Ballet West continues to expand 50 years after its founding

Published: Saturday, May 3 2014 3:00 p.m. MDT

That man was Willam F. Christensen, and his vision stemmed from a “distinctly American and theatrical repertoire” obtained during his years on the American vaudeville circuit, according to Ballet West’s website.

Christensen wasn’t new to the idea of starting a ballet company when he came to Utah. He led the creation of the San Francisco Ballet in 1942 where he choreographed multiple productions, including what is now the oldest full American production of “The Nutcracker,” which is still performed by Ballet West today.

He eventually came to Utah and in 1963 founded Ballet West, becoming the company’s first artistic director, with the help of Glenn Walker Wallace.

“He brought in ballet from around the world and different styles of dance and started very quickly establishing Ballet West as an eclectic artistic organization,” Sklute explained.

Ballet West has had five artistic directors during its 50 years, and each has offered something new to the organization.

“Ballet West perhaps has one of the most expansive and dynamically diverse repertoires in American Ballet today, and that is because of five different directors, each one of us bringing something different to the table,” Sklute said.

This building of style has created unique opportunities, such as the company’s participation in the CW’s “Breaking Pointe” TV show. The company was selected as the subject of the reality TV show that follows the lives of ballet dancers, and that participation has brought international recognition to Sklute and the dancers. The show first aired in 2012 and showed the company through two seasons of rehearsals and performances as well as their personal lives.

“It was a remarkable opportunity for us to show the world what the lives of dancers and being in a dance company is all about,” Sklute said.

Creating accessibility

Altman and Sklute both believe there’s something distinctive about the art form of ballet and hope the company can help others see that.

They expressed that patrons often think ballet will be difficult to understand and said that the exact opposite is true.

“There is no more accessible art form because we will present to you something of the very highest international artistic integrity, and it’s up to you to interpret it and to go with the story any way you please,” Altman said.

Altman noted that Ballet West is known for its ability to do “storybook” productions in addition to modern ballets, and the company is widely recognized throughout Utah for “The Nutcracker.” Attending the ballet each year has become a tradition for many, and Sklute hopes the well-loved story helps patrons branch into other areas of the company’s repertoire as well.

“I hope and I would love to see more people who enjoy ‘The Nutcracker’ come and see other aspects of our productions,” Sklute said.

Sklute seeks to make the art of ballet even more accessible, especially to younger audiences, through Ballet West’s family series. The company produces hourlong ballets such as “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” each year with a narrator to help children understand and get an easy introduction to ballet.

Sklute has also shortened the company’s version of “The Sleeping Beauty,” making it comparable in length to “The Nutcracker.”

“This is the 21st century, so perhaps 100 years ago sitting through a four- to five-hour performance was acceptable, but nowadays it’s just not,” Sklute said. “We’re used to going to movies for two hours; we can go to the ballet for two hours, and this is something that can be enjoyable.”

Educational opportunities

Ballet West has a robust education and outreach program that provides more than 100,000 children each year with the opportunity to get a taste of ballet.

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