1 of 4
Beau Pearson
Principal Artist Rex Tilton and First Soloist Allison DeBona will perform in Ballet West's production of "The Shakespeare Suit" from April 13-21.

SALT LAKE CITY — Since Shakespeare is all about words and ballet has none, the challenge for a choreographer aiming to portray the essence of "Hamlet" or "Richard III" is particularly exquisite. But in English choreographer David Bintley’s “The Shakespeare Suite,” he managed an homage to the Bard that is alive with physical wit, which Ballet West will present as part of its triple-bill program April 13-21.

“It’s absolutely delightful,” said Ballet West Artistic Director Adam Sklute, who fell in love with the piece when he saw Bintley’s Birmingham Royal Ballet perform it. “It’s not often that a ballet company gets the opportunity to dance to jazz music. It’s new for us and great fun for the audience.”

The headliner is a collection of seven modern-day “situations,” as Sklute describes them, based on the Bard’s plays. Crystallized into pop-culture duets, the dancers portray Shakespeare’s most recognizable couples in a balletic romp set to the smokey strains of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Such Sweet Thunder.”

“Part of the fun of this program is testing your knowledge of Shakespeare,” Sklute said. “I found myself playing a game of ‘guess who?’ when I first saw it.”

Some character references, he said, are screamingly obvious. For instance, if one can easily guess the play represented by “a woman in fairy wings who comes riding out on a guy in a tuxedo with donkey ears," according to Sklute, as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the less glaring tip-offs in other sections will be gratifying.

Along with "The Shakespeare Suite," Ballet West will perform two smaller “gems” Sklute also considers “off the beaten path.”

“In a season filled with traditional ballets, it was important to me to offer up a program filled with works I find fascinating, yet may not be as recognizable,” he said. “This program really is a ‘director’s choice’ of unexpected favorites.”

Sklute dug into his performing days with the Joffrey Ballet, adding Czech choreographer Jiri Kylián’s “Return to a Strange Land” to the bill.

“It was one of my favorite pieces to dance,” he said. “It is so intimate and heartfelt for audiences, and also emotionally fulfilling for a dancer. I just wanted everyone to feel that.”

One of Kylián’s earliest creations (1975), and one of his only pieces en pointe, the ballet is set to fellow Czech Leoš Janáček’s “Sinfonietta” piano score. Here Kylián paid tribute to the late well-known 20th-century choreographer John Cranko, creator, among other classics, of the 1965 ballet "Onegin," which Ballet West will perform in April 2019.

The charismatic Stuttgart Ballet director died in a mid-flight choking accident in 1973 surrounded by Kylián and other company dancers as they returned home from a successful U.S. tour. In program notes for "Return to a Strange Land" (which Ballet West reprinted for this production), Kylián compared stepping off the airplane to stepping into a foreign land, so changed was he from the experience and the loss of his mentor.

“You know how in music, a composer can create a feeling from something as simple as writing two notes moving in and out of dissonance?” asked Sklute in an attempt to describe the choreography of the four-section, six-dancer ballet. “That’s what Kylián does. There’s such subtlety coming across, despite the reality that it’s incredibly acrobatic and difficult to dance. When I danced it, I felt so tired I was ready to die by the end,” he recalled with a laugh.

Also on the docket is modern dance pioneer Merce Cunningham’s historically-significant, avant-garde "Summerspace."

A 1958 experiment in which designs for set and costumes, music and choreography were created independently by the greats of the era — who included artist Robert Rauschenberg and composer Morton Feldman — the piece came together for the first time during the onstage performance by Cunningham’s envelope-pushing dance troupe.

Beau Pearson
Principal Artist Rex Tilton and First Soloist Allison DeBona will perform in Ballet West's production of "The Shakespeare Suit" from April 13-21.

“Cunningham was a student of Martha Graham’s, but he didn’t want to tell stories. He wanted to produce pieces of art. He liked to choreograph to silence because it gave the dancer an opportunity to interpret the music,” Sklute explained of Cunningham’s decision not to preview Feldman’s new score until the opening night performance. “Overall, I love ‘Summerspace’s’ unique, collaborative approach to dance and the idea of a complete artwork of music, movement and pointelist art.”

Sklute admitted that executing the demands of a modern dance piece is challenging to a classically trained company. Even dancing barefoot — a requirement of the work — can sometimes make ballet dancers uneasy.

“Modern dance requires a different technique — a departure in the way ballet dancers are trained to turn, move and bear weight,” Sklute said. “And while he is a true modern dance pioneer, thankfully Cunningham’s linear style and strict syllabus make it more approachable and more balletic than others. … My dancers have embraced the challenge.”

Comment on this story

Dancers aren’t the only ones who will have their assumptions challenged. “Summerspace,” “Return to a Strange Land” and “The Shakespeare Suite,” Sklute believes, will surely challenge audience notions of what ballet is or ought to be.

“It will stretch people, perhaps, but it will also certainly entertain. It’s a very balanced, satisfyingly rich and diverse program,” he said.

If you go …

What: Ballet West’s “The Shakespeare Suite”

When: April 13-23

Where: J. Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South

How much: $29-$87

Phone: 801-869-6900

Web: balletwest.org