There will always be tutus and toe shoes. Graceful ballerinas will unfailingly land—with a flawlessly executed tour jété—into the outstretched arms of Prince Charming. Tuxedoed gentlemen will escort matrons in sequins into the best balcony seating. Part of the enduring appeal of an evening at the ballet is its ties to our more artistic, glamorous past.
But if that’s all you’re expecting out of a ballet performance, Salt Lake City’s Ballet West has a thing or two to show you.
“I don’t want people leaving Ballet West’s performances thinking, ‘Oh, that was nice, very sparkly, with pretty costumes,’” says Artistic Director Jonas KÃ¥ge. “Of course, ballet should be very pleasing to the eye, but people need to widen their perspective.”
Widen indeed. KÃ¥ge is using his lifelong experience as a dancer and choreographer, and his influence from the explosive European ballet scene, to pull your perspective of ballet out from under you.
“Ballet today is so much larger in its repertoire than it was 30 years ago. All progressive companies have their staples—classics such as ‘Swan Lake’—but there’s a fusion between all kinds of dance styles in ballet today,” says KÃ¥ge. Breaking the barriers between contemporary and classical, he says, is a major component of choosing the company’s yearly repertoire.
The 2001-2002 season offers outstanding examples of both classical (this year’s calendar features full-length productions of “Swan Lake” and “La Sylphide,” the first ballet ever performed en pointe) and modern ballet. (Twentieth century choreographer George Balanchine figures prominently, with “Who Cares?,” performed to the works of composer George Gershwin, as well as his “Allegro Brillante,” both of which are a part of An Evening of Ballets II.)
And yet, KÃ¥ge says, even the old staples are presented with a twist. “Classics are still very important, but you have to make them a little different. You look at a piece and ask why it’s a classic. What’s the core? What’s really wonderful about it?”
In their original forms, ballets like “La Sylphide” would put contemporary audiences to sleep, says KÃ¥ge, but he assures that the version choreographed by Peter Schaufuss is highly energetic and offers a new logic to the old fairy tale. The idea, he says, is to “dust off” the classics, to help them survive and still be applicable in another 100 years.
KÃ¥ge likes to incorporate works by newer, younger choreographers into his mix, as well as those who have a point to make. “Many choreographers now have a real message, and it has become very political as an art form. Real people, with real issues, are so powerful when portrayed through ballet.” He points to the ballet “Ghost Dances,” which the company will perform in An Evening of Ballets I. Choreographed by Christopher Bruce in response to the politics of South and Central America in the 1970s, the piece reflects Bruce’s own experiences, and the result is quite emotional.
He says it’s important, too, that people realize the dancers are not untouchables but real people who work very hard at what they do. “Being a dancer isn’t easy … You have to be beautiful, talented, intelligent … and after all that, your body has to work with you.” As athletes, they must be healthy and keep their bodies finely tuned, and as artists, they have to conform to certain ideals within the ballet world. Willingness and ability to try new things give a dancer a vital edge.
“It’s important, in recruiting dancers, to find people who are inspired to go in different directions with their dance. The more the borders disappear, the more the company gains,” says KÃ¥ge.
Armed with this new attitude, Ballet West is expanding its audience demographics as well, says Director of Marketing John Roake. “People who attend ballet are much younger and not as wealthy as people think,” he said. “It’s not all the wine-and-cheese set. You’re more likely to see our audience members skiing all day and coming to a performance in the evening.”
Younger generations are responding to KÃ¥ge’s new definition of ballet. It’s a multisensory event, Roake explains, with the movement, the costumes, the music. There’s an emotional impact to dance that’s harder to experience in a museum gallery. “We get a lot of high school kids on dates,” he says. “In fact, they’re usually the most well-dressed members of the audience.”
Children are also learning about and becoming interested in the ballet. “Anything with a story—even ballets like ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ which is not necessarily a children’s ballet—brings in families with children. There are a lot of father-daughter combinations out in the audience. It’s a great bonding experience,” Roake said.
People recognize that Ballet West is gaining a great international reputation, he said. They figure if people outside of Utah are paying attention to the company, there must be something to see there. But there’s still a stigma associated with ballet that doesn’t apply as much to modern dance theater. “People are still concerned—they want to wear the right thing, clap at the right times,” said Roake. “Modern dance is still perceived as being more casual. The truth is, people can wear anything they want to a ballet. You see people with all kinds of piercings, and you see people dressed up, arriving in limos.”
That diversity, says KÃ¥ge, inspires him to continue expanding the company’s repertoire. He says he constantly explores the boundaries between entertainment and education. As an arts organization, KÃ¥ge says Ballet West strives to achieve a harmonious blend of stimulated audiences and challenged dancers. “And we do have to make a buck or two in the process,” he laughs.
Mostly, though, KÃ¥ge wants the people of Salt Lake City to appreciate the leaps and bounds Ballet West has to offer. “Appreciating fine things takes effort,” he said. “People are inclined to say, ‘I don’t understand the ballet,’ and not go. They’re trying too hard; they’re getting too uptight and not experiencing the dance for what it is.
“You’ve got to make the effort to get off the couch. But people who give the ballet a chance—or two—usually find a new interest.” n