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(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ballet West's "The Firebird" at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City, Thursday November 7, 2013.
Ballet West’s 50th anniversary turns into joyous homecoming
First Published Nov 09 2013 11:31 am • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:38 pm

The few American ballet companies that have made it to their 50th anniversary have elected to celebrate in a number of ways. San Francisco Ballet produced a New Works festival, Boston launched a world tour, but Ballet West came up with a different approach: welcoming home those who made it all happen from the beginning.

Hundreds of dancers and members of the Ballet West family converged on Salt Lake City this week to enjoy each other and a major revival of founder Willam F. Christensen’s magical version of "The Firebird."

At a glance

Ballet West’s soaring ‘Firebird’

Running time » Two hours and 15 minutes, with two 15-minute intermissions

Bottom line » Family friendly and sophisticated, the evening of three separate ballets is composed of a story ballet, a timeless modern ballet and Balanchine’s upbeat Gershwin salute, “Who Cares?”

Performances » The show runs through Nov. 16 at Kingsbury Hall. For more, visit: www.balletwest.org

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"The Firebird" is a surprisingly naturalistic ballet that answers the "how" of Christensen’s ability to build a ballet company and enthusiastic audience in a small, isolated city in Utah a half century ago. Set to Stravinsky’s "The Firebird Suite," the story of an evil kingdom complete with monsters, wolves and insects has a cinematic, Disneyesque quality. It is entertaining and inventive.

The Firebird herself, danced with a quirky elegance by Katherine Lawrence, is not the same bird we’ve seen before in "Swan Lake" or the Bluebird in "Sleeping Beauty." Christensen differentiates her from her predecessors and gives the Firebird, and each of the character groupings in his story, signature movement qualities to clearly define them.

All those years ago I doubt the male dancers in "Firebird" were landing double tours (especially in animal head masks) as they did opening night. But one of the more interesting parts of this glance back is the incredibly deep bench Ballet West has built in recent years.

The middle piece of the evening, Jiri Kylian’s "Petite Mort," and the closing ballet, Balanchine’s "Who Cares?" require casting that is specific to the talents and characteristics of individual dancers. Ballet West is now a strong enough company to cast with purpose, no longer relying on the same few to adapt to every part.

That’s not to say there aren’t standouts. The duets in "Petite Mort" are as sexy as they are abstract, and dancers Sayaka Ohtaki and Tom Mattingly meld at that intersection through their economy of movement and timing and an intrinsic knowledge of each other.

In the works of Balanchine and Kylian the clarity of execution must be impeccable. And in Ballet West, we see a company that has become a stickler for stylistic detail. "Who Cares?" performed to a Gershwin medley, is light in subject matter but heavy in Balanchine’s creative genius, combining the most lovely yet awkward of movements.

The "Gentlemen" in "Who Cares?" (Rex Tilton, Adrian Fry, Tyler Gum, Christopher Anderson and Alexander MacFarlan) were confident and precise. The "Ladies" were bright and playful and the audience is treated to Christiana Bennett, Beckanne Sisk and Ohtaki, among others, taking turns mining the depths of this lighthearted ballet.

At the heart of enjoying ballet to its fullest is the live music performed by the Utah Chamber Orchestra. The breathtaking solo pianist for "Petite Mort" and "Who Cares" was Jed Moss. The orchestra was conducted by guest Cheung Chau for "Petite Mort," Terence Kern for "Firebird," and "Who Cares" by the company’s own rising star, associate director Jared Oaks.

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