Ballet West's 'Innovations' is all about collaboration
Ballet West • Guest choreographer encourages dancers to add their voices.
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For two weeks each year, Ballet West leaves its home stage at the 1,876-seat Capitol Theater to perform "Innovations" in the more intimate 500-seat Jeanné Wagner Theatre, inside Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.

The annual program, now in its sixth year, encourages current company dancers to try their hand at choreography. It also introduces new works by a guest choreographer.

This year's guest choreographer, Jodie Gates, will premiere "Mercurial Landscapes," a new work set to Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons." It's a score that should be recognizable to most people — but will it? Gates chose composer Max Richter's reimagining of Vivaldi's masterwork, in which he substitutes his own signature sound while retaining the overall spirit of the score — much as Gates does with the classical ballet vocabulary.

"In creating work, I start with a movement phrase based in the balletic vocabulary. Then I ask the dancers to deconstruct it or use their own ingenuity to create an abstract of the original phrase," Gates explained during a recent visit to Salt Lake City. "When they abstract it, they add their own voice, so creating the piece is very much a collaborative process."

Gates and Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute met while dancing together at the Joffrey Ballet. Gates went on to dance with the Frankfurt Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet but considers founder Robert Joffrey her mentor.

"Joffrey was very keen on promoting new and young choreographers," she said. "He was very interested in working collaboratively."

Gates is carrying that torch in more than one way. Last month she was named vice dean and director of the new Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at the University of Southern California. The school was established in November 2012 by a gift from Glorya Kaufman, a philanthropist and dance patron.

One of Gates' academic and community goals is to "encourage women choreographers to discover their voices early on," particularly women in neoclassical and contemporary ballet. "There are not many of us out there," she said. "There are not many ex-ballerinas that go on to be ballet choreographers."

Gates said when she began her career, the expectation was to leave high school for New York City to become a dancer, but "now dancers can be trained in an institution of higher learning, gaining a versatile international perspective, and then go out and get a job."

At the end of last week, Gates had not seen the dancer-choreographers' works-in-progress, but said her experience with them in rehearsal gives her confidence in their creative abilities.

For this year's show, principal dancer and Ballet West II director Christopher Ruud has reworked "Trapped" from Innovations 2011, after being awarded a Fellowship Initiative grant from the New York Choreographic Institute, an affiliate of New York City Ballet. The grant supports the development of new choreography in a studio setting and validates Ruud's potential as a choreographer.

First-time choreographer and Ballet West soloist Adrian Fry is using props in his choreography to change up the way the dancers partner. Fry said he hopes the props "will make the dance a little more unpredictable and exciting to watch."

Soloist Easton Smith, who is retiring this season, has experimented with some unusual partnering.

And first soloist Christopher Anderson said his ideas are grounded in athleticism and expansiveness of port de bras —arms and upper body.

"These are elements that set a dancer and contemporary work apart for me," he said. "Not only are these elements I try and implement in my own choreography, but also my own dancing. In my opinion, it is hard to be disinterested in a dancer who is wringing every bit of length out of their body."

The show ends on May 25, but that won't be the end of Ballet West's innovations for 2013, Sklute said. Fans can look forward to:

• The June groundbreaking of the Jessie Eccles Quinney Center for Dance, west of the Capitol Theatre.

• Season Two of "Breaking Point." The CW docudrama that follows this tight-knit group of dancers debuts July 29.

• The hiring of a new executive director to replace Jóhann Jacobs, who is retiring after 40 years.

• The hiring of a successor to Terence Kern, who has conducted the Utah Chamber Orchestra that accompanies Ballet West for 28 years.

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Ballet West 'Innovations'

When • May 17, 18 and 22-25 at 7:30 pm and May 25 at 2 p.m.

Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $45; arttix.org or 801-355-ARTS.