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Ballet West takes a chance with ‘Innovations’ program

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Courtesy Luke Isley | Ballet West Ballet West First Soloist Jacqueline Straughan and Soloist Adrian Fry in Mercurial Landscape.

By Kathy Adams

Special to The Tribune

First published May 10 2014 01:01AM
Updated May 19, 2014 01:35PM

The freshly printed "Innovations" schedule taped outside Ballet West’s rehearsal studio illustrated the uncertainty of a dancer’s life on a program designed for creative risk-taking.

"11:45-2:45 Neenan New Work/ E Adams New Work/ Anderson New Work/ Gum New Work/ Full Call All Concerned, Dancers excused as needed…"

Only two weeks before "theater week," when the dancers were expected onstage for lighting and staging, guest choreographer Matthew Neenan arrived to start work on his new ballet and began mentally casting and recasting with no decision in sight.

Four dancer-choreographers already part of Ballet West characteristically acclimated to the short time they had to work with their dancers.

Costumer David Huevel, meanwhile, chased artistic staff through Ballet West’s temporary quarters at Trolley Square in Salt Lake City waving fabric swatches.

But by week’s end, each New Work had gained a title, casting brought thrills or disappointment, and costumes appeared as if spun from magical thread.

Such was the harried pace as Ballet West prepared its annual New Works program called "Innovations," designed to allow up-and-coming choreographers to find their artistic voices. This year’s program spotlights four new creations by Ballet West artists and guest choreographer Neenan’s world premiere.

Neenan, from a large, close-knit Boston Catholic family, said his ballet examines the far-reaching impact the death of his cousin’s youngest daughter had on the family. "They had five children and she was the baby," he said of the piece, titled "The Sixth Beauty."

"My ballet explores a single incident that happened when I was young and the ripples of repercussion it carried," Neenan said. "I think because I turned 40 this month, in addition to a few other recent coincidental factors, the memories were stirred up more potently and I felt the subject sort of calling me."

Neenan’s ballet isn’t drenched in melancholy. The choreography and the music evolve from arduous modernism to an inviting waltz. And his family story includes some unusual spiritual guides on its way to resolution.

The narrative is not literal, and as much as Neenan employs ballet technique in his work, the dancers often are asked to turn their feet inward and round and arch through their backs and necks.

"The BW dancers are open and adaptable and they project strength," Neenan said. "When there are strong men and strong women, there is give-and-take, like in a real-life relationship."

The four other pieces on the program are by Ballet West dancers with varying degrees of practice at dancemaking.

The most experienced is Christopher Ruud, whose recent knee surgery sidelined him from performing for several months.

Ruud’s lifelong immersion in ballet (first with both of his parents as Ballet West dancers and later with other close relationships in the ballet world, ranging from mentors to marriage) is most apparent when he describes the music he chose for his ballet, "Great Souls."

"I’ve listened to those pieces of Beethoven with great emotion in my heart for at least 20 years," he said. "When I hear them, I hear intense love and longing; joy and grief, and because they are the soundtrack to great love and great loss in my life, they remind me of the great souls who I’ve been fortunate to have touch my life."

Music plays a challenging role in Ballet West dancer-choreographer Emily Adams’s "Innovations" creation.

"I’m using electronic music, which has turned out to be very challenging because it is so repetitive," Adams said. "There’s no change in melody, instruments or dynamics to motivate a change in movement. It’s just beeping noises, but I like it because it creates the environment I want for the piece."

Adams choreographed for Ballet West’s 2012 "Innovations" program and created work when she was a student at School for American Ballet and the SAB Choreographic Institute. She is meticulous in pre-rehearsal planning and even watched tapes of her 2012 "Innovations" piece as homework. She wants the audience to have its own interpretation, so she isn’t assisting with descriptive program notes. But the electronic music and her structure of grouping and separating performers might bring up themes of alienation.

Dancer-choreographer Christopher Anderson is trying something new this year: He’s asking audience members to participate. "Each night we’ll ask volunteers to come backstage an intermission and give them a little instruction," he said. "I wanted to do something that would alter the audiences’ experience each night."

Anderson said he hopes the reactions the audience members have onstage will shift the mood and tone of the piece differently each night. For those interested in participating, there will be directions in the lobby before and during intermission.

Dancer-choreographer Tyler Gum has not previously choreographed for "Innovations," but his relatives own the Bar J in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and are part of the singing group the Bar J Wranglers, who have traveled the world and been on the Discovery Channel and Travel Network.

Gum’s music is an improvisational guitar piece by his cousin Clay Humphrey, mixed with a whispered text of Gum’s grandfather’s cowboy poetry. "The poetry is the jumping-off point for the choreography, which revealed a profound transition in my grandfather’s life," Gum said. "It spoke to me about how our decisions affect not just ourselves but also those around us."

Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute said that this year’s "Innovations" is "remarkably diverse and mature … and the creative process has been a very intense and impassioned time that we all have been relishing."

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