Ballet West used to be scattered about the downtown area like leaves in an October wind. The rehearsal studios could be found above the Capitol Theatre, the academy in a former rug store on State Street and the costume shop several miles to the southwest in a warehouse near the interstate.
Times have certainly changed.
After decades of planning and fundraising, a beautiful new home has taken shape in a 55,000-square-foot modern framework of glass and light adjacent to the Capitol Theatre. Quadrupling the former space, the building houses everything from studios to offices to a wig master’s shop.
The company, which still seems to be pinching itself, moved in during the first week of January. With a contemporary three-ballet program approaching April 10-19 and recent stints at the Kennedy Center and Joyce Theater, optimism — along with that fresh-paint smell — is heavy in the air at the Jessie Eccles Quinney Ballet Centre.
“Our new home reinforces the sense that we play a major part in the arts community,” said Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West. “Plus, we can really breathe and move and get our work done.”
The view isn’t half-bad, either, which may also help explain the added spring in the dancers’ steps. After the cramped quarters, tight rehearsal studios and very little natural light in the old space, the new studio’s wraparound, floor-to-ceiling windows and spectacular mountain views certainly don’t hurt.
“Looking out at the mountains in the studio is unbelievably beautiful and utterly distracting,” resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte said with a laugh.
A Brooklyn native who hatched a professional ballet career in Europe before returning to the states as a recognized and respected choreographer, Fonte was excited at the prospect of working with Ballet West dancers on a regular basis, taking up his current post with the company in 2013.
“Ballet West dancers seem to be hungry, eager and possessed with that very ‘American’ drive,” he said when asked about his affection for the company. He also said he loves Salt Lake City’s great natural beauty and relishes the idea of spending more time here.
Fonte’s “Almost Tango” is the namesake for Ballet West’s upcoming mixed repertory program at the Capitol Theatre.
The program, which Sklute described as “an exploration of social dance through a ballet medium,” includes three short ballets that abstractly borrow from the styles of tango, square dance and ’80s techno-club.
“Square Dance” is an amusing study in juxtaposition. An unlikely pair, baroque music and square dancing found each other through George Balanchine.
“Balanchine loved all things American West,” Sklute said of the Russian-born, iconic 20th-century choreographer. “In Vivaldi and Corelli, he heard the sounds and rhythms of square dance music.”
After eight years at Ballet West’s helm, Sklute will make his performing debut in Salt Lake City in the whimsical acting role of the square dance caller for the piece, a role he mastered during his days dancing with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago.
'In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated'
William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” hasn’t been seen for over a decade in Utah. With its grinding techno-chic score, attitude is everything.
“It’s harnessed that aggressive disinterest feel of the era — the coolness, competitiveness, the staring down of one another,” Sklute said. The unisex costumes and movement showcase both male and female ability with equal force as the dancers outdo one another with jaw-dropping tenacity, flexibility and athleticism.
When asked to describe his “Almost Tango,” which was commissioned by Pacific Northwest Ballet over a decade ago and catapulted Fonte into the American choreographic landscape, Fonte said it is not a contemporary ballet-tango.
“I was more interested in the spirit of tango rather than the literal conventions. I wanted to explore its ideas — like that struggle between men and women,” he said.
Tango originated in lower-class Argentine dance halls in the late 1800s. A huge influx of male emigrants from Europe had left their wives and girlfriends back home in order to find work in the Americas.
In his research, Fonte discovered these dance halls became a social center for such men, who would commiserate over how they missed the women back home. Lacking in enough female partners, they would often dance together in a sort of moral combat. This led Fonte to explore the possibility of a ballet in which men outnumber women, a device he would come to use often in his ballets.
“It’s essentially a male 'corps' of dancers,” explained Fonte, making reference to the traditional women corps that constitutes the soul of such ballets as “The Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake.”
In “Almost Tango,” four women are introduced one by one throughout the ballet in vignettes that project their physical and technical virtuosity.
“The development of tango took almost a half century to become what it is today,” Fonte said. “I like to think of this piece as 40 years of tango developing in 25 minutes.”
If you go ...
What: Ballet West’s “Almost Tango”
When: April 10-11 and 17-18 at 7:30 p.m.; April 19 at 2 p.m.
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South
How much: $29-$84