Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute thinks Utah would make an ideal dance hub. The ambitious director has long envisioned a festival that showcases new works in dance the way Sundance Film Festival showcases new films. Now, with a generous grant from the state legislature, Sklute is getting his opportunity, launching the inaugural National Choreographic Festival May 19-27 at the Eccles Theater.
“The grant speaks to what the state thinks we can do with this,” said Sklute, who sees the area as underserved when it comes to opportunities for choreographers to create and audiences to view new works. Ballet West wants to change that and has invited four guest companies from across the U.S. to showcase new creations in dance.
Over two weekends, Utahns can see Pacific Northwest Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Sarasota Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre and its own Ballet West under one roof. The promise of witnessing all new choreography by many of the country’s up-and-coming artists performing with some of the nation’s top companies is meant to draw crowds from inside and outside of the state as the festival grows — and Sklute has no doubt it will.
“For starters, Utah is really a wonderful vacation destination,” Sklute said in an interview.
As a California native who has lived in both New York and Chicago during a long career with Joffrey Ballet, Sklute insists that besides being aware that the area was considered nature’s playground, he was also conscious of Utah’s strong reputation for dance long before he stepped foot in the Beehive State.
“I always knew about Ballet West, RDT (Repertory Dance Theatre) and Ririe-Woodbury. In some ways, I think we have more of a reputation for dance outside our state than within our state,” he said, recalling multiple conversations in which Utah natives were surprised to learn how well-respected and recognized their hometown is for dance.
Sklute has grand ideas for the festival’s potential. As it grows into a three-week-long production, he hopes it will expand to include six different companies as well as several fringe festivals at the same time.
“I see choreographic competitions around the valley, art symposiums, maybe even a modern dance program running concurrently,” he said. “It would become a hub of dance activity for a few weeks every year."
Along with the renowned guest companies that will grace the stage, Ballet West will present its own world premieres by resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte and former resident choreographer Val Caniparoli.
A visit to a recent rehearsal for Fonte’s new work, titled “Fox on the Doorstep,” revealed the lushness and drama of this piece just weeks before its world premiere.
Ballet West dancers move through powerful, contemplative and driving steps with athleticism and grace in a piece that Fonte describes as “from my gut,” exploring loss and metaphysical questions about life’s exit and the notion of an afterlife.
“In some abstract way the movement reflects my wondering about the moment before you leave this world," he said. "What kind of energy do you leave behind?”
Fonte recalled an emotional incident in which he opened his door to see a white fox crossing his doorstep. Not long after, he received a phone call telling him his father had died and Fonte made the connection between the timing of the fox and his father’s death.
“I wondered: What kind of kinetic, electrical charge from 1,800 miles away sent that fox to my doorstep?” Fonte said. “I thought (the dance) was going to be about something else entirely, but then it went in that direction, and I think that’s the creation process, if you’re open to it.”
Sklute thinks audiences will be open and interested in learning how choreography takes shape just as people attend film discussions at Sundance and listen to filmmakers discuss their creative journeys. Thus, the festival will feature “Warm Ups,” an event preceding each program moderated by the three artistic directors associated with the night’s bill.
The same artistic directors will also teach master classes during the festival, open to all academies throughout the region.
The Sundance Film Festival was started as “a mechanism for the discovery of new voices and new talent,” Robert Redford told the Deseret News in 2005. Ballet West wants to replicate the platform for the dance world, creating a similar lab for choreographers to showcase their works with the best dancers in the nation.
Though Sklute doesn’t promise it will have the celebrity of Sundance, he hopes the first-ever National Choreographic Festival will indeed be the start of something special.
Here are the events taking place during the festival.
• Sarasota Ballet: The company will be presenting gifted choreographer Richardo Graziano’s ethereal and haunting "In a State of Weightlessness," which premiered at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in August 2015.
• Pennsylvania Ballet: The company will be presenting "The Accidental," a contemporary ballet choreographed by Trey McIntyre in 2014, that allows the dancers to play off each other using the weight of their partners as obstacles to overcome with grace.
• Ballet West: The company will be premiering resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s fourth world premiere for Ballet West. The seventh work the company has mounted since 2012, it will showcase Fonte’s unique brand of musicality, physicality and fascination that Ballet West audiences have come to adore through pieces such as "Bolero," "Almost Tango" and "The Rite of Spring."
• Pacific Northwest Ballet: The company will be staging the exciting, internationally recognized choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s "Before After," a pas de deux created in 2002 for the Dutch National Ballet, about a relationship that is coming to an end.
• Oregon Ballet Theatre: The company will be presenting "Terra," a new creation from esteemed choreographer Helen Pickett, set to an original score by American composer Jeff Beal of "House of Cards" fame. Pickett has a flair for drama, and this latest production takes inspiration from indigenous dances of the world, contemporary ballet and Joseph Campbell’s work on myth and metaphor.
• Ballet West: The company will be presenting a world premiere by renowned choreographer Val Caniparoli, whose "Dances for Lou" will be powerful, athletic and hypnotic, inspired by Lou Harrison’s “Concerto For Pipa and String Orchestra.”
• Ballet West: The company will be staging Oliver Oguma’s "Tremor," a powerful work inspired by the human body set to a luscious score by Philip Glass. This piece was first presented at Park City’s "Works from Within," where four Ballet West artists premiered new creations.
If you go
What: Ballet West’s National Choreographic Festival
Where: Eccles Theater, 131 Main St.
When: May 19-27
How much: $20-$49