1 of 4
Beau Pearson
Joshua Whitehead and Jenna Rae Herrera and in David Bintley's "The Shakespeare Suite," which is part of Ballet West's triple-bill program running through April 21.

"THE SHAKESPEARE SUITE," April 13-21, Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South (801-869-6920 or balletwest.org) running time: 2 hours (two intermissions)

SALT LAKE CITY — One of the most common questions Ballet West Artistic Director Adam Sklute encounters at parties is which ballets are his favorites, he disclosed in a recent interview. His company’s latest program, running April 13-21 at the Capitol Theatre, helps answer those questions with a “director’s choice” evening of ballets titled “The Shakespeare Suite.”

The program features three ballets he cherishes — one for its ability to entertain, another for the joy derived from dancing it and another for its artistic genius. The opening night audience seemed warmly receptive to Sklute’s diverse choices, and the troupe was in top form to showcase them.

Jií Kylián's “Return to a Strange Land” kicked off the evening with mesmerizing expressionism. A personal favorite of Sklute from his dancing years with the Joffrey Ballet, "Return to a Strange Land" is melancholic and wistful with the Czech choreographer’s signature blend of contemporary fluidity and classical line.

Beau Pearson
Ballet West dancers in Jiri Kylian's "Return to a Strange Land," which is part of Ballet West's triple-bill program "The Shakespeare Suite," running through April 21.

What’s more, the early work showcases Kylián's style while still in embryo. The unique pairings, the collapsing and contracting, the intricate shapes, the swinging limbs that become tunnels for moving under or through, the stark lighting and sheer acrobatics look familiar, yet the women dance en pointe and the work feels more linear than Kylián's later works like “Petite Mort.”

Pianist Jed Moss’ treatment of the Leos Janacek’s “Sinfonietta” piano score was sensitive, as were the dancers Beckanne Sisk, Rex Tilton, Hadriel Diniz, Emily Adams, Chase O’Connell and Lucas Horns. The small cast paired into varied configurations, imploring the audience to contemplate the wondrous human machine.

Next on the docket was pioneering choreographer Merce Cunningham’s avant-garde, 1958 work “Summerspace.” This plotless ballet melds art, music and dance, a piece that seeks to invoke a mood of a balmy summer day rather than a specific emotion.

Cunningham’s hybrid ballet-modern style could best be described in this work as waist-down ballet and waist-up modern dance. And while I looked forward to watching Ballet West attempt modern dance, I soon realized you can take the dancer out of ballet but you can’t take the ballet out of a dancer.

Beau Pearson
Oliver Oguma in Merce Cunningham's "Summerspace," which is part of Ballet West's triple-bill program "The Shakespeare Suite," running through April 21.

This was especially apparent when the regal dancers executed some of Cunningham’s more quirky steps. It clearly puzzled audience members and their reaction was to laugh in amusement. Unsure whether particular movements were tongue-in-cheek or just appeared so when set on classically trained dancers, the laughs felt steeped in questioning hesitation. I suspect audience reaction would have been different when observing a modern dance troupe executing the steps.

Twentieth-century graphic artist Robert Rauschenberg’s sets and costumes conjured a pointillist painting coming to life, and the music of contemporary composer Morton Feldman served atmospheric purposes rather than melodic ones — like nature’s random bursts of sound. Cunningham did not listen to, nor did he allow his dancers, to listen to the music until the actual performance, and Sklute imposed the same parameters on Ballet West dancers Katlyn Addison, Katie Critchlow, Kyle Davis, Jenna Rae Herrera, Chelsea Keefer and Joshua Shutkind some 60 years later.

Finally, the flashy entertainer and headliner of the night, David Bintley’s “The Shakespeare Suite” was an instant crowd-pleaser. A live jazz band playing Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn set the audience on a course of jovial celebration during this jazz-inflused distillation of seven Shakespearean character duets.

Beau Pearson
Joshua Whitehead and Jenna Rae Herrera and in David Bintley's "The Shakespeare Suite," which is part of Ballet West's triple-bill program running through April 21.

Lighthearted and vaudevillian, the theatricality, costumes and music were on equal footing with the technique. Take Katherine Lawrence and Christopher Sellers in their “Taming of the Shrew” vignette. Lawrence (as Kate) wears Chuck Taylor sneakers and a torn wedding dress, protesting with panache the advances of Seller’s Petruchio. The duet garnered big laughs, especially during his attempts to dodge her blows and even carry her stiffened, boardlike body sideways like a suitcase — her arms crossed in protest and her sneakered feet turned out defiantly.

Bintley has cleverly and comedically mastered the dysfunctional duet, be it manipulative, hostile or even murderous. Othello’s suffocation of Desdemona (danced by Adrian Fry and Katie Critchlow) receives playful rather than macabre treatment. Richard III and Lady Anne (Ronald Tilton and Emily Adams) as well as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth (Rex Tilton and Allison DeBona) show how manipulation can be intense and intricate on the dance floor.

Only Hamlet came stag to the party, danced by Alexander Macfarlan — who made dancing a notorious depressive look fun. His opening and closing of the program gave him the air of master of ceremonies.

1 comment on this story

The campy costuming by Jasper Conran added instant pop-culture flair. Macbeth sported red, spiked hair and a kilt while Lady Macbeth wore a 1980’s-style power suite. In an art form preoccupied with feet, Conran paid close attention to the dancers' footwear — only two women wore pointe shoes, while many others sported heels or sneakers.

Amusement, not depth, seemed Bintley’s aim. The audience welcomed “Shakespeare’s” boisterous finale, in which partners momentarily mix and then eventually land upon their match once again, with an air of toe-tapping amiability and finally a standing ovation. A good mood to end on in an otherwise solemn, soul-searching triple-bill.