By Chris Myers
For 60 years, Ballet West has been arguably among the finest jewels in Salt Lake City’s artistic crown. As the recent retrospective in The Utah Review demonstrated, this company has led the way to bring artistic excellence to the Intermountain West. Beginning last Friday (Nov. 3) with the company’s latest production, Ballet West set out to celebrate its extraordinary legacy with three works reflecting different aspects of its heritage. There are three remaining performances, today through Saturday (Nov. 11) in the Capitol Theatre in downtown Salt Lake City.
Ballet West was founded by Willam Christensen, who also founded San Francisco Ballet, staged the first American production of the complete Nutcracker, and led The University of Utah to become the first American university with a ballet department. It’s difficult to overstate his importance to the world of ballet, and it’s impossible to overstate his role in helping to turn Salt Lake City from an artistic backwater into a dance mecca. It’s fitting, then, that this latest production opened with a piece that reached back through Christensen’s own history to the creation of modern ballet itself.
The Firebird (1910) represented a milestone moment in ballet, classical music and theatrical design. With this piece, the Ballets Russes declared their dominance of the early 20th century Parisian theater scene. And with this music, Igor Stravinsky demonstrated that he had inherited the mantle of his recently-deceased teacher, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. This music shimmered, glowed and danced with vibrancy and color that left no doubt that the student had surpassed the master.
Christensen’s adaptation of this theatrical masterpiece was created in 1967 for Ballet West, and it has remained an important part of the company’s cultural legacy.
“Forget your grace. Here is no human emotion,” Michel Fokine once explained about dancing the title character. “The Firebird is powerful. Hard to manage. Rebellious.” Katlyn Addison embodied this untamable spirit in a stunning performance on opening night. This was a wild animal, timid, yet strong and unstoppable once pressed into motion. Hadriel Diniz and Dominic Ballard, as Prince Ivan and Kastchei the Immortal, respectively, provided her with effective dramatic foils.
Ballet West paid tribute to their history of supporting new work with the premiere of a new piece from company alumnus Joshua Whitehead. Featuring a score by the choreographer, Fever Dream is, in the words of the accompanying program notes, “an enthralling contemporary ballet… with evocative choreography that seamlessly blends classical ballet with elements of hip-hop and contemporary dance.” The individuality within the corps was reflected in the casual khakis-and-bowler-shirt vibe of the costume design. Whitehead’s pre-recorded electronic score, with influences ranging from Philip Glass to The X-Files, provided an atmospheric aural backdrop.
Ballet West has been known throughout its history as a strong advocate for George Balanchine’s neoclassical approach to the artform. Balanchine’s fusion of Russian Imperial Ballet School technique with Broadway-style dance led Life magazine to label him “the father of American ballet”. It’s fitting, then, that Ballet West concluded its retrospective with one of his most unabashedly joyful pieces.
Created as an open-hearted tribute to his adopted homeland, Stars and Stripes is red, white and blue-flavored Fourth of July candy of the highest quality. With a dance corps costumed in a manner suggesting cheerleaders and majorettes and a score comprised of John Philip Sousa marches, Stars and Stripes delivers a high-culture Independence Day parade presented in five “campaigns”. Broad smiles, high kicks, an ample number of salutes and even a literal baton twirler serve uninhibited patriotic pride, concluding with the full company displayed in front of a giant American flag.
Balanchine realized how dangerously close he veered towards kitsch with this work. In an interview published elsewhere, he explained that “calculated vulgarity is a useful ingredient,” and in rehearsals, he famously referred to Stars and Stripes as “the applause machine”. These statements seem even more self-aware today than in 1958. Yet somehow, the whole piece just works. And Ballet West’s dancers delivered the show, with commitment and gusto.
Unfortunately, I feel like it’s necessary to address an elephant in the room. This program featured two of the most beloved ballets ever created. The dancers were powerfully exquisite. The sets and lighting evocative. The musicians played masterfully.
Which made it all the more a pity that the performance often felt so tentative and the music so anemic.
I cannot emphasize strongly enough that this has nothing to do with the performers and everything to do with misguided attempts at orchestral sound reinforcement. This has been a recurring problem in multiple recent Ballet West productions, but on opening night, it created real shortcomings in what should have been a magnificent, once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.
For some reason, selected instruments are being mic’d and amplified through the house sound system. The result is not a stronger sound, but the illusion of acoustic weakness and the erosion of musical cohesion as musicians struggle to blend against strangely delayed sound. On opening night, pianist Kimi Kawashima provided gorgeously delicate passagework in The Firebird, especially in the sections of Enchanted Garden and Prince Ivan’s Hunt. Unfortunately, it was amplified so loudly that the result in the hall evoked the feel of a Liszt piano concerto more than Stravinsky’s subtly-shaded Russian exoticism.
In the Lullaby, the bassoon solo — perhaps the most moving in the instrument’s repertoire — was completely inaudible under a disturbingly loud harp line, cello drone, and ostensibly muted violins. To reinforce the point: the sound imbalance didn’t rise from the pit. It was coming from the house speakers.
I grew even more confused during Stars and Stripes. Why did the drums consistently lag behind the rest of the orchestra? And why were they, and they alone, coming through the speakers? It turns out that they were playing in a room behind the pit, separate from the other musicians. Small wonder that phasing would sneak into the music when musicians are relying on echoes of echoes to synchronize themselves.
These problems affected every element of the performance. Dance soloists often seemed hesitant to begin phrases, as though they weren’t confident that the music would be there. At times in the Balanchine, the corps seemed to create its own consensus tempo halfway between that of the drums and winds.
The Capitol Theatre doesn’t provide the world’s easiest acoustics. But notably, I have never heard such problems when the Utah Symphony takes the pit (unamplified) for Utah Opera performances. That’s because these are not artistic challenges. They are the result of poorly-planned mic-ing that is then poorly mixed.
It’s exceptionally rare that an orchestra needs to be amplified in a traditional theater or concert hall. Amplified sound can’t envelop the audience in the way that orchestral music does, as it blossoms naturally from dozens of individual sources spread across a pit or stage. The naturally projected acoustic of a large orchestra in the hands of a master orchestrator like Stravinsky is sheer magic, requiring no technical assistance.
I’m not privy to whatever backstage discussions lead to these decisions. Perhaps someone at Ballet West believes that the orchestra should have the aural presence and tight acoustic focus of a rock band or a Broadway show. If that’s the case, then the company needs to invest the budget that those productions spend on amplification and sound reinforcement specialists. This selective mic-ing approach only makes the music sound weak and the performance more tentative at every level.
If the opening performance told a story, it’s this: amidst substantial competition from Salt Lake City’s other performing arts powerhouses, Ballet West continues to be a vanguard of artistic excellence in the Intermountain West. From the pit to the flies (‘the techs’), Ballet West’s dancers, musicians, and technicians are among the nation’s finest. If the company can manage to solve its flawed experiments with sound reinforcement, we’re all in for quite a treat over the next 60 years.
For more information and tickets, see the Ballet West website.