacy. I’ve worked very hard to try and respect that history and legacy, and (founding artistic director Willam Christensen’s) legacy and his own very theatrical brand of ballet, while mixing it with my understanding of contemporary work, which I learned a great deal with the Joffrey Ballet.”

Ballet West will take center stage in its own TV production when CW’s “Breaking Pointe,” a reality show on the Utah-founded company, begins its second season with new episodes to be telecast in the summer of 2013. Filming is scheduled to begin in January.

The network initially considered 15 other dance companies, including the San Francisco Ballet, the Boston Ballet and the Juilliard School, when it selected Ballet West for the documentary-style program. Premiering in May, “Breaking Pointe” was announced as an inside look at the competitive world of ballet, yet the resulting program was called by one critic “an ordinary relationship saga” of the company dancers.

But Sklute has set his sights on improving the direction of “Breaking Pointe” by focusing more closely on the company’s artistic endeavors. “This season we’re going to focus more on the dancing and the art form, and perhaps a little less on the interpersonal relationships,” he says.

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