Ballet West's magic Sklute
Last Tuesday in a Little America Hotel ballroom, a group of fifth-graders in colorful T-shirts - students in Ballet West's "I Can Do" dance-education program - gave an exuberant performance to an audience of parents, arts patrons and Ballet West staffers.
Afterward, a boyish, beaming man in a beige suit bounded to the podium to praise the young dancers.
"That was a lot of choreography up there! I got chills up and down my spine," said Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute, who then segued into a personal story - one he tells often - about how he struggled with piano, painting and sports until he took his first ballet lesson at the late age of 16.
"The moment I started dancing, everything clicked for me. There was the music and the art and the athleticism that I loved, all wrapped up together," said Sklute, who joined the prestigious Joffrey Ballet as a dancer three years later. "It's become the focus and the passion of my entire life."
That passion is on display daily at Ballet West, where Sklute is earning raves for his boundless enthusiasm and his approachable managerial style. Hired a year ago from the Joffrey, where he survived that company's move from New York to Chicago and rose from the dancers' ranks to become associate artistic director, Sklute is already being hailed as a fresh direction for Utah's flagship dance company, which has struggled in recent years.
Like many performing-arts companies across the country, Ballet West suffered declining attendance and revenues in the years after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Then came a labor dispute with the dancers' union, followed by the controversial 2006 ouster of Sklute's predecessor, Jonas Kåge, who threatened to sue Ballet West before the two sides reached a settlement.
Enter Sklute, who was chosen over 37 other applicants after a nationwide search. It may be premature to read too much into this, but there's no denying that since he arrived in Salt Lake City from Chicago last July, Ballet West appears to be on an upswing. The first three shows of the company's current season, led by surprising smash "Cinderella," broke revenue records. Fundraising is ahead of schedule, and subscribers are cautiously excited about Sklute's just-announced 2008-09 season - the first he's programmed - in which every show but annual cash cow "The Nutcracker" will be a Utah premiere (see related story).
Maybe he's still enjoying a honeymoon phase, but interviews this week with nearly a dozen people associated with Ballet West revealed only the mildest criticism of Sklute's performance. Instead, people are throwing around words like "energy," "optimism," "dynamic" and "fresh."
"I know this is going to probably sound corny, but Adam has done for the ballet what Barack Obama has done for the Democratic Party," says David Leta, chairman of Ballet West's board of directors. "He's brought enthusiasm, excitement and an infectious passion for the artform that's really energized the whole company."
'People really feel an ownership': Founded 45 years ago by legendary dance pioneer Willam Christensen, Ballet West is a nationally renowned company whose $7 million operating budget places it among the top dozen in the country. With that venerable tradition comes a passionate core of subscribers who have not hesitated to send Sklute letters praising or criticizing details of performances.
"That was a joyous surprise to me," says Sklute, who was used to less responsive audiences in New York and Chicago. "What we have here is special. People really feel an ownership of [the company]."
In hiring Sklute, Ballet West executives made it clear that fundraising would be a key component of his job. The company will launch a capital campaign later this year to fund an expansion of its Capitol Theatre home; the new space, to the west of the building, will house larger rehearsal studios, wardrobe-and-props workshops and an expanded lobby.
So, as the new public face of Ballet West, Sklute has been toiling overtime to sell his artistic vision - a blend of classical story ballets and newer, braver works - to Utah's financial heavyweights. In recent months he has been everywhere: introducing performances, meeting with donors and working the Utah brunch-and-banquet circuit like a politician the week before Super Tuesday.
Unlike Kåge, who observers say was not comfortable in the spotlight, Sklute seems to enjoy mingling. Wearing a near-constant smile, he projects a disarming openness, a sincere enthusiasm and a Boy Scout appearance that plays well in buttoned-down Utah.
"Fundraising is first and foremost about relationship-building," says Ballet West executive director Johann Jacobs, who has been impressed with Sklute's ability to work a room. "He is extremely charming, and it's not affected. It's a genuine charm."
Sklute's schmoozing duties have kept him out of the rehearsal studio more than he'd like, and some dancers have griped that he's not around much. But Sklute has observed them enough to make judgments about their styles and abilities. Three of the company's 35 dancers were not offered contracts for next season, a decision Sklute said he agonized over.
"I never feel like I have enough time with the dancers. I am being pulled all over the place," he says during an interview in his office, where a closed-circuit TV allows him to keep an eye on rehearsals. Asked what he likes in a performer, he says, "I like dancers who move me, either with their steps or their theatricality. You must have a clear, strong classical technique. But what I look for is that intangible magic."
Some observers say it's too early to evaluate Sklute's artistic impact on Ballet West because he's only been in Utah for eight months and did not program the current season. But others say they already have noticed a new crispness onstage.
"Since Adam has come, there's a lift in the faces of the company," says ballet patron Anne Cullimore Decker. "There's a pleasure and a new confidence in what they're doing. In that short amount of time, it's amazing what's happened with the quality of the work."
Making himself at home: Sklute bought a house in Salt Lake City's upper Avenues neighborhood, which he shares with partner Christopher Renstrom, an astrologer who writes horoscope columns for Allure magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle and other media outlets. After enduring a long-distance relationship for years (Renstrom was in New York while Sklute lived in Chicago), the couple are happy to be together in the same city, where they walk their dog in the foothills almost every morning.
"In many ways, it's saved our lives as a couple," says Sklute, 43, who has nothing but praise for Salt Lake after the frenetic pace of bigger cities. He's not even fazed by this bitter Utah winter. "You want to talk about horrible winters? This is mild compared to Chicago."
A bigger challenge may be selling casual ballet-goers on an upcoming season with no obvious blockbusters. In recent years Ballet West has staged "Cinderella," "Swan Lake," "Giselle" and "Sleeping Beauty" twice each, leaving the cupboard of major classics bare for Sklute as he began his job.
"I thought, 'How am I going to move forward?' It's something I lost a lot of sleep over," he says. "I think people [in Utah] are ready for something new. And I want to stress to people - don't worry. 'New to Ballet West' doesn't necessarily mean strange."
Instead, new for 2008-09 will mean Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and Puccini's "Madame Butterfly," familiar titles in theater and opera but rare ballets. Rounding out the season will be an evening of shorter Ballets Russes dances highlighted by "The Prodigal Son," with choreography by the great George Balanchine.
John Roake, Ballet West's director of marketing, says he's never seen a season of all-new ballets in his 11 years with the company. With no family-friendly shows like "Cinderella," marketing the upcoming season may be tougher than usual, he said. But principal dancer Christiana Bennett says she is eager to tackle some fresh choreography because "it's always exciting for the dancers to do something we haven't done three times already." And longtime subscriber Drew Browning likes Sklute's programming choices.
"A timid artistic director might have taken the approach, 'Well, let's ease into this.' But that [new season] is like jumping into cold water head first," he says. "Adam's savvy enough to know that he can be bold and still . . . fill the house."
Nearly one year into his five-year contract with Ballet West (neither Sklute nor board chair Leta responded to requests for Sklute's salary although the company is required to disclose that information on tax forms), Sklute says the job has been "a really good fit all the way around." Although he laments that he's sometimes stretched too thin, he believes this will ease as he settles into the job. He has nothing but praise for his dancers, whom he encourages in rehearsals with shouts of "Yes! Beautiful!"
And he knows his relentless optimism seems almost too good to be true.
"I've never been one to rant and rave. I prefer to focus on the positive. It's who I am," he says. "But if something is not up to my standard, I'll let people know. I will always give a thousand percent to the artists and the company. And I expect nothing less from them."
* William Shakespeare's "The Tempest" (Nov. 7-15) - With a monster, a giant ship and dancers flying through the air, this magical drama promises to be a spectacle. Ballet West will become only the fourth ballet company in the world to do this show, which features choreography by one of Utah's favorite sons, the late Michael Smuin.
*"The Nutcracker" (Dec. 5-27) The annual holiday favorite, with music by Tchaikovsky and choreography by Willam Christensen.
*"Madame Butterfly" with "Gong" (Feb. 13-21) - Choreographer Stanton Welch's tale of love and betrayal, devotion and sacrifice, danced to Puccini's immortal score. The program also features the Utah premiere of Mark Morris' exotic "Gong," with costumes by fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi.
*"The Treasures of the Ballets Russes" (March 27-April 4) - Ballet West celebrates the 100th anniversary of the famed Ballets Russes with three works: the Utah premiere of George Balanchine's "The Prodigal Son," danced to the music of Sergei Prokofiev; Bronislava Nijinska's amusing look at the 1920s flapper set, "Les Biches"; and a revival of the ballet that "set Paris on fire" in 1909, the "Polovetsian Dances" from Alexander Borodin's opera "Prince Igor."
*"Innovations" (May 14-23) - This intimate Rose Wagner show showcases original works by Ballet West dancers plus a world premiere by renowned choreographer Nicolo Fonte and the Utah premiere of Ulysses Dove's fierce "Red Angels," accompanied live by electric violin.
* Season subscriptions in a variety of ticket packages are available at prices from $48 to $341. For more information, contact Ballet West at 801-323-6920 or visit http://www.balletwest.org.