A brave company of dancers with an appetite for excitement — that’s the description that came to mind as Ballet West opened its 2017-18 season at the Capitol Theatre last Friday starring a new production of an old repertoire favorite, “Carmina Burana.”
This marks Adam Sklute’s 10th anniversary as Ballet West’s artistic director — a season already celebrating the success of a four-night run at The Joyce Theater in New York City and the audience-friendly Family Series production of “Aladdin” staged recently by Ballet West II and students from the Ballet West Academy.
The opener, running through this weekend, starts with George Balanchine’s stunningly beautiful “Serenade,” and after intermission a wickedly fast-paced world premiere of resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte’s reimagining of “Carmina Burana,” set to Carl Orff’s famous score from the 1930s based on 24 sometimes bawdy medieval poems.
Ballet West introduced versions of both ballets into its repertoire in the 1970s. Bené Arnold (then the BW ballet mistress, now in her early 80s) staged a version of “Serenade” that did not include the repeats as it does today. And company founder Willam Christensen brought John Butler’s famous production of “Carmina Burana” (first staged in 1959) to Utah in 1974.
“Serenade” is Balanchine’s signature work that begins with 17 women standing actively still against a blue background in soft, blue tulle skirts with one arm extended diagonally to stage right. The series of minimal movements, set to Tchaikovsky’s “Serenade for Strings,” feels more precious and important than any bravura opening. The unexpected unison of the feet, opening from parallel to first position, and the simple positioning of classical ballet arms flowed forward with a sense of prophecy.
For those who know the work well, it is the dancing and all its well-documented mythology that is most anticipated. Principal dancers Beckanne Sisk, Emily Adams and Katherine Lawrence were all captivating — Sisk’s lightning-fast footwork, Adams’ focused strength and Lawrence’s musicality as she opens wide across her chest exquisitely connecting the turning balancès.
It’s quite a different pace in Fonte’s staging of “Carmina Burana,” and the first image is exactly what you expect — a pile of writhing bodies in skin-toned leotards appearing at first to be naked; the audience reacted with a reliable gasp.
Like Butler’s masterpiece, Fonte’s “Carmina Burana,” a co-production with Cincinnati Ballet, includes a chorus and solo singers.
Fonte is recognized for reconstructing the classical language to fully embrace the theatrical, paying special attention to effective lighting, attractive costumes and elaborate staging. On opening night of this world premiere, the Capitol Theatre stage — accommodating 18 dancers and three vocal soloists, and a 75-voice choir perched over the stage on a bridgelike piece — appeared stretched, as if there were more depth and space than it has ever had before.
The tremendously fast movement almost outpaced some of the less experienced dancers, but the above-mentioned principals reveled in the challenge, as did Arolyn Williams, who is always fearless, and Allison DeBona, with her amazing physicality. Soloist Alexander MacFarlan captured the pressured internal conflict between virtue and vice. Principal Chase O’Connell seemed to feed off Sisk’s energy, and their last duet was a highlight of the ballet when the gravity of the music and the movement fused.
Fonte’s inclusion of the Cantorum Chamber Choir onstage, with solo singers interjected into the movement, worked well as dramatic elements.
For those who know Butler’s masterpiece version of “Carmina Burana” well, there will be a lot to dissect.
What I missed most in this new production was Butler’s use of the human vices and virtues (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth vs. prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope and charity) as an organizing choreographic principle. Where Butler’s choreography could be criticized for being too simple, Fonte’s became frenetic and repetitious with nothing to tie it together.
Still, there is a lot to be said for the incredibly physically demanding choreography and the bravely energetic response from the dancers.
Between the beautifully staged “Serenade” and the dynamically updated “Carmina Burana,” Ballet West’s opener makes for a gripping evening of ballet.
A beautifully staged “Serenade” by George Balanchine and a dynamic and updated “Carmina Burana” make for a gripping evening of ballet.
When • Reviewed Friday, Nov. 3; continues Nov. 8-11, 7:30 p.m.; matinee Nov. 11, 2 p.m.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $29-$87; artsaltlake.org, 801-355-2787
Running time • Two hours with one 15-minute intermission