SALT LAKE CITY — Ballet West kicked off its 2017-18 season over the weekend with a double-bill rich in contrasts. Constructing a program of opposing moods, the overall experience was a gratifying and mesmerizing feast for the senses.
The first ballet, George Balanchine’s “Serenade,” is ebullient and serene, a classic, buttoned-up piece offering audiences a brightly rich visual and musical experience. The second ballet, Nicolo Fonte’s newly reimagined “Carmina Burana,” is an explosive study of ballet’s contemporary language, filled with athleticism, passion and drama — all set to Carl Orff’s legendary score.
Opening the program, “Serenade’s” sweeping beauty and remarkable back story have long made it an iconic classic. First performed in 1934 and set to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” the ballet was Balanchine's first original creation in America, which he initially planned as a workshop for his newly founded School of American Ballet.
In "Serenade," rehearsal was the inspiration. When a girl fell, Balanchine added it into the ballet. When another arrived late, he worked in her tardy entry. Even an incident in which a dancer’s hair unloosened from its knot was written into the ballet. Thus, accidents became eternal imprints that make this ballet fun to watch if audiences know what to look for.
In “Serenade,” the corps dancers enjoy the same big, sweeping, luxurious technique that would normally be reserved for leads — in those early years, the school had no dancers capable of leading roles. Later, Balanchine would add five solo roles, which weave in and out of the ensemble’s intricate lines and delicate patterns, melting into various pairings and pas de deuxs. Beckanne Sisk, Katherine Lawrence, Emily Adams, Christopher Ruud and Beau Pearson danced these five starring roles expertly Friday evening.
Along with eye-catching, pale-blue tableaus, the motifs and variations that so skillfully mirror Tchaikovsky’s work make this a lovely, elegant must-see ballet. What’s more, Ballet West’s treatment of the iconic ballet is masterful.
In thunderous contrast to “Serenade’s” tranquility, “Carmina Burana” roared to life for Ballet West’s second presentation of the evening. Although one version or another has been danced over 100 times by the company since the 1970s, this latest interpretation by resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte received its world premiere Friday evening.
Set to Carl Orff’s legendary composition encompassing 24 medieval poems, the cantata was performed by soprano Melissa Heath, tenor Eric Taylor and baritone Christopher Clayton with the Cantorum Chamber Choir, other choral professionals and the Ballet West Orchestra. All shimmered under the baton of conductor Tara Simoncic.
As the first strains of “O Fortuna” surge to life, a cluster of dancers in flesh-colored leotards whirl with Fonte’s signature movement: energetic limbs, quicksilver steps, stunning group configurations, a sense of wrapping and unfolding, sky-high-leaps and breathless extension. The sculptural effect of the movement with the costumes was an homage to the human form — with every muscle examined like an anatomy class.
Other dancers appear in monk’s hooded robes and a loose narrative begins to take shape around the musical poems, moving from love and jubilance — even silliness — to grief and bitterness and back to affection, joviality and flirtatiousness. Different group configurations express these emotions through movement and color to reflect the randomness of the fortuna wheel.
While the choir sat perched atop the stage on arches, the soloists were choreographed into the dance as live, active members of the ballet. Their interaction with the dancers throughout the one-hour ballet was unique and striking. The overall effect was an enhanced appreciation of each artist’s unique craft.
All three vocal soloists met the unusual and often bold challenges of the piece, including Taylor’s falsetto aria, and the score’s demand for unusually high notes for both Heath and Clayton.
The artistry of the 18 dancers selected for this piece was no less stunning. With ever-changing pairings, too many of note to mention, the jaw-dropping athleticism and grace of these dancers is worth the price of admission.
Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell’s pas de deux, encircling the soprano as she sings the sweeping Dulcissime aria, is certainly a shining moment. Fonte capitalized on the movement’s sensuality by utilizing Sisk’s fluidity — her rolling back, lithe upper body and willowy arms to create an otherworldly effect. In a differing section, Sisk dances asymmetrically in one pointe shoe and one dance slipper, portraying a fallen swan — her grace and beauty a perfect match.
Alexander McFarlan and Oliver Oguma’s pas de deux is a show of strength, athleticism but also tenderness. Both are deeply thoughtful dancers, and seem to have assumed the contemporary heartbeat of the company. Newly promoted demi-soloist Chelsea Keefer, a Utah-native from Huntsville, danced a stunning trio with Oguma and McFarlan during a different section, displaying her brilliant connection with the audience.
As the wheel comes full circle, “O Fortuna” reignites it’s inevitable march once again, the choir, soloists and dancers coming together in a crowning burst, before creating a final, striking tableau. The powerful piece is both awe-inspiring and shiver-worthy, another triumph for Fonte, who can once again be praised for successfully reimagining a classic.