Utah’s art groups want to be less ‘stuffy,’ so they’re offering beer

In the 1890s, when Tchaikovsky was in his prime, going to the ballet took a big chunk out of one’s evening.

“‘Sleeping Beauty’ was five hours long the first time it came out,” said Adam Sklute, artistic director of Ballet West. “‘The Nutcracker’ was only the opening act to a double bill, which included Tchaikovsky’s [lyric opera] ‘Iolanta.’ And ‘The Nutcracker’ was considered short, because it was only two hours.”

That won’t fly with 21st century audiences, plugged into social media and always on the go. “We’ve become a short attention span theater,” Sklute said.

To appeal to today’s time-starved audiences, Ballet West and other Utah arts organizations are experimenting with programming that delivers art in more accessible, less traditional ways.

“It’s just a matter of creating different ways for them to show up,” said Renee Huang, director of communications for Utah Symphony | Utah Opera. “Once you’re in the hall, it is kind of a timeless experience.”

Ballet West’s annual Beer+Ballet event, happening Friday at 6 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre, is one event that “allows people to just feel more relaxed, and hopefully bring in younger audiences who just want to have a good time at a party,” Sklute said.

“A lot of times, people think when they’re going to the ballet that this is a very formal situation, that you have to put on a gown or a suit and sit there rigid and enjoy some stuffy stuff,” Sklute said. He added that he has “worked to create a more inclusive atmosphere” in all of Ballet West’s repertoire.

(Kelli Bramble | Courtesy of Ballet West) Bethanne Sisk, center, a principal dancer in Ballet West's troupe, talks with patrons at a recent Beer+Ballet event. The next edition of the event is set for Friday, Nov. 1, 2019, at the Capitol Theatre.

With Beer+Ballet, Sklute offers a mix. His Ballet West II dancers perform a program that includes some classical work that “pushes the envelope in terms of showing people the old-fashioned part of the art form,” Sklute said. Also on bill is “Piece of My Heart,” a frequently requested work by the troupe’s resident choreographer, Nicolo Fonte, set to the music of Janis Joplin.

“It’s a 45-minute-long performance, and the rest of it is just a party,” Sklute said. The beer is provided by several Salt Lake City-area brewers — Hoppers Brew Pub, Kiitos Brewing and Proper Brewing Co. — with hors d’oeuvres from Blue Iguana, the Mexican restaurant that sits just behind the Capitol.

While Beer+Ballet is aimed at audiences in their 20s and 30s, another Ballet West program aims to appeal to younger viewers and their parents. The latest show in the Family Classics series, “Snow White,” will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 8 and 9, with a 2 p.m. matinee on the 9th.

The family shows usually run between an hour and 90 minutes, with an intermission, Sklute said. A narrator explains the story, and “it’s usually humorous, and exposing families and kids to real classical ballet that’s other than ‘The Nutcracker,’” he said.

The shows are choreographed in house, employ well-known classical music, and draw on the classic sources — Snow White, for example, is taken from the Brothers Grimm, not Walt Disney, Sklute said.

The family performances feature Ballet West II, the troupe’s junior rotation, and students from the Ballet West Academy, Sklute said — giving parents of ballet students a chance “to see their family member in a professionally produced production.”

Utah Symphony is using multimedia to expand the classical concert experience, Huang said.

The symphony’s Unwound series returns on Saturday, Nov. 16, with a performance of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” A highlight will be the use of two GoPro cameras — one aimed at musical director Thierry Fischer’s face while he conducts, the other capturing pianist Kevin Cole’s hands while he plays — with the images projected on screens above the Abravanel Hall stage.

“You get this really drawn-in experience of getting up close and personal, and getting immersed in the concert experience,” Huang said.

The Unwound show is “a dressed-down symphony experience,” Huang said. “You can come in blue jeans — in fact, the orchestra is dressed in blue jeans.” In the lobby, there’s a cash bar with beer, wine and signature cocktails, and a T-shirt printing station creating souvenirs on site. After the show, principal clarinetist Tad Calcara and his New Deal Swing Band will perform in the lobby.

Another concert, on Tuesday, Nov. 19, will take the audience to “America’s Wonders,” through 3-D film footage and musical snippets.

The film, projected on the screen above the musicians, captures the beauty of 28 national parks — including all five in Utah — and 11 cities. The music matches the visuals: A sunrise at the Grand Canyon is accompanied by Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite,” while the folk song “Shenandoah” plays during a flyover of the Shenandoah Valley. Tenor Adam Fisher will sing the standards “New York, New York,” “Viva Las Vegas” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” with footage from those cities playing with the songs.

While Ballet West and Utah Symphony are going with fast and flashy, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts has found a quiet approach works to bring in new patrons.

The museum has an initiative, Art + Wellness, that invites people in among the paintings and sculpture “to just live better through art,” said Ashley Farmer, the museum’s assistant director of learning and engagement.

The wellness component happens mostly in two ways: occasional yoga sessions in the museum’s Great Hall, and a weekly “mindfulness” session on most Thursdays (except holidays and school breaks at the University of Utah) between 1 and 2 p.m.

“It’s a kind of slow looking, and mindful looking, at artwork, that’s also paired with traditional guided meditation,” Farmer said.

Instructor Charlotte Bell takes patrons through UMFA’s galleries to look at specific works. That is followed by conversation about the works, and some meditation time.

“It’s a great way for visitors to use the museum more as a space for contemplation and introspection, connecting with themselves and taking a bit of a break from the outside world,” Farmer said.

The program, Farmer said, “has brought people to the museum that maybe don’t regularly spend time there otherwise.”

Huang said Utah Symphony has noticed similar success with its outreach, though it’s too early to quantify audience growth. “We’re certainly seeing lots of new faces, and ages, of people coming to the hall,” she said.

Sklute said arts groups have to adapt to audience changes if they aim to thrive. “When you can get things instantly, on your cellphone or wherever, and there’s entertainment of all levels at any kind of different platforms,” Sklute said, “we in the performing arts have to move in that same direction, to be able to appeal to people of all walks of life.”


Ballet West’s Beer+Ballet

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

When • Friday, Nov. 1, starting at 6 p.m.

Tickets • $45 in advance, $50 at the door, at balletwest.org.


Ballet West II’s “Snow White”

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

When • Friday, Nov. 8, at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 9, at 2 and 7 p.m.

Tickets • $25 for the evening shows, $35 for the matinee, at balletwest.org.


Utah Symphony’s Unwound: “Rhapsody in Blue”

Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City.

When • Saturday, Nov. 16, 7 p.m.

Tickets • From $20 to $92, at artsaltlake.org.


Utah Symphony’s America’s Wonders in 3-D

Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City.

When • Tuesday, Nov. 19, 7 p.m.

Tickets • From $20 to $75, at artsaltlake.org.


Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ Art + Wellness

Where • Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 410 Center Campus Drive, Salt Lake City.

When • Most Thursdays, 1 to 2 p.m. (Check schedule at umfa.utah.edu.)

Admission • Regular museum admission: $12.95 for adults; $9.95 for seniors and youth (6 to 18); free for UMFA members, University of Utah students, faculty and staff, students at public Utah universities, Utah Horizon/EBT cardholders, and active-duty military families.

Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.