SALT LAKE CITY — With the impressive catalogue of 20th-century programs Ballet West has mounted over the past half-century, it’s a wonder that Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free” has never graced the Capitol Theatre stage.
That will change Nov. 6-14 as Ballet West presents “Iconic Classics," which starts with the 60-year-old ballet that catapulted both choreographer Robbins and composer Leonard Bernstein into fame and became not only one of the legendary milestones in American dance but also the basis for the full-length Broadway musical “On the Town.”
“It’s a fun, joyous piece that hearkens back to a different era,” artistic director Adam Sklute said. “It’s about three World War II-era sailors let loose in the big city of Manhattan during a 24-hour shore leave, and they want to make it count before they ship out.”
Silliness and misadventure ensue. The first order of business, of course, is finding some women. As each of the three sailors takes a solo for peacocking to land a date, the audience is introduced to their distinct personalities.
“There’s the suave guy; he’s sort of the leader of the pack,” Sklute said. “Then there’s the Midwestern boy, sort of an innocent, goofy type, and then the spitfire one — he can be a bit of a hothead.”
This is all accompanied by Bernstein’s toe-tapping score. The first solo has an acrobatic, hepcat flare — the epitome of 1940s cool. The second sailor is, by nature, just the opposite. Naive but charming, he has a boyish grin and a happy-go-lucky disposition illuminated by spry, boisterous movement. The last solo (which Robbins reserved for himself when it premiered in 1944), with its swivel-hipped, sometimes menacing quality, nods to rumba with allure, mystery and hot tempers.
The decision by both choreographer and composer to set the libretto in their present day has been deemed an important one because it historically preserved the war-riddled, country-serving world in which they found themselves. Wild West and Americana-themed ballets had carved a place in major repertoires, but capturing their “now” instead of waxing nostalgic was at the heart of Robbins and Bernstein’s aim.
Although the ballet is lighthearted and loaded with fun, Sklute points out it has layers.
“There’s this undercurrent you feel in Bernstein’s music. It’s not overt in any way. On the surface, it’s absolutely ‘fancy free,’ but there’s something you feel,” Sklute said.
Sklute pointed out the subtleties he’s recognized during backbreaking hours of rehearsing, such as perfecting a tilt of the head or a raise of an eyebrow. Robbins created spontaneous looks by writing in even the tiniest movement.
“It’s like, even though they’re young and free and full of life, they’re headed back on that ship, and to who knows where,” Sklute said. “That was the reality for so many people. Would that young sailor ever come back? It’s just the tiniest sense that you don’t know what’s going to happen to them. So I find it, somehow without being heavy, to be profound.”
Also on the evening’s docket is Jiri Kylian’s “Overgrown Path,” a soulful ballet performed to the haunting 10-piece piano cycle “On an Overgrown Path,” by Leos Janacek.
Popular with dancers and audiences, Kylian’s choreography has been on the company’s bill four times in five years with patrons asking for more. “Overgrown Path” was created over three decades ago but is just now having its Utah premiere. Ballet West is one of only two companies in the U.S. permitted to mount the work.
“The first time I saw ‘Overgrown Path’ in New York by Nederlands Dans Theater, I couldn’t get up out of my chair; I just had to sit and think,” Sklute said. “It’s so deep and intense and rich with material and yet so beautiful. Like ‘Petite Mort,’ it has a hypnotic movement quality.”
The final piece, George Balanchine’s sparkling and jubilant “Symphony in C,” is also having a premiere of sorts. Although the grand spectacle, featuring crystal-strewn white tutus for each woman and black velvet tunics for each man, has previously been performed in Utah, the work has never been mounted with a complete cast of 50 dancers.
Set to Georges Bizet’s famous score, the ballet has four movements, each one featuring a different principal couple, two pairs of soloists and corps de ballet. The entire cast of 50 dancers from all four movements comes together for the dramatic finale.
“This ballet tests the mettle of a ballet company; it’s the benchmark of its abilities,” Sklute said. The piece demands technical prowess and mandates that a company have enough adept dancers within its ranks. With its apprenticeship company, Ballet West II, as well as its Academy, the company is ready to launch such massive works.
As less than a week remains until opening night, all of Ballet West’s departments are in full gear. That includes the development team, as the company’s annual gala will be held earlier on the same evening for the first time.
If you go ...
What: “Iconic Classics”
When: Nov. 6 and 11, 7 p.m.; and Nov. 7 and 12-14, 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee Nov. 14
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
How much: $19-$122