Ballet West at its very best: Record-setting Swan Lake run closes with brilliant performances from everyone involved

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Utah Review is grateful to Chris Myers of Argyle Arts for being a guest reviewer.

Over the last week, Ballet West continued their 60th anniversary season with a sold-out run of Swan Lake. Perhaps the most iconic non-Nutcracker in the repertoire, Swan Lake is a monumental classic filled with complex imagery and symbolism.  Ballet West’s Swan Lake is now the highest grossing non-Nutcracker production in company history, surpassing the record attendance of Dracula last fall.

Ballet West’s connection with this classic predates the company’s founding. As detailed in Les Roka’s preview article, company founder Willam Christensen staged the first American production of Swan Lake at San Francisco Ballet in 1950. The company’s 60th anniversary production is a revival of a wonderful version first produced 14 years ago by BW Artistic Director Adam Sklute.

This is truly a classic production of Swan Lake. There are no anachronistic innovations, modernization of setting or dress, or hackneyed attempts to explicitly address contemporary issues. Adam Sklute has taken the best of Petipa and Ivanov’s original choreography and adapted it with great love and care for the Capitol Theatre stage. The sets are gorgeously designed by Peter Cazalet, with beautiful backdrops that transport us both to the fairy tale kingdom of Swan Lake and to a classic golden age of ballet theater. Cazalet also designed the costumes, with their elegantly effective incorporation of feather motifs.

Emily Adams and Tyler Gum, Ballet West, Swan Lake.
Photo Credit: Beau Pearson.

On the closing night of the run (February 17), we were treated to brilliant performances from everyone involved. Tyler Gum danced Rothbardt with evident glee at the opportunity to embody this evil fairy tale villain. Adrian Fry was a suitably brooding Siegfried, wonderfully portraying  his character’s yearning and depression while striving to fulfill his fated duty as Prince. As Odette (and the enchanted Odile), Emily Adams was the very picture of grace and beauty, infusing even her human form with subtle hints of birdlike movement. As Siegfried’s BFF, Jordan Veit was a charming and lovable Benno, filled with boyish energy. The corps brought delightful character and atmosphere to the story.

In short, this is what Swan Lake should look like. This was Ballet West at its very best.

Supporting the onstage action was Ballet West’s incredible orchestra, under the adept baton of Jared Oaks. Tchaikovsky’s score is rich and melodic, filled with iconic solos that present an endurance test for many of the principal musicians. Especially in the tutti sections, the Ballet West Orchestra delivered a rush of power and desperation that I’ve not heard from them before. Oaks expertly sculpted the phrasing, pushing the tempos just enough to infuse new life into a score which can easily feel too familiar when performed by less committed artists. The dancers clearly responded to this artistry, and I was continually reminded of how breathtaking it can be to witness a true partnership of movement and sound.

Artists of Ballet West, Swan Lake. Photo Credit: Beau Pearson.

Oboist Karen Hastings and violinist Aubrey Woods gave particularly notable performances in their extended solo sections. Hastings played the universally-recognized Swan Lake theme with uncommon urgency. Her sweet, woody tone perfectly added depth and pathos to the tale. In her hands, the familiar melody became a desperate plea, managing to sound newly fresh and increasingly forlorn in each of its many appearances throughout the score.

Aubrey Woods delivered a tour-de-force performance of the extremely prolonged and technically challenging violin solo in Act IV. This is a terrifyingly exposed section, on par with many concerto excerpts and requiring similar attention to dramatic arc and musical detail. Her endurance through some technological issues that left her unnecessarily prominent during background moments (more on those in a moment) demonstrated why she is one of Utah’s finest violinists.

Ballet West has clearly put a great deal of effort into improving their sound design since November’s performance of Firebird. I was blown away with how quickly they achieved such a dramatic improvement in the orchestral balance. At this point, I would say they have resolved 90% of the issues that were handicapping the orchestra’s artistic skill and finesse.

Emily Adams and Adrian Fry, Ballet West, Swan Lake.
Photo Credit: Beau Pearson.

Unfortunately, the few problems that remain have become more distracting when they do appear, perhaps because the contrast is more obvious. The balance in the tutti sections is so wonderful. I can’t recall a single ensemble moment when I felt that the amplification stood in the way of the sound the orchestra was producing.

However, it is still being reinforced. And the Capitol’s speakers are aggressively mid — in both the vernacular and technical sense. They simply lack the treble and bass response required to reproduce orchestral sound convincingly. As a result, Swan Lake’s majestic fortissimo tutti moments were truly grand and moving… because the sound of the orchestra overcame the sound of the speakers. But when the dynamic dropped, it suddenly felt reminiscent of AM radio.

There also remained some bizarrely intrusive mic-ing of certain soloists. The logic behind who received this treatment wasn’t apparent to me; many principal musicians were allowed to retain their natural sound, with gorgeous results. Early in the ballet, though, Lauren Posey’s beautiful cello solos popped so distractingly from the speakers that I briefly wondered if they were pre-recorded.

But the real distraction came during Aubrey Woods’ huge Act IV violin solo for Odette and Siegfried’s pas de deux. If Posey’s playing popped from the texture, Woods veritably leapt from the speakers and landed in my lap.

Beyond the general distraction of such a sudden shift in sound, this solo features lots of interplay, with musical “call and response” moments between the violin and the solo woodwinds. You wouldn’t have known it on Saturday night, though. The winds were completely drowned out by violin figures that are meant to sit as accompaniment under the wind solos.

Artists of Ballet West, Swan Lake. Photo Credit: Beau Pearson.

The amplification also put unnecessary pressure on Woods during what is already a marathon solo. Those moments when the orchestra or other soloists step in to claim the melody? They give our ears a change of timbre so that the violin sounds fresh when it steps back into the spotlight. But they also allow the soloist a moment of relaxation before plunging back into the exposed sections. Amplifying her then is a bit like broadcasting a camera feed from the wings so that the audience can continue to watch the dancers once they step backstage.

Put bluntly, robbing the musicians of their ability to sculpt their own volume and balance makes the engineer a member of the orchestra, so they should have the same level of musicianship and be included in the same rehearsals as the other musicians. And the equipment used — mics, amps, speakers — should be of the same quality as the instruments being played.

As I said, these difficult moments were few and far between on Saturday night. For the vast majority of the performance, the orchestra sounded utterly exquisite. Whatever changes have been made in mic placement and sound engineering have dramatically improved the sound. However, the obstacles that remain are frustrating because they don’t need to exist in the first place. Sound reinforcement is an artistic choice, and like so many aspects of theater, it becomes a distraction and a liability the instant an audience is aware of it. The sound emanating and blending naturally from a full orchestra in the pit draws your ears to the stage, focusing your full attention on the show itself.

And the show itself was incredible. Ballet West remains one of Salt Lake City’s finest cultural gems, and with this incredible Swan Lake, they proved once again that they plan to retain that position for at least the next 60 years.

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