SALT LAKE CITY — When The CW television network looked to Ballet West as the subject of a reality show in 2012, it didn’t have to look very far for dramatic intrigue. Filming its pilot episode during the spring months, the network stumbled upon a ritually white-knuckled time of year for dancers of every rank within the company.
For starters, springtime invariably means company auditions for fresh hopefuls. Then there’s the nervous pacing of company dancers over contract renewals and promotions. Finally, seasoned dancers are feeling an altogether different tension, especially as they approach their mid-30s and begin contemplating life after the stage.
The opportunity to choreograph during the company’s annual “Innovations” is one avenue for dancers to explore the future and promote themselves. This year, the fan-favorite event takes place May 20-28 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.
“It’s true, ballet performance is not a long career because of the intense athleticism required,” said Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute. “At a time when most young people are trying to find themselves, dancers are fully ensconced in a professional career. When most adults finally catch up, a dancer has to stop and completely reinvent himself.”
Besides showcasing the work of one up-and-coming professional choreographer, (this year, Jessica Lang’s celebrated “Lyric Pieces”), the “Innovations” program helps Ballet West dancers test the waters on “the other side”: the choreographic or artistic-staff side of ballet.
Principal dancer Christopher Ruud, who’s been with the company for 18 years, feels he has a few good years left before he retires. He’s worked his way into a Ballet West II directorship and has earned some choreographic opportunities in and outside the company while still dancing full time. His latest work was chosen as one of four dancer-produced pieces to be showcased at this year's “Innovations.”
Sklute has mentored Ruud and fostered opportunities for him in light of his natural leadership abilities.
“I believe in him,” Sklute said. “He has the makings of a great leader in the dance community.”
Ruud’s “In Memoriam” includes a newly commissioned score for piano and strings by Ballet West associate music director Jared Oaks. The work is presented in five movements and is about a woman’s recollections on her life in five stages.
“I looked to Tennyson’s ‘In Memoriam’ as my muse,” Ruud said. “I was especially struck by his introspective question ‘Does my old friend remember me?’”
Tennyson is speaking of his younger, toiling and unaffected self.
The other three spots for new, dancer-produced choreography in “Innovations” have been bestowed on first-timers: corps artist Oliver Oguma’s Zen-like “Fragments of Simplicity” is an exploration into the Chinese violin (erhu) music of Jia Peng Fang; newly promoted demi-soloist Trevor Naumann’s “Homer” explores the complexities of human consciousness; and first soloist Christopher Sellars’ Jazz Age, speakeasy-evoking “Barre Spot” examines a dancer’s sacred personal spot at the classroom barre.
Sellars’ work may sound humorous, but the pecking order at a ballet company, even one’s spot at the barre, is all too real. Each rank comes with its own rules, rights and paycheck. After intense apprenticeships, professional ballet ranking usually begins at the artist level and moves up for a lucky few to demi-soloist, then to first soloist and, finally, to principal dancer. Yet many dancers spend their entire career at the artist level, grateful each season to have their contracts renewed.
Ballet West recently announced nine promotions within the company, including Chase O’Connell’s rise from soloist to principal dancer. O’Connell insists he didn’t see it coming.
“I was shocked,” he said, describing the moment he was told contracts were waiting for the dancers in their lockers. When O’Connell opened his locker, he found nothing. Later that evening, upon entering his dressing room before a performance, he found a bouquet of flowers with his new contract stuffed inside.
Other promotions include Katlyn Addison, Katie Critchlow, Jenna Rae Herrera, Tyler Gum and Alexander MacFarlan as soloists; and Trevor Naumann, Joshua Whitehead and Jordan Veit as demi-soloists.
Although Ballet West hired six apprentice-level dancers during a nationwide audition this spring, only one new dancer, Amber Miller, was chosen to join the company as a full-time artist. It isn’t Miller’s first time as a professional ballerina; three years after she moved to New York for training when she was 15, St. Petersburg’s Eifman Ballet came knocking at her door.
“I definitely had trouble trying to learn my parts and understand my director in Russian,” Miller said. Although she danced with Eifman for less than two years due to an illness, she credits the company with teaching her how to be prepared with only a moment’s notice.
When she had recovered and Ballet West offered her an opportunity as a supplemental dancer this past season, she knew it was her chance to prove herself again. Miller said she feels it was ultimately her adaptability that helped her snag a full-time contract for next season.
“Adam (Sklute) had asked me to do supplemental work during ‘Nutcracker,’” she explained, “but one of the dancers got injured, so I ended up dancing several roles — one of which I hadn’t adequately rehearsed for because the company scheduled me to have time off then.
“During the break, I decided to watch the recordings and learn it, just in case,” she continued. “So, when I was suddenly needed, I was prepared. This kind of stuff happened to me a lot when I was dancing in Russia, so I was used to it.”
If you go
What: Ballet West's “Innovations 2016”
When: May 20, 21 and 26-28, 7:30 p.m.; May 25, 7 p.m.; and May 28, 2 p.m.
Where: Jeanne Wagner Theatre, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South
How much: $49.50-$59.50