Ballet West’s Love and War provided some of season’s most artistically gratifying moments

Ballet West’s mixed repertory production Love and War generated some of the season’s most meaningful, sensitive performances of the company’s 60th anniversary season. The program note by Adam Sklute, the company’s artistic director, summarized it well: “Love & War is designed to reflect our humanity, showing us our individual soulful divinity, our power and defiance, and also the consequences of our basest actions.”

For springtime expressions of love, the opener Blake Works I, with choreography by William Forsythe and recorded music by Grammy award-winning pop musician James Blake, was a smart choice. Given that this was the Utah premiere of this work, Blake Works I’s interdisciplinary homage to the classical ballet in its spectrum of form was an exemplary selection for the company’s 60th anniversary season.

Artists of Ballet West, Blake Works I. Photo Credit: Beau Pearson.

The work features seven songs from Blake’s album The Colour in Anything, a 2016 release, and the stacked layering of the electronic and production effects in the music parallel beautifully with Forsythe’s choreography. Likewise, the Ballet West dancers lock into the atmosphere created by Blake’s idiosyncratic vocal stylings that can be both magically transcendental and bittersweet in the yearnings evoked by the lyricism. As Pitchfork’s Kevin Lozano wrote about the singer, “He still paints in deep blues and greys. His production is still unparalleled, spacious, and impossibly textured. His voice is still chilly and metallic, but maintains all its choir boy charm. His music is still towering and menacingly sad. He sings almost exclusively about lost love (“While you were away, I started loving you”), miscommunication (“I’m sorry I don’t know how you feel”), miasma (“I hope my life is no sign of the times”), and defeat (“I want it to be over”). Forsythe’s choreography syncs up with this exquisitely. The dancers are as confident as they are vulnerable. Ballet West’s final result is as delicate as it is agile. 

Ballet West’s staging of Red Angels, first set by Ulysses Dove thirty years ago for the New York City Ballet’s Diamond Project, succeeded marvelously in elucidating the transfixing dimensions of the work. It is about as perfect a pure abstract dance composition of top athleticism could ever be. The April 18 performance highlighted the strengths of the company’s deep bench of talents in the two couples: Emily Adams and Dominic Ballard; Amy Potter and Jordan Veit. 

Red Angels crosses back and forth across the realms of the sacred and profane, a sensation that is enhanced phenomenally by Richard Einhorn’s Maxwell’s Demon, a solo for electric violin played by Mary Rowell. There is a holy trinity of music referencing devils and demons for violinists. One is the 1799 Devil’s Trill Sonata by Giuseppe Tartini. Another is Charlie Daniels Band’s The Devil Went Down to Georgia, a 1979 hit. The third is the Einhorn work, which brings the muscle of rock music into the classical halls and Rowell’s track record of performances has cemented this piece in the violin repertoire.

Adrian Fry, The Green Table, Ballet West.
Photo Credit: Beau Pearson.

Love and War’s closer was a blockbuster. One of the most striking things about Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table is how this brilliant choreographic representation of an editorial cartoon’s cynical take on the wages of war has aged so well since its 1932 premiere — a realization that is as disheartening as it is impressive. Created just 14 years after the “war to end all wars ended,” The Green Table’s timing was stunning for its prescience about war’s omnipresence in human civilization.

Ballet West’s production of Jooss’ masterpiece excelled at conveying the central theme of it. In war, sides do not matter and everyone suffers, save for a few who profit the most from it. Victims come from all sides, regardless of Allies or whatever the Axis of Evil is defined as during a particular era. The personified figure of Death is the ultimate impartial referee. For the April 18 performance, Adrian Fry performed an unforgettable, formidable, masterful personification of Death. 

The role of Death is replete with excruciating demands, in choreographic and theatrical effects. At times, Fry moves like an unforgiving drill sergeant, with the unrelenting precision of a military drumbeat. His ramrod straight body is impervious to any dramatic changes of emotion in movement and gesture. Some of the most striking instances occur when he slows the beat of his movement to welcome the next victim of war. Near the end, he takes the flag from the Standard Bearer (Tyler Gum), who represents the soldier committed to fighting to the bitter end, and then, in a penultimate display of cynicism, Death carries it, while leading the final procession of all of his victims.

Bookending the work’s allegorical scenes highlighting the universal victims of war are the scenes of the “peace table” with the Gentlemen in Black. The table prop, which Ballet West constructed in 2017 when it gave the work its Utah premiere, is raked, meaning its upstage side is taller than the downstage side, to create a trick of visual perspective. Constructed per specifications of the Jooss Trust, the table appears longer that it actually is. The opening scene evokes the failure and impotency of entities such as the League of Nations. Like the track official who fires a gun, the Gentlemen in Black fire shots into the air, signaling the race to war has begun. At the end, they are among the only survivors.

Gentlemen in Black, The Green Table, Ballet West.
Photo Credit: Beau Pearson.

The only other survivor is the Profiteer (David Huffmire), who wears a derby hat and white gloves. He is the quintessential scheming showman who successfully keeps his hands from being soiled by the dirt which comes with the wages of war. Huffmire is outstanding in this role. He telegraphs playful deviousness in his bearings, especially when he escapes Death near the end of the work.

Pianists Jared Oaks and Nicholas Maughan do an excellent job with Frederic Cohen’s score, which blends elements reminiscent of music that accompanied screenings of silent films as well as cabaret styles which amplify the satirical socio-political themes girding The Green Table. One of the best music bits is the scene when the Profiteer narrowly escapes Death. Suddenly, the music switches to a quick tempo 5/4 that trips up Death’s familiar 4/4 rhythm, by which he normally had marked by slapping down his foot. Eventually, it returns to the 4/4 meter and Death reasserts his ruling position, just before the Gentlemen in Black return for another round of “talks.”

It was unmistakably evident just how wholly invested the Ballet West cast for this performance of The Green Table was, in presenting this extraordinary example of expressionism in dance theater. For the current season, it was the most artistically gratifying performance to date.

Ballet West’s concluding production for the season will be the annual Choreographic Festival (June 5 – 8), which will highlight Asian choreographers, artists, musicians, and companies. Among the slate of works are a pair of commissioned world premieres, respectively, by Caili Quan and Zhongjing Fang. The Ballet West company also will take this program on tour at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (June 18 – 22). For more information, see the Ballet West website.

1 thought on “Ballet West’s Love and War provided some of season’s most artistically gratifying moments”

Leave a Reply