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Ballet West gets it right with a new 'Rite'

By Heather Hayes

For the Deseret News

Published: Monday, April 14 2014 5:04 p.m. MDT

A brand new “Rite of Spring” made its debut at the Capitol Theatre Friday, where Ballet West paid tribute to Igor Stravinsky’s iconic score — which recently turned 100 — with a far different choreographic take from that of the original 1913 ballet. The triple-bill program, also featuring George Balanchine’s “Divertimento” and Jiri Kylian’s “Forgotten Land,” will run through April 19.

The program opened with Kylian’s 1981 achievement “Forgotten Land,” showcasing thoughtful scenery and costume design, including a massive seascape backdrop. Dancers wore various hues of reds, whites and grays that filled the abstract space as if they had been painted into the crests.

The cerebral work began with the ensemble facing the backdrop, rolling with the tide as if they were bobbing gulls alert to the color-changing horizon. Soon the ensemble dispersed into a range of pairings and solos.

As Benjamin Britten’s glorious “Sinfonia da Requiem” came to a crescendo, so did the choreography. The dancers quickened with desperation and spun with abandon, their arms like windmills as a foreboding sense of love and loss closed in around them.

Kylian is a master of partnering. He has a way of transforming two beings into one with fluidity of movement and dashes of acrobatic power that mesmerize his audiences. Partners Allison DeBona and Adrian Fry were especially captivating, filling the space around them with ease and flow.

Next on the program was Balanchine’s lighthearted "Divertimento No. 15," named for the accompanying music by Mozart. The ballet, sandwiched between two weighty pieces, was bright, free and gentle without feeling placid. Balanchine’s technical achievements were on full display in a relaxed ease and grace that defied its physical demands.

Five ballerinas in bow-covered tutus shared the limelight with three court-attired men. The ballet contains a solo variation, danced by Beau Pearson, that is considered among the greats for male dancers. The fifth ballerina role, danced by Christiana Bennett, is also coveted. It works with the solo violinist’s complex allegro variation in creating a dramatic climax.

An eight-woman ensemble also joined in, serving as a stunning pattern play against an array of partner configurations. Less than sure-footed in the beginning sequence, the ensemble gained traction and began to truly soar as the ballet progressed.

Never is the linking between Balanchine and composer more apparent than in "Divertimento No. 15." It’s a hallmark of the choreographer’s style to call attention to nuances in the music. Thanks to Jared Oaks’ keen conducting, Mozart was fully appreciated and, thanks to the musical responsiveness of the dancers, fully articulated.

The brilliance and acute musicality of Bennett was especially noticeable. Both she and partner Pearson executed their difficult solos with aplomb, although Pearson struggled to convince audiences that he was fully swept up by the music. One could almost sense him keeping time in his head.

After a second intermission, Ballet West debuted Nicolo Fonte’s new “Rite of Spring.”

As the curtain rose during the recognizable opening bassoon solo, it became clear that any libretto similar to the original in which a pagan ritual dance would be enacted was not in the cards. In fact, with the costume and movement, one was more inclined to hear something new in the music — such as a jazz-soaked nightclub instead of the dawn of a pagan holiday — especially with the industrial setting and cropped black leather unitards.

As dancers broke into small groups and solos, further exploration of the music, particularly its rhythms, led to profound revelations. The pas de trois with Tom Mattingly, Zachary Prentice and Alexander MacFarlan was especially powerful, as was a drumming musical climax when 16 dancers illuminate the stage with frenzied, visceral movement.

Throughout, a particular dancer would be singled out suddenly and become ostracized from the collective. This seemed one of the few nods to Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography, where a “chosen” individual is selected.

A young boy, danced by BW academy student Henry Winn, also made regular appearances throughout the ballet, sometimes standing as if a symbol of judgment and other times joining in the dance. Winn performed beyond his years with thoughtful maturity and grace.

A golden full moon suspended from the top of the stage gradually tipped horizontally until it appeared to be more dish than disk. During the final moments of the ballet, Katherine Lawrence and the young Winn stood under it as it began to fill with water from some heavenly spout. Ultimately, the bowl tipped, spilling water on the two, who then danced in the puddles, flinging water with their feet in childlike freedom.

Ballet West chose to present a new version of “The Rite of Spring” that would ultimately give 21st-century audiences new ears to hear Stravinsky’s masterful score. By abandoning a formal libretto, the choreography called greater attention to the complex rhythms and tonal experiments. Not only did Ballet West blow minds with its inexhaustible strength, agility and grace, it also elevated a piece of music for those in the audience, helping them to discover new aspects of Stravinsky’s genius.

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