While this month’s Ballet West production of Peter Pan appeals to children and the child within us, artistic director Jonas Kåge wants us to keep in mind that ballet “is not oftentimes made for children.”
Like most directors of arts organizations, Kåge straddles a shifting line between art and entertainment. As an artist, he says, “my obligation is to push the envelope for ballet as an art form.” But as director of the ballet company, Kåge must advocate such pieces as Peter Pan because “I’m looking to see if we can make some revenue out of it.
“It’s a balancing act,” he says. “We have to do some more easily digested pieces to be able to afford to do a more narrow repertoire.”
Kåge’s balancing act represents an endless struggle for artists. The reality is that art, particularly performance art, rarely pays for itself, while entertainment, almost by definition, does. Ballet West performs The Nutcracker every year because it’s a cash cow. If it didn’t, the company probably would be evicted from the Capitol Theatre.
While Ballet West’s production of Peter Pan is designed to make money, that doesn’t mean that it won’t also be appealing. Kåge describes the production as full of “dazzling special effects” and “high-flying action.” There will be multiple performers flying at one time, cannonballs and sword fights. Wendy will walk the plank, and oh yes, there will also be dancing.
Ballet West’s Peter Pan will also be very different from Pioneer Theatre Company’s recent production with the same title. Unlike in the musical play, there will not be singing or dialogue in Ballet West’s performance. The choreography interprets the well-known story and tells it through dance while the Utah Chamber Orchestra accompanies the dancers with a score written by Carmon Deleone. The music provides an orchestrated rendition of themes and motifs familiar from the theatrical Peter Pan.
In order to book a full house, a ballet company often must play something well known that appeals to children. Kåge knows his audience, and he knows Peter Pan will go over well in Salt Lake City. “I was looking for a family performance,” Kåge says. “It is certainly a popular title, and a large audience will come and see it.”
And Kåge even sees the performance as beneficial beyond the anticipated revenue boost. The choreography is extremely complex, with “three or four people and cannonballs flying at the same time,” Kåge notes. “There will be a lot of dancing for the company, so they will be really busy and challenged.
“I think it’s going to be a gas,” he adds with pleasure.
Despite his belief that this will be a quality production, Kåge admits to distaste for humoring his audience too often with fairy tales. The art of ballet can be very provocative, sensual and suggestive. “There’s a bit more to it than just that kind of fairy tale, unprovocative kind of repertoire,” Kåge says. “Ballet can be so powerful when it comes to telling a story, and I don’t mean fairies and princes and things. I mean other things as well. It can be really edgy.”
While Kåge acknowledges the importance of the family audience in Utah, he worries that if the company is too concerned with accommodating an undefined notion of “family values” that the company will get stagnant.
“But I’m trying to break that down a little bit,” he says, “to introduce, even to families, that ballet can be about more than princes and fairies. I think even the young people today will be, and have already been, interested in a little bit more cutting-edge stuff when it’s about some real issues.”
Kåge’s vision for the company will entail more pieces that are considered progressive by the world community, not Salt Lake City alone. Ballet West often takes its performances to a world stage. In order to maintain its high degree of sophistication and artistic vision, the company must master a progressive repertoire that includes pieces that may not be appropriate for children. “My obligation for this great company,” he says, “is to move the art form forward, and there is always a challenge to actually making revenue while sticking with the artistic vision.”