Continuing 'Innovations': Ballet West's 2013-14 season closer takes on ballet’s old-school image

By Heather Hayes

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, May 10 2014 3:30 p.m. MDT

Ballet West principal artist Haley Henderson Smith and first soloist Rex Tilton in "The Sleeping Beauty."

Luke Isley

Is ballet dying? Not if Ballet West has anything to do with it.

One of artistic director Adam Sklute’s contributions to the company since taking the helm in 2007 has been producing the annual “Innovations” program, which this year runs May 16-24 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

One of its purposes is to whet the appetite of future-minded fans.

For some, ballet may seem a remnant of another era. Often seen as change-resistant in a barrage of modern entertainments, classical dance’s patronage is graying, and many young people see the art form as rigid and stuffy. Ballet West is working hard to prove otherwise.

“We are trying to show the public what today’s ballet has to offer,” said Sklute, cataloguing such efforts as enlisting new works, reaching millions with a recent reality TV show, using social media, expanding the Ballet West Academy into an internationally renowned training program and making traditional story ballets shorter and more exciting.

“We’re using every means to reach out and embrace the future,” he said.

“Innovations” is perhaps the most visible means of embracing ballet’s inevitable evolution. The program involves dancers submitting their ideas to Sklute for a chance to choreograph in the annual season closer. When making his selections, Sklute considers the musical interest, how each piece will complement the others and whether it will stretch the boundaries of ballet.

“Without encouraging new choreography, there is no future for this art form,” Sklute said in a 2013 interview.

This year’s multidance contemporary program showcases several small works created by aspiring company members whose youth and vitality connect with the new audiences Ballet West is seeking. Also invited to guest choreograph is Philadelphia-based BalletX’s co-founder, Matthew Neenan.

“Matthew’s use of the classical ballet idiom melded with contemporary dance is unique and stunning,” Sklute said. “The dancers have loved the creative process with him and he has brought so much out of them. It is clear why he is one of the most sought-after choreographers in America today.”

Neenan’s “The Sixth Beauty,” danced to a complex piano score by Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, examines the act of reflecting on one’s past, from the dysfunctional episodes to the harmonious ones.

Company-created pieces include soloist Christopher Anderson’s “Paths.” With his piece set to Dvorak’s “Romance in F minor” as well as Michael Nyman’s “Drowning by Number 3,” Anderson takes the concept of “engaging the audience” to a whole new level.

“I’m inviting volunteers onstage to serve as a living, dancing backdrop,” Anderson said of his ballet for four soloists. “I envision them serving a role similar to a Greek chorus.”

Artist Tyler Gum’s “Inverted Affect” will follow. Gum drew inspiration from his grandfather’s life and the cowboy poetry he left behind. Set to a collaborative score of electric guitar, percussion and poetry reading fragments, Gum utilizes the strength and grace of five dancers, exploring the ripple effect of a single decision through dance, musical composition and scenic elements.

Soloist Emily Adams’ “Mixed Signals” features four women and three men dancing to an electronic score. With a playful and mysterious science-fiction flavor, Adams’ imaginative work loosely searches how beings from another world might react if given the opportunity to inhabit the human body. What would learning to be human look like? The capacity of our bodies comes to light as Adams explores human senses, interactions and connections.

Finishing the program is principal dancer Christopher Ruud’s “Great Souls,” a stark and symbolic black-and-white ballet set to four movements of Beethoven. With six couples and six single dancers, the work is an expression of love and loss.

So what will become of ballet during this century? Sklute remains optimistic, but he’s working hard to establish new programs like “Innovations” to ensure the upper hand.

“The art form is not dying. People will always love to watch dance. The human body and its abilities will always mesmerize us,” Sklute said in a 2013 interview. “So for us, it’s not ‘why don’t people want dance?’; it’s ‘what can we do to make dance more accessible?’ It’s the access to the masses that ballet has sometimes lost along the way.”

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

How much: $45

Tickets: 801-355-2787 or balletwest.org

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