"INNOVATIONS 2015," Ballet West, through May 23, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South (801-869-6900 or balletwest.org)
If rock stars and Reebok can attempt reinvention, what’s stopping ballet from reinventing itself too? Although steeped in tradition, even ballet is finding that to be stagnant is to be haunted by the nagging threat of obsolescence.
Ballet West’s annual “Innovations,” which opened over the weekend at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, doesn’t attempt to just slap a fresh coat of paint onto a centuries-old art form — in some cases, it subjects it to major renovation.
The intimate, season-closing program, now in its eighth year, showcases works by up-and-coming choreographers as well as select Ballet West dancers. This year has perhaps the finest sampling of forward-thinking ballet in recent memory. Each of the five short ballets has an entirely unique take on ballet, from the traditional to the animalistic and from the acrobatic to the comic.
The program began with principal dancer Emily Adam’s “Homage,” named for Salvador Dali’s sculpture “Homage to Terpsichore.” The piece, set to the strains of Golijov’s “Preludes for Violin and Piano,” opened with the steadfastly sunny Beckanne Sisk. With her long hair and flattering blush-colored gown billowing around her, she was a vision leading out amongst two couples. They exuded light and joy in perfect opposition to the creeping figure of Sayaka Ohtaki, who offered a power-filled counterpoint while leading her sinister quartet of gray unitard-clad dancers.
Adams’ movement quality at times felt neoclassic with a side of quirky. Throwing arms back, thrusting hips and chest forward, flexing hands and utilizing angular, off-kilter movement seemed her language. All in all, Adams’ first full-act commission had some triumphant moments but also left something to be desired.
Adrian Fry’s “Pulse” was the most traditional work of the night. It examined the physiological as well as the poetic aspects of the human heart with two couples, who traded their lively and life-giving movement during the first section for a sudden shift in which they become more like working cogs in a machine.
Next came resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s “Presto,” danced by two couples. Fonte’s choice of dancers for the work did not disappoint. Both men, Adrian Fry and Alexander McFarlan, are rapidly rising to become audience favorites — their ability to interchange traditional ballet with a distortion on the classical idiom is astounding. The way they throw themselves into movement with such abandon while still carving out strong technique leads one to believe they are fluent in both modern dance and ballet.
Fonte used a more rigid choreography for the two women, Katherine Lawrence and Jacqueline Straughan. Although they were constantly lifted, spun, stretched and maneuvered, they exuded an air of power and fierceness. This was underscored by side lighting, which accentuated their powerful, muscular legs.
First-time choreographer Katlyn Addison must have been pleased at the enthusiastic reception of her piece, “The Hunt,” which followed.
Cameron Hodges performed a rapid-fire drum solo onstage as six male dancers hopped, stamped and spun into weighty turns. The bare-chested men wore long, Japanese-style skirts reminiscent of Hans Van Manen’s “Grosse Fuge,” which seemed puzzling against the three women wearing animal print unitards and exhibiting animal-like movement. Yet Hodges' rhythms seemed closer to Tahitian fire-dancing than African drum dancing. Combined with the men’s flaring skirts in constant circular motion, it actually began to look like a fire dance as well, prompting the audience into a cheering frenzy.
Finishing off the evening was guest choreographer and Utah-native Garrett Smith’s “Facades.” The work questioned social convention and constraints by using Baroque-period dance, costumes and props and amusing effects.
Set to the strains of Handel and Vivaldi, a league of couples danced, each character making calculated and comical attempts to upstage his or her partner. Two men flounced on and off the stage in slapstick mockery of Baroque frivolity, linking arms while bobbing powdered wigs and fluttering fans. It was like watching a mix between Ben Stevenson’s “Cinderella” stepsisters and “Mother Buffoon.”
Things then became introspective when a rococo frame descended from above to represent a mirror, and Christiana Bennett, dressed in a white tutu, danced in mirror image with Allison DeBona, in black. The two women seemed to represent a person's inner self, sometimes dark, fighting against convention and propriety. Jiri Kyian’s “Petit Mort,” with the same expressions of delaying restrictive time periods through movement and props, came to mind more than once.
Among the unique aspects of the piece was the use of the tutu set against the markedly contemporary feel. Most poignant was a section in which the women lay on the ground with the tulle from their red tutus spiking upward as legs and arms extended and flexed.
The mirror effect was also a unique touch, although when Bennett and DeBona partnered with Christopher Anderson and Christopher Ruud, respectively, the view of the “reflected” couple was often frustratingly obstructed. Smith would have been wise to position them at an angle instead of straight on.
Smith’s use of Philip Glass’ Concerto for Harpsichord added an interesting, pulsing element. It was the perfect selection to enhance the momentum-gaining drama onstage.
What made this “Innovations” program a standout wasn’t necessarily its use of unique movement — although there was plenty. Not all the pieces will turn heads and command outside commissions. Why this show worked especially well from an audience standpoint was simply the sheer variety in the lineup — no two pieces seemed alike, nor did they seem to draw their inspiration from similar springboards. The effect was regenerating, exciting and, yes, reinventing.