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Review: 'Innovations' puts audience up close and personal with Ballet West dancers

Published May 22, 2014 3:18 pm

Ballet West review • A variety of complex and intriguing work is fodder for contemplation.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"Innovations," Ballet West's program that taps the talents of company dancers and emerging choreographers, has emerged as the most anticipated show of the season.

A sold-out performance in the 500-seat Jeanne' Wagner Theatre opening night signals a growing curiosity in the artistic process of dance making. It affirms the desire of Salt Lake audience members to participate — not with a ballot, but by hearing the breath, feeling the weight and seeing the work up close.

In Christopher Ruud's four-section ballet, "Great Souls," he lays bare the emotions surrounding the death of his father, the death of his mentor and his recent divorce. At the close of a lengthy and demanding autobiographical solo/duet with Tom Mattingly, dancer Tyler Gum collapses to the floor and the audience hears Gum gasping for breath or maybe actually crying. Quietly, dancer Allison DeBona enters stage left and places her hand momentarily on Gum's back. The nine-minute-long pas de deux that follows is the next chapter in Ruud's story. DeBona and Rex Tilton bring life and personality to the characters in a retelling of Ruud's perspective of the very public break up of his marriage.

Thanks to the CW's dance-docu-reality show "Breaking Pointe," many are familiar with the personal lives of the company dancers. But what makes this performance personal is not the stuff of gossip-blog drama. We are engaged in the work through the intimacy of a small theater and the access to surprisingly private choreographed stories. And particularly in "Great Souls," Ruud's choreography fully matches and balances the powerful Beethoven score that is the soundtrack to his life, such that it also becomes the backdrop to ours.

Guest choreographer Matthew Neenan's ballet "The Sixth Beauty" is also inspired by an extraordinarily personal story. It succeeds for opposite reasons from Ruud's. Neenan choreographs cinematically with five sequential scenes and a central character. The ballet uses reoccurring gesture — where dancers hold their chins in their fingers and look from side to side as if questioning life's events. Neenan's work is also complex and witty. He sets up a traditional classical structure and throws us off guard by introducing a non-traditional element. You don't need to know this classical deconstruction to appreciate the story, because Neenan's intellectualism doesn't eclipse his honest depiction of the narrative.

The three dancer-choreographers chosen earlier in the year through an extensive application process each had a clear purpose and starting point. Christopher Anderson's "Paths" investigated the concepts of chance operations and pedestrian movement. Although modern dance has explored these concepts over the years, it is outside the box for ballet. At intermission, Anderson gave audience volunteers a crash course in movement and set us out to navigate the stage. As a volunteer I was clearly impacted, but wondered if Anderson's goal of a unique audience experience was being reached. The applause, however, which lasted through three bows and the high-fives from total strangers as I made my way back to my seat, confirmed the demonstration was a hit with the audience.

Choreographer-dancer Emily Adams' did everything right in her "Mixed Signals," while also remaining structurally inventive.

Tyler Gum's "Inverted Affect" is filled with great ideas. The opening image of three dancers standing apart in the cool-blue lighting while sending each other conflicting emotional messages was strong. In time, Gum will develop more fully the ideas and images he has offered this first time around. Breaking ground with "Innovations"

The sold-out crowd indicates Salt Lake audiences' growing interest in process and there is plenty to chat about and analyze in this Ballet West performance.

When • May 21-24, 7:30 p.m.; 2 p.m. matinee Saturday, May 24

Where • Jeanné Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $45; arttix.org or 801-355-ARTS (2787)

Running time • About two hours, with a 10-minute intermission and a 20-minute intermission.