Utah Arts Festival 2021: artÉmotion in collaboration with Ballet West set to premiere five dance commissions with live music

In the decade since the Utah Arts Festival added dance commissions to its chamber music and jazz world premieres, Ballet West artists have established stellar standards in the program. This year’s program (Aug. 27, 4:45 p.m., Festival Stage), however, takes the dance commissions to a new level, featuring more new works and artists than ever before and with live music accompanying each premiere. 

As The Utah Review has noted frequently, dance in Utah wears the empress crown among the local performing arts scene. With Ballet West artists Allison DeBona, Rex Tilton and Chase O’Connell, along with guest choreographers Penny Saunders, whose portfolio includes commissions across the country, and Dan Higgins, Repertory Dance Theatre artist, the five new pieces consolidate and strengthen Salt Lake City’s dance culture as one of the most ambitious in the West, if not the entire country.

Choreographer, Penny Saunders with Ballet West First Soloist and artÉmotion Director, Allison DeBona and Soloist, Jordan Veit. Photo: Beau Pearson.

The program will feature performers, all Ballet West and who are appearing courtesy of the artÉmotion ballet school, which DeBona and Tilton started six years as a summer intensive program in Cleveland for ballet students and now has grown into a major ballet training and education institution in Utah. The commissions also stretch the vision of ballet into contemporary and modern dance elements that blend sinewy athleticism with the classic grace and technique which always has defined the art form.

Among the premieres is Looking Forward  with choreography by Tilton also will include original music composed by Nicholas Maughan, Ballet West company pianist. The 22-minute work is cast in six sections: When We Laughed Together (Jenna Rae Herrera), The Laundry Needs Folding  Tyler Gum, Kristina Weimer, Joshua Whitehead), Besides You, Again (Lillian Cassells & Joseph Lynch and Kazlyn Nielson & Noel Jensen), Insomnia Toccata (Full Cast), Grace (Amy Potter & Dominic Ballard), and Everything’s a Gamble (Full Cast). Based on Maughan’s notes regarding the music, which fits precisely with Tilton’s intentions for the piece,  Looking Forward is the optimistic response to the gradual emergence from the pandemic and its restrictions.

Ballet West Principal and artÉmotion Director, Rex Tilton. Photo: Beau Pearson.

Maughan writes the piano pieces signify, “the realization of the small-but-monumental things I lost, the things I found, and the things to which I looked forward to during the quarantine last year.” Thus, those moments, which before the pandemic may have seemed inconsequential, and ephemeral are hitting differently. As he writes, “I spent many insomniac nights remembering times when I laughed with my brother’s kids, helped my mom with daily house chores, and missing old boyfriends.  I’ve meditated on the relationship of macro and micro, the sacred and the mundane, and the individual and communal.  I’ve found even more reason to believe that connection with others gives us a greater opportunity to become our better selves.” Tilton and Jason Hadley also designed the costumes for the work. 

In Time, a duet choreographed by Saunders and performed by DeBona and Jordan Veit, is set to the Gnossiennes, one of the most forward looking works in the late 19th century by that most elegant and gossamer of French composers, Erik Satie. The work will include musical interpretation and performance by Michael Wall, the widely known go-to composer for choreographers and dance artists in the region. Saunders writes, the work “invites  us to fall forward through space with the dancers as they embody this new realm of free flowing, intuitive rhythm. [Michael] Wall’s masterful interpretation of this composition leaves us all breathless and wanting more from the short time we are given to experience it.” 

Ballet West Principal and Choreographer, Chase O’Connell with Ballet West Principal, Beckanne Sisk. Photo: Beau Pearson.

DeBona, in an interview with The Utah Review, says her husband has an intense passion for classic mythology and Tilton’s The Battle Before The War ultimately will be one of the pieces for an  eventual full-length ballet of the story of Penelope and Odysseus. Featuring Ballet West artists Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell, the work is set to Gabriel Fauré’s Act I Prelude to the opera Penelope, in a recording, performed by Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo. The work is a  pas de deux in which Tilton recreates the narrative of the two leaders in Ithaca who have heard news of King Menelaus’ call to arms. To quote from the notes, “Having been warned by the Oracle that he would return after 20 years, alone and destitute,Odysseus’s final conversation with Penelope sets an all too familiar ominous tone. A power struggle between love and duty, neither of which seem to have a final word, as if the threads of fate have already been woven.” Costumes were designed by  Rex Tilton, Jason Hadley and Cindy Farrimond.

Higgins, who has choreographed numerous works over the last four years to critical acclaim, has set Halve, a duet that can be performed by any combination of gender and highlights the bold, physical, athletic character of movement which find their way into his work. The music is No Time To Die, the 2020  Billie Eilish song that was featured in the James Bond film of the same title, which will be performed live by Jordan DeBona with piano accompaniment by Maughan. Higgins and Allison DeBona designed costumes for the work.  

Repertory Dance Theatre Artist and Choreographer, Dan Higgins. Photo Credit: Logan Sorenson.

Experience by Chase O’Connell will feature the largest cast of the program, with 18 dancers and three pairs of principals (Emily Adams & Adrian Fry, Katlyn Addison & Hadrial Diniz and Chelsea Keefer & David Huffmire). The remaining cast include: Olivia Gusti, Jake Preece, Kristina Weimer, Joshua Shutkind, Isabella Corridon, Vinicius Lima, Claire Wilson, Beau Chesivoir, Jazz Bynum, Noel Jensen, Amber Miller, Robert Fowler, Nikki Fanney, Dominic Ballard, Victoria Vassos, Connor Hammond, Anisa Sintreal, Joseph Lynch. With costumes designed by O’Connell and Hadley, the piece will feature music including Architect, by Kerry Muzzey with the Chamber Orchestra of London and Ludovico Einaudi’s In a Time Lapse, Experience.

O’Connell set the work as an opportunity to showcase how Ballet West dancers continue to develop and how the producing partnership with artÉmotion makes this prominently visible to the community. He writes, “Seeing how these artists dance day in and day out has given me the chance to highlight their strengths and abilities.  It gave me the opportunity to push the dancers, and really express each of them individually.  I am proud of this company, and how lucky we are to work together.”

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