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Building the New Classics 

Ballet West's Choreographic Festival introduces work beyond the well-known.

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Choreographer Sophie Laplane rehearses with artists of Ballet West - BEAU PEARSON
  • Beau Pearson
  • Choreographer Sophie Laplane rehearses with artists of Ballet West

In every art form, the classics will always be the classics. But the next generation of classics can only emerge when somebody tries something new—and that's a reality Ballet West has recognized through its annual Choreographic Festival.

This year's installment marks the fifth Ballet West Choreographic Festival, but the concept actually evolved from another project, called Innovations, that artistic director Adam Sklute developed upon his arrival at Ballet West in 2007. "When I arrived, Ballet West had done no new choreography in about nine years," Sklute recalls. "I knew we needed to develop a platform for new works for ballet. Innovations ... became that platform. What I wanted to do with the [Choreographic Festival], though, is I wanted Utah audiences to experience new works that were being created on companies around the country, and around the world."

For the 2022 installment of the Choreographic Festival, the program includes two works developed previously by the famed Dance Theatre of Harlem: Higher Ground, based on choreography developed for the music of Stevie Wonder, who gifted the company the rights; and Balamouk. In addition, two world premieres will feature work specifically commissioned by Ballet West: Galantheae, by Scottish Ballet's resident choreographer Sophie Laplane; and Orange, by Brazilian choreographer Juliano Nuñes.

Building a program in this way presents a little bit of surprise not just for audiences, but even for Sklute himself. While the Dance Theatre of Harlem pieces were ones that Sklute has seen in previous productions, Laplane and Nuñes will be presenting entirely new work—which is where trusting the track record of the artists comes into play.

"The two choreographers I've brought in are two rising stars," Sklute says. "Their work has been so successful with audiences. ... I never just take a chance blindly. They're not complete unknowns."

Having selected the creators, the next step was entrusting them with a thematic idea that Sklute has tried to have run through all of the works in this "return to live performances" season, after a makeshift, COVID-impacted 2020 and 2021. "They did what I asked for, for this entire season: Big casts, a theme of togetherness, because of coming back after a period of time where we couldn't do anything, or had to do things that were smaller," Sklute says. "Everything I do this season, I want it to be a big show."

Presenting new works like this is also a chance to emphasize the vitality of dance as a creative form, not something that's locked into place. Especially with these new works, there's an opportunity to evaluate audience response, and consider ways to make the works even better. "These things are really changeable," Sklute suggests. "Maybe it's a sketch that I'll ask the choreographer to build on and make better. Really, it can be like a Broadway show's out-of-town tryouts: Maybe they didn't respond to this number, or it needed this change."

That sense of ballet as a living art form—and not just about works like Swan Lake or The Nutcracker filled with dancers in tutus, performing en pointe—is one that Sklute feels is important, and that audiences for the Choreographic Festival have responded to. Those viewers understand, he believes, that the lines between classical ballet and contemporary dance can get blurry, resulting in unique modern work.

"I actually don't think those definitions [of ballet vs. modern dance] are really all that important, if the work is interesting and exciting" Sklute says. "Obviously all of our dancers are highly-trained classical ballet dancers. In fact, that's what makes it interesting, is seeing this contemporary work on these dancers. Our audiences really are passionate are seeing these kinds of works. ... They come to experience being part of that experiment, being part of the creative process. You can find the next great work."

And finding the next great work is a compelling part of experiencing any creative form, where getting locked into "the canon" can restrict that opportunity for discovery. In fact, Sklute notes, even the kind of work that is now considered part of the ballet canon started its life as something risky and experimental.

"When The Nutcracker was first created," he says "even it was considered controversial, because it contained elements that weren't considered part of classical ballet. And that's part of the legacy. What's startling now, may in several decades be considered classical ballet. That's something our ballet audiences understand. Non-ballet audiences see the athleticism, the dynamism, and that's what I think is wonderful. When we go to an exhibit of modern art, aren't we going to see something that moves us emotionally?"

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