In The Dance of The Building, the ingeniously crafted sixth episode of the In The Balance: Ballet for a Lost Year documentary series, one of the crew leaders for setting the stage of Ballet West’s performances in the Capitol Theatre in downtown Salt Lake City, explains that the real legacy of civilizations in history comprises “infrastructure and art.”
One of many fascinating thematic threads in the nine short episodes of the series, which will debut with the release of the first one on May 7 on Ballet West’s social media platforms, focuses on a question that has persisted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Just how essential is art in our society, especially during an unprecedented period when an overhwhelming proportion of routine activities of work and life was disrupted, transformed and even banned?
That question is placed before the viewer through a remarkable, elucidating set of dimensions of perspectives which allow audiences to contemplate their own answer. Directed by Diana Whitten and Tyler Measom, well known filmmakers in the Utah community, the series dismantles several conventional myths about the ballet art form. In the nine episodes which would comprise a total running time of a standard feature-length documentary (105-110 minutes) if strung together. In The Balance succeeds in making ballet less intimidating, humanizing both choreographers and ballet artists and revealing how the Ballet West community is striving sincerely to not just being socially relevant but also fulfilling meaningful goals of what inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility truly mean in an art form that often is beset in its struggles to evolve and expand with a 21st century rhythm and meaningful context.
In The Balance is a much different and far richer series than the Breaking Pointe reality series featuring Ballet West, which aired for two seasons on The CW cable network. The series’ 15 episodes aired in 2012 and 2013. A new episode of In The Balance will be released weekly through the remainder of the spring and summer.
The reality series thrived in part on drama arising from Ballet West dance artists competing for roles and some personal theatrics and tensions in relationships. However, Measom, who most recently co-directed the documentary, Murder Among the Mormons (in which the debut episode on Netflix was third overall for original-content video on demand streaming numbers), and Whitten capture genuine emotions that emanate naturally from the circumstances in which the company is planning to offer rare live performances in the midst of the pandemic.
Indeed, the concerns about whether or not Ballet West would be able to proceed with its November 2020 performances, which included two world premieres, with audience capacity in the theater limited for social distancing purposes, anchor among the most intensely emotional, tense arcs of the documentary narrative. For one month prior, Skyscape Studios production crews stepped into the studios and theater, chronicling all of the pandemic-related precautions taken to ensure that everyone was safe. Meanwhile, COVID-19 case numbers had skyrocketed in Utah during that same time, so much so that even Adam Sklute, Ballet West’s artistic director, worried that their efforts would be halted completely if Salt Lake County closed the Capitol Theatre with barely a day’s notice. In fact, after Ballet West had completed its run of the production featured in the series, the county did close the theater in response to the pandemic numbers.
The first episode highlights the company in general while the second episode introduces the two choreographers who are setting the world premieres featured in the series: Jennifer Archibald, the founder and artistic director of Arch Dance Company and resident choreographer at the Cincinnati Ballet, and Nicolo Fonte, Ballet West’s resident choreographer. The next three episodes feature Principal Artists Katlyn Addison, Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell, and Corps Artist Vinicius Lima. The first half of the series documents how a performing arts company has adapted to the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic. Dancers gradually are accommodated to wearing masks while contending with the physical demands and stamina required of their art. Partnering is limited to instances where dancers are in their own bubble (living together). Choreographers likewise are mindful and prudent in adapting their work for the safety and concern of the artists.
But, the episodes extend into other areas, which elicit some of the series’ most emotional epiphanies. The pandemic has accentuated the sense of vulnerability for artists. Indeed, the last year’s experience has been difficult, especially for young artists or those in mid-career stages, trying to decide how to weather the storm. As the pandemic halted all live performances, some artists saw many months of work erased and now many realize that it might take two, three or even more years to rebuild the momentum they had achieved prior to the pandemic. And, artists too were affected and shaped by other events outside of the studio: the largest wave of protests since the late 1960s in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the tense anticipation of last year’s presidential elections.
The viewer sees the dancers in an enlightened perspective. Sisk and O’Connell, whose wedding plans were affected by the pandemic, fell in love during their time at Ballet West and are discovering new dimensions in their relationship. Addison, who has been with the company for 10 years, embraces opportunities for networking and collaborating with fellow artists of color in the community. Lima, who comes from Brazil, finally is discovering his comfort zone to thrive professionally and personally, as he accepts and affirm his sexuality and identity.
The last four episodes chronicle the lead-up to the premieres, Archibald returns to Salt Lake City, nervous that she has yet to see her new composition rehearsed in its entirety just days before its premiere. Fonte hopes that the lighting and staging will augment precisely the artistic purpose behind his new work. Meanwhile Sklute and staff prepare for all contingencies, aware that the pandemic could once again slam the door shut on proceeding with the show. The final episode is exhilarating, as the filmmakers successfully enter the often elusive zone for permanently documenting the ephemeral kinetics of dance on stage. Archibald’s work Tides and Fonte’s Faraway Close epitomize the full spectrum of complex emotions in a time that is now etched in our collective minds and spirit.
The series is free for public viewing. Executive producers include Skyscape Studio’s Steven Labrum and Ballet West’s Executive Director Michael Scolamiero, Artistic Director Adam Sklute, and Chief Development Officer Sarah West. The series is produced by Cristin Carlin, JJ Neward, and Joshua Jones. The series is made possible, in part, by the Utah Office of Tourism, Create in Utah, and BMW of Murray.
For more information about the series, see the Ballet West website link for In The Balance.