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Ballet West's performance of "Nine Sinatra Songs" closed the first season under new artistic director Adam Sklute with a bang and a clear vision of the future. The evening of four accessible and entertaining ballets completed the audience-friendly programming that began last fall with the swashbuckler "Three Musketeers."
Friday's opening-night program presented a broad palette of work, ranging from Balanchine's neoclassical "Serenade," to Twyla Tharp's jazzy-modern-ballroom "Nine Sinatra Songs," to an all-male piece by Bruce Marks, and Val Caniparoli's dark, contemporary pas de deux from his ballet "Hamlet and Ophelia."
In a clear break from tradition, Sklute seems to be following his Joffrey Ballet heritage, casting dancers in roles regardless of their position as "principal," "soloist" or "artist." Reducing the importance of this stratified structure invites growth in Ballet West's rich base of talent and gives meaning to the word "company."
Successful examples of "artists" being cast in "soloist" roles was apparent in the eight couples in Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs." In "One For My Baby," BW artists Jason Linsley and Kira Smith totally captured Tharp's stylistic interpretation of a couple who had apparently been out on the town a little too long. Each partner manipulated the other's body, making awkward lifts look sensuous and subtly nailing the dead-pan humor. Artists Jacqueline Straughan and Aaron Orlowski were smokin' hot in their duet to "That's Life." They hit every lift, leap, arch and turn in Tharp's quirky and sensational movement vocabulary.
Another stereotype-breaking performance was by soloist Annie Breneman in "Hamlet and Ophelia Pas de Deux" with principal dancer Chris Rudd. Although Rudd is the consummate partner, it was Breneman who seized the difficult physicality of her part and layered it with the subtle tones of Ophelia's vulnerability, madness and desire. It appears that more attention is being paid to make-up and hair styling to every member of the company, and Breneman has never looked more beautiful.
George Balanchine's "Serenade" is pure neoclassicism, retaining the best of classical dance while modernizing it and distilling it to its essence. To describe the corps as perfect would be inadequate. These dancers did so much more than stay in their lines. They imbued the choreography with emotion and breath. Elongating through their legs and feet, they told the plotless tale of Balanchine's women who are independent yet idealized.
"Continuo," by former BW artistic director Bruce Marks, is meant to challenge the men in the company, and it did. It is brave to create and present work that challenges the dancers. Unbridled male energy on stage is always refreshing.
The costuming throughout the evening was superb, describing only the most flattering lines and giving insight into choreographers' intentions.
Dance lovers should attend "Innovations" on May 28-31 at the Rose Wagner Theater where Ballet West artists will perform original works by Ballet West dancers. The evening will also premiere a commissioned piece by Susan Shields, a choreographer on the rise.
Nine Sinatra Songs'
* WHERE: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
* WHEN: reviewed Friday; continues Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m., with an additional 2 p.m. performance on Saturday
* RUNNING TIME: 2 1/2 hours, with two intermissions and a pause
* TICKETS: $18 to $66 at 801-355-ARTS or http://www.arttix.org.
* BOTTOM LINE: Four audience-friendly ballets are entertaining while maintaining artistic integrity.