Ballet West leaps at chance to feature new work

Published May 25, 2008 12:00 am
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Christopher Ruud has danced starring roles in more famous ballets than he can easily count, which translates to playing a lot of handsome princes and dashing rogues. But until this spring, Ballet West's most visible male dancer was missing out on the kinds of opportunities that many dancers crave more than opening-night curtain calls.

New ballet roles have rarely been choreographed on Ruud's body during his 10 years at Ballet West. And he has never had the opportunity to create a ballet piece of his own - although he considers choreography a career goal and a chance to follow in the footsteps of his deceased father, dancer/choreographer Tomm Ruud.

Christopher Ruud and other Ballet West dancers are receiving those chances now, thanks to heightened emphasis on new choreography under artistic director Adam Sklute, who took the helm of Ballet West 14 months ago.

Last season, Ballet West's main offerings were the expected story ballets and an evening of brief 20th-century classics, presented in Salt Lake City's Capitol Theatre. But the company also offered an add-on: a chance to see freshly minted ballet choreography in a more intimate venue than the company's usual performance space at downtown's Capitol Theatre.

Strong public response to the "Innovations" program, which plays this week at the Jeann Wagner Theatre, has been a happy surprise. Sklute is impressed that in a town where audiences are known to love classic story ballets such as "The Nutcracker," and "Swan Lake," patrons are lining up for a ballet performance without knowing what to expect.

"New works are such a gamble, which is why this type of program is hugely important," Sklute said. "It allows audiences to come because they want to see new creations. There are no illusions; they are not coming to see something else."

Ruud sees new work as crucial to developing himself as a dancer and to securing the future of the art form he loves. "Performing new work is vital - it's imperative," Ruud said. "Dancers can only grow if they are given new challenges and asked to do things they haven't done before. If you keep doing work that is already set, you begin to stagnate a little bit. It's absolutely vital for ballet companies in this era to have new choreography set on them. If we don't, the art form will die out."

He's grateful for his chance to engage in the choreographic process from opposing angles during the past two weeks - while originating a role in the new Susan Shields ballet "Grand Synthesis" and while choreographing "One," his first ballet.

As the conservator of his father's works, Ruud travels widely to set Tomm Ruud's ballets, such as "Mobile," on other companies. But even with his long experience in drawing specific movements from dancers' bodies, Ruud was surprised by the pressure that accompanied the creation of his own dance movements.

"The burden is on you to come up with something good," he said. "Everybody is looking at you and wanting to know what to do next. If you don't have a good idea, everything kind of grinds to a halt."

According to Sklute, though, Ruud has plenty of good ideas and took well to choreography. Ruud's experience dancing major roles in a broad array of ballet styles coalesced into a "brilliant" ballet vocabulary for a pas de deux about the subtleties of human relationships.

Works by two other Ballet West artists also pleased

Sklute. Soloist Peggy Dolkas created a dance that is "energetic, funny, wry - and a little bit crazy," Sklute said. Megan Furse's brief ballet "makes one remember that new choreography doesn't have to be angular or unusual," Sklute said. "It can still be based on a classical model."

Sklute selected the three Ballet West artists who created new 10-minute ballets from concepts presented by a field of nine dancers.

Virginia-based choreographer Shields, who came to Salt Lake City to create "Grand Synthesis" on Ballet West dancers, said the administrative decision to provide studio space, time with professional dancers and a performance budget to such untried choreographers as Ruud, Dolkas and Furse is a rare gift. "They are very lucky, and they know it," she said.

As a dancer who became a choreographer, Shields believes greater gifts await any dancer who develops the ability to create dance movement. "Choreography is so exciting and stimulating and different from dancing," she said. "It re-engaged me with the art form, and it has kept me in love with dance."

Upon arriving in Salt Lake City, Shields was surprised to learn that Ballet West dancers were unaccustomed to having new choreography set on them. She found the dancers to be as shy about experimenting with new movement as they were expert in replicating movement from existing ballets.

Gradually, though, the dancers loosened up, learning to relish the sometimes-awkward process of giving birth to her new ballet, which is centered on an appropriate theme: the quiet incubation, and joyful expression, of artistic inspiration.


* BALLET WEST PRESENTS "INNOVATIONS," a program of new and recent ballets, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Jeann Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City. This add-on to the Ballet West subscription series includes the world premiere of Susan Shields' "Grand Synthesis" and a performance of James Canfield's "Equinoxe," as well as new works choreographed by Ballet West artists Christopher Ruud, Peggy Dolkas and Megan Furse.

* PERFORMANCES are Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $40. Call 801-355-2787.

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