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Ballet West's fifth annual "Innovations" performance will again feature company dancers trying out their dance-making skills, as well as a professional guest choreographer who will re-stage a ballet on the company.
But even in its consistency, this year's program isn't formulaic. This year, Susan Shields' "Grand Synthesis," which premiered on the "Innovations" debut program in 2008, is being restaged with almost a completely new cast. Principal dancer Michael Bearden's 2010 piece "Descent," which seemed not much more than a clever Tim Burton-esque snapshot of a funeral, is now the centerpiece for a fully developed, one-act story ballet. Three other dancer-choreographers, including first-timer Easton Smith, are each finding their way in the art form on very different paths.
Typically, the "Innovations" program premieres a new ballet by a guest choreographer, but this year's restaging of Shields' "Grand Synthesis" gives more time, and presumably more budget, to expand the work. Last summer, when Ballet West danced the piece at Virginia's famed Wolf Trap amphitheater, "Grand Synthesis" was well received by audiences, even as the local press criticized it for lacking "edginess or elegance."
"I love working with the dancers here," Shields said. "They are smart, engaged and gorgeous. Each dancer engages the work differently, so the entire piece is fresh. It is really exciting for me as a choreographer to have these amazingly smart people reflect back something new about the work."
Shields, who is a dance professor at Virginia's George Mason University, had an international dance career, which included an eight-year stint with the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company, and in 1999, being partnered by Mikhail Baryshnikov in Mark Morris' "The Argument." As one of the country's few female freelance choreographers, her ballets are included in the repertoire of several of the country's most acclaimed ballet companies and universities.
"But every time I get a commission to start a new ballet, I feel so vulnerable," Shields said, "like I've never choreographed before. But then I find the right music, and it all makes sense again."
"Grand Synthesis" is set to British pianist and composer Graham Fitkin's "Log," which consists of six pianos, playing in different time signatures. Shields said when she heard the music, she knew she wanted to use it, but trying to count the music was impossible.
"I finally ordered the score from England, and the day it arrived, I tore it open like it was Christmas morning," Shields said. "I immediately called my percussionist and have been in love with that score ever since. Here in Utah, Chris Anderson (demi-soloist) was particularly adept at hearing the music and keeping track of the complicated counts."
Finding the right music is essential for most choreographers, but for this program Ballet West dancer-choreographers have the added complication of either using music that is in the public domain, or paying for the rights out of the allotted budget.
Artistic Director Adam Sklute requires choreographers to present a budget, cast size, length of the piece and a libretto as part of the "Innovations" application process. "This is a real-world learning process as much as it is a creative process," he said.
The real-world part is one reason Sklute OK'd Bearden's idea to expand "Descent."
Bearden proposed a theory he has about ballet choreography and audience building. "I think there is a need in the art form for new plots with unpredictable endings," Bearden said. "Audiences know the end of most classical ballets before they sit down in the seat. So, in one way I am getting back to basics by choreographing a story ballet, but I'm also looking to challenge the tradition by writing a new plot."
Abstract works can also have a narrative but use images to evoke a sense or feeling, rather than a plot. Soloist Easton Smith has long been thinking about a spiritual experience he had at age 17 involving his grandfather's death. That experience has inspired his piece, affecting both the content and his process, which Smith describes as "getting out of the way and letting that thing that is bigger and greater than I am" lead the way.
Along with Smith's intrinsic way of working, he was also motivated to create a new work as a result of being choreographed for so many years. "When a choreographer was setting work on me, I would find myself wishing the step would go a place that it would never go," Smith said. "This is my chance to let the movement go where I want it to go, to music I love."
The other two dancer-choreographers on the program have made dances for "Innovations," and their earlier work proved they were worth a second chance, Sklute said.
He advised audiences to look for the subtle sense of humor in demi-soloist Emily Adams' "Forces at Play" and the strong sense of structure and form in artist Aidan DeYoung's "Eenvondig."
"I get lost watching each and every one of these dancers," Sklute said. "They are proud of who they are as artists, and that's all I've ever wanted from them."
Ballet West's 'Innovations'
When • 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday, May 18 and 19, and Wednesday-Saturday, May 23-26; and 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday, May 19 and 26.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Jeanne Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $50, at 801-355-2787; http://www.arttix.org.
On tap • A restaging of guest choreographer Susan Shields' "Grand Synthesis" from 2008. Plus four works by Ballet West dancers, an expansion of Michael Bearden's "Descent" from 2010; plus debuts of "Eenvondig" by Aidan DeYoung, "With You," by Easton Smith, and "Forces at Play," by Emily Adams.