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Ballet West continues to expand 50 years after its founding

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

Artists of Ballet West perform in "Paquita."

Luke Isley

Editor's note: This is the fourth story in a series highlighting arts organizations around Utah.

In the world of ballet, movement is a lot more than just action — every leap, jump, turn and lift has meaning.

Whether it’s through portraying the first buds of spring, a wicked fairy or a young girl receiving a beloved nutcracker as a gift, a story is told without a single word being uttered.

“It doesn’t require a synopsis,” said Scott Altman, executive director of Ballet West. “You experience it.”

Ballet West has been providing these experiences for 50 years. The company continues to expand its influence through touring, education and outreach programs and by offering Salt Lake City, the state of Utah and even the world unique ballet performances.

Ballet West: The nuts and bolts

It’s not common for a city to have a renowned ballet company like Ballet West.

“We’re very lucky to have a ballet company here,” said Michelle Goldberg, Ballet West’s director of marketing. “There’s not that many of them. People may not realize to have a company that has sustained itself for 50 years and is constantly growing, and again of this caliber, is quite an asset to the city, to the state, to the region and the people that have nurtured it.”

The company builds its legacy in the community through three different levels within the organization: the main company, Ballet West II and the Ballet West Academy.

Ballet West’s main company employs 36 dancers who work 36 weeks out of the year practicing technique, rehearsing choreography and performing productions in Utah and throughout the country.

Ballet West II is the organization’s pre-professional company for dancers who are “more than students but not yet at the complete professional level,” said Adam Sklute, artistic director for Ballet West. The intent is that these dancers will be either taken into the main company or placed within other companies throughout the world within two years. The 12-person company tours to small venues and performs with the main company in larger productions such as “The Nutcracker.”

The organization also runs the Ballet West Academy, which carries the tagline of “Creating dancers, one step at a time.”

The academy provides dance education on various levels for children as young as 3, reaching “the pre-professional student as well as those who wish to gain a deeper understanding of this beautiful and demanding art form,” according to Ballet West's website at balletwest.org.

Sklute oversees the entire organization and strives to create performance opportunities in Ballet West’s productions for every level.

“We really have incorporated all of them into a more holistic look,” Sklute said. “The academy not only develops students or trains students to be whatever they want in whatever capacity they want dancewise, but purposefully trains students to move into the second company and then into the main company, and we’re now seeing more and more students moving from the second company into the main company.”

Recruiting and touring in different locations throughout the country has also played a role in Ballet West’s mission for many years and has reached new heights during Sklute’s tenure as artistic director. The traveling, he said, makes those in the organization “cultural ambassadors to the state of Utah.”

Building from the ground up

Ballet West grew from the simple beginnings of one man’s talent and vision.

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.

“It’s kind of our hidden gem in a lot of ways,” Altman said.

The organization provides many different opportunities, including in-school performances by Ballet West II and invitations for students to preview a performance as part of the “First Look” program.

“It’s core to our mission, in addition to producing great art, that children get the exposure,” Altman said.

Peter Christie, director of educational programs, also created the I CAN DO program, which stands for Inspiring Children About Not Dropping Out. Fifth-graders in select schools across the state are invited to work with Ballet West teachers to choreograph and practice a dance performance over a seven-month period.

“They’ll be in their jeans and their sneakers and just start working as a team. It builds confidence, it builds focus, it builds an excitement,” Sklute said.

He explained that beyond giving students an opportunity to work physically, the program builds leadership skills that translate into other areas of schoolwork.

At the end of the practices, a public performance is held that gives students the opportunity to show what they have learned.

“We’re not necessarily trying to create new ballet dancers by exposing them in our elementary schools, but we are absolutely saying that there’s more to life than your PS3 at home,” Altman said.

What lies ahead

With the momentum provided by the last 50 years, Ballet West is moving into the future with big plans.

The company is looking forward to settling into its new home next to Capitol Theatre. A groundbreaking for the Jessie Eccles Quinney Ballet Centre was held in September, and Ballet West hopes to move in by January 2015, Sklute said. The building will include five new studios, administrative and artistic offices and space for the costume shop, all under one roof for the first time.

Ballet West is also set to continue its outreach to other communities through touring. The company has previously performed twice in New York and twice at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with a third visit to each location scheduled in the coming year.

“The upcoming tour schedule is going to speak a lot to what Ballet West has become,” Goldberg said.

In addition to touring, Sklute said, the company is exploring new programming, residency programs, further expansion of the academy and more over the next several years.

But Goldberg emphasized that, even as it looks to the horizon, Ballet West is committed to the present.

“Our future is now,” she said.

If you go …

What: Ballet West’s “Innovations 2014”

When: May 16-17 and 21-24, 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. performance May 24

Where: Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South

Cost: $45

Phone: 801-869-6920

Website: balletwest.org

Email: wbutters@deseretnews.com, Twitter: WhitneyButters

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