SALT LAKE CITY — Ballet West alumni were invited to walk, or rather dance, down memory lane — at least vicariously. Friday’s opening night of “The Firebird” kicked off the company’s 50th anniversary season with loads of past dancers peppering the audience in tribute. And while renovations are underway at the Capitol Theatre, Ballet West hardly felt displaced performing the program at Kingsbury Hall.
“How poetic for us to present a revival of our founder’s ‘Firebird’ at our birthplace,” artistic director Adam Sklute said while welcoming the audience.
The mixed-bill program, which continues through Nov. 16, opens with a major revival of Willam Christensen’s “Firebird.” A touching tribute to the company’s progenitors, the ballet is a glittering spectacle of Russian folklore. Next on the docket is the Gershwin-themed, snappy Americana ballet “Who Cares?” which Ballet West performed with regularity in decades past. Jiri Kylian’s contemporary ballet smash, “Petite Mort,” was slipped dramatically in the middle. With jaw-dropping, inventive choreography, the ballet won’t conjure memories but certainly augments an exciting future.
Katherine Lawrence will be remembered for her outstanding performance in the title role of “The Firebird,” with nods also to Christopher Ruud as Prince Ivan and Arolyn Williams as the “Tsarevna.”
Lawrence’s birdlike dancing and spot-on execution of an unusual port de bra (arm movement) created a mesmerizing allure. The magical music of Stravinsky paired with fabulous costumes, (including long, wide-sleeved caftans in fabulous brocade and massive headdresses during the coronation scene) were highlights of a beautiful revival.
Completely opposite is Kylian’s “Petit Mort,” which followed. A contemporary ballet, its Utah debut a few years ago left fans begging for more. This will be the company’s third time performing it in three years. It stands as my current favorite in the repertoire. Flesh-colored costuming and stark lighting meant to darken faces and define limbs creates an entirely different feeling from the preceding story-ballet’s pomp and pageantry.
Group sections melt into six pas de deuxs (duets), each one a unique study in line, shape, muscle and breath. The work interprets the subtle beauty of two Mozart piano concertos and elevates the compositions.
Although each dancer did an excellent job, Sayaka Ohtaki and Tom Mattingly as a pair seemed especially strong and visibly hungry for the challenge. Ohtaki has such a light and effortless quality, but her delicacy has made her seem almost too fragile in years past. This year, she seems stronger and more powerful than ever — I hope to see much more of her this season.
Lately, I’m starstuck by the men of Ballet West. As a whole, they seem to have grown exponentially in recent years. This isn’t the first program in which they’ve stolen the show. Talent, skill and strength abound in this group, and works like Kylian’s give us plenty of room to soak them in.
Similarly, they stood out in ways they didn’t a decade ago during the next piece, Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” A salute to New York and Broadway, the ballet is set to 16 high-energy Gershwin pieces. The men wore ’20s-style trousers and rolled-up sleeves, leaping, turning and producing flawless tour en l’airs in perfect unison.
Beau Pearson was the night’s Gene Kelly, leading the pack and dancing with a variety of leading women, including a dazzling Emily Adams, Allison DeBona and Beckanne Sisk. The corps had some messy spots, but overall the piece produced its intended high-gloss sheen.
Ballet West’s mixed rep show is a perfect opener for a special season. Nods to its beginnings mixed with contemporary flair left the audience hungry for more. The troupe is in top form and the “barre” has been raised. Well done.
Ballet West's "The Firebird": Nov. 8, 9, 13-16 at Kingsbury Hall. Tickets can be purchased through ArtTix or KingTix.