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Ballet West's 'Rite of Spring' is a rite of passage

Published April 10, 2014 11:01 am

Dance • The company's resident choreographer creates a new setting of the landmark ballet.
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Who is Nicolo Fonte and why did he jet from Antwerp to New York City, landing in Salt Lake City three days ahead of schedule?

Fonte is the guy at Ballet West, stepping it up and creating world premieres as the company's second-only resident choreographer. He's back in town this week to finish the last 50 seconds of his "Rite of Spring," a take on Stravinsky's infamous ballet score that promises to be a daring endeavor.

"I want the curtain to go up and you're either mesmerized by it or you reject it — but you're going to have a reaction," Fonte said. "I don't want to be shocking for the sake of being shocking, but it is no time to be timid, either."

"The Rite of Spring" has been raising eyebrows and getting makeovers since the 1913 Paris season when Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes premiered the work at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Legend has it that Stravinsky's score stunned listeners and Vaslav Nijinsky's choreography offended audiences, causing a near riot in the aisles. One hundred years later, the 2013-14 ballet season finds audiences filling theaters across the world to honor this groundbreaking work.

During his career, Fonte has seen many "Rites" and admits his first shot at it several years ago missed its mark.

"Having done a 'Rite' early on when I was younger, I went the very dramatic-narrative, heavy-storyline route," Fonte said. "This time I listened to the music as if hearing it for the first time and let it elicit a visceral response in my body, in my mind and in my soul."

The challenge for Fonte was creating choreography relevant to a 21st-century audience to a score with a 20th-century narrative. Stravinsky titled each of the 13 sections, or episodes, with names including Dance of the Earth, Mystic Circles of the Young Girls, Evocation of the Ancestors and Sacrificial Dance.

"I didn't want to make a piece depicting a Russian pagan ritual," Fonte said. "I don't know if there's anything comparable in contemporary culture to a maiden dancing herself to death to celebrate the renewal of spring. But it is really hard to strip something so emotional and powerful of its narrative content."

So he just listened. And "the more I listened to the music, the more it became about basic, instinctual desire, and impulses, that triggered universal pictures and associations in my mind; and that was enough for me to start making the ballet."

There are a few surprises Fonte is keeping to himself, saying only that there is a complex set and the costumes are primal. "The costumes can read as animal skin — it is a very contemporary take on animal skin with an element of primitivism," he said.

Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute has a long history and a deep respect for the original "Le sacre du printemps." He was part of the historical reconstruction in 1987 when the Joffrey Ballet pieced together the original 1913 choreography from sketches, photographs and recollections, and toured the work.

"It took us around the world — even to the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris where the ballet premiered to the riot and scandal, although 25 years later that ballet received standing ovations," Sklute said.

"For the 100th anniversary of 'Sacre,' I wanted to honor it with a new production and I couldn't think of anyone better to do it than Nicolo. This is what he does — he takes a classic piece of work and illuminates it in new, interesting and novel ways."

The title resident choreographer doesn't mean Fonte lives in Salt Lake.

Over the past few years, Fonte has choreographed works across the U.S. and in Russia, El Salvador, Finland, Belgium, Canada and Australia, to name a few. As Ballet West's resident choreographer, he is under contract to create works for the company over a specified period of time, with the mission of enhancing the vision and direction of the institution. It is mutually beneficial because the bond is tighter than with a guest choreographer, and as Fonte said, "I don't feel like I'm working with strangers."

Says Ballet West soloist Allison DeBona: "Nicolo's 'Rite of Spring' is like a rite of passage for us. He knows us now and trusts us as dancers. We were very much a part of his choreographic process this time. And I promise you, it is going to blow you away." —

'Rite of Spring'

Ballet West presents the world premiere of resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte's take on Igor Stravinsky's epic 'The Rite of Spring.' Also on the program: Jirí Kylián's "Forgotten Land," set to Benjamin Britten's stirring Sinfonia da Requiem, and George Balanchine's classic "Divertimento No. 15," a playful yet elegant ballet.

When • Friday-Saturday, April 11-12; Wednesday-Saturday, April 16-19, 7:30 p.m.; 2 p.m. matinee Saturday, April 19

Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $24-$74; ArtTix.org