"ALMOST TANGO," Ballet West, through April 19, Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South (801-869-6920 or arttix.org)
What happens when social dance and classical ballet collide? Ballet West’s most recent offering, which opened last weekend and runs through Sunday, explores the question with a triple-bill program that borrows from square dance, tango and ’80s techno-club.
Friday evening opened with George Balanchine's whimsical and likable "Square Dance.” The ballet melds the popular American dance form with classical technique to the strains of Vivaldi and Corelli, all to the promptings of a live “caller,” a role skillfully played by BW artistic director Adam Sklute.
Balanchine’s fascination with the American West was behind this 1957 classic. In baroque music, he picked out contra dance rhythms and went to work creating an elegant ballet in which dancers respond to the caller’s whimsical commands.
Initially, it was a bit startling to hear dancers being called upon by name to “Spin, stop, spin, stop, spin around just like a top!” It’s set to feel as if the country-western caller has been plopped into another universe and relies upon his own doggerel to command the foreign steps before him. (“She makes her feet go whickety-whack!”)
In no time, the ballet’s whimsical, self-effacing attitude found favor with the audience, washing over the crowd and instilling feelings of intimacy and a sense of friendship with the dancers. It felt as if the audience was on the verge of clapping along but restrained itself for some reason — perhaps because it was Vivaldi and not “Cotton-Eye Joe.”
Katherine Lawrence and Rex Tilton led with a relaxed vitality, and the ensemble seemed polished and energetic.
When Balanchine revived “Square Dance” 20 years after its creation, he decided to omit the caller and move the musicians (a harpsichord and six-piece string ensemble) off the stage. Ballet West’s decision to perform it in its original form, one of only a handful of companies to do so, is laudable.
The playbill seemed to indicate a cast change had occurred: Tilton and Lawrence weren’t originally slated to dance opening night. Whatever the reason for the alteration, it meant that Tilton was now starring in two of the three selections that evening. Normally, this would have made him the man of the hour — he certainly deserves credit for his strong performances. But there was another name on everyone’s lips Friday night: Christiana Bennett.
On the heels of BW’s announcement last week that its prima ballerina of 16 years would be retiring after this season, everyone seemed to be nostalgically fixated on the long-limbed redhead known for her regal, precise performances and remarkable technical prowess.
Dancing a lead role in the next piece, “Almost Tango,” Bennett attacked it with her usual command and shimmer.
The ballet, created by BW’s resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte, was devoid of tango’s usual shuffling, fishnets and roses between clenched teeth. References to the dance form were mostly of the abstract variety. The male-heavy ballet (with just four women and 10 men) nodded to the dance style’s Argentinian dockside-slum origins rather than to its westernized restyling into an elegant ballroom staple.
The company’s dancing looked strong in Fonte’s piece, whether as part of a male corps, independently, in pairs or pas de trois (threes). Although the music of several composers was used, the driving strings of Karl Jenkins’ music had the most impact. His “String Quartet No. 2 — The Fifth Season” perfectly accentuated the intensity and excitement of a fascinating partnership/duel between Adrian Fry and Christopher Anderson.
All 14 dancers in “Almost Tango” deserve a mention, although demi-soloist Alexander McFarland was an unexpected standout. The music seemed to swim through his body and out his fingertips — he was a perfect match for this ballet, his performance unforgettable.
The evening finished with William Forsythe’s 1984 sensation “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” which BW threaded into the social-dance theme by giving it an ’80s club vibe. It may be better matched to Ballet West’s own reality show just a couple of years ago as it explores the passive-aggressive battle for the spotlight in the world of dance. Dancers seemed to be hunting each other, each eyeing the others as if they were prey.
Complete with a shuddering electronic score, the dancers stalked, preened and strutted casually between intense bursts of dance. The jaw-dropping choreography rejected the classical line and often utilized splayed and contracted motion, with striking movement, exaggerated port de bras (arms) and pinwheel partnering. Commissioned by Rudolf Nureyev for the Paris Opera Ballet, the ballet was said to have changed the art form forever.
Sayaka Ohtaki was mesmerizing — her nimble, tiny frame attacked the steps with precision and power, and her musicality seemed unmatched as she picked up every nuance and even the slightest lilt in the crashing score. She was paired with Christopher Ruud, and the two looked better than ever while dancing together.
BW’s program could be seen as a bit heavy with Fonte’s and Forsythe’s works billed side by side. “Square Dance’s” cheerful, understated quality may have served as a nice breather had it been placed between the others instead of as the opening number. All in all, though, the evening satisfied.