Utah’s Ballet West, stopped by COVID-19 in March, returns with a socially distanced ‘Nine Sinatra Songs’

(Beau Pearson | courtesy of Ballet West) Artist Olivia Gusti and first soloist Tyler Gum (foreground) rehearse, in socially distanced conditions, for Ballet West's season opener, "Nine Sinatra Stories." Because of COVID-19 restrictions, only married and cohabitating dancers are performing duets for this show.

Nicolo Fonte wants to remind people who have adapted their lives to the COVID-19 pandemic that there’s more to life than working from home and venturing out only to run errands.

“Going to the theater and seeing ballet — remember that?” Fonte said recently, from his home in Portland, Ore. “We have gotten used to living like this. … Being able to go to the supermarket is not what art is about. We are still more than that.”

Fonte, who is a resident choreographer at both Salt Lake City’s Ballet West and the Oregon Ballet Theatre, is excited to premiere his newest dance piece, “Faraway Close,” as one of the works to be performed in Ballet West’s 2020-21 season opener, running Nov. 6-15 at the Capitol Theatre.

The centerpiece of the program is a revival of “Nine Sinatra Songs,” Twyla Tharp’s 1982 work performed to classic songs by Frank Sinatra. The program opens with two world premieres: Jennifer Archibald’s work “Tides,” and Fonte’s piece.

Like the Utah Symphony and the Utah Opera before them, Ballet West — which saw two of its dancers become among the first Utahns to contract COVID-19 in March — is following strict protocols to maintain the health and safety of dancers, staff and audiences during the pandemic.

“We can do this,” said Adam Sklute, Ballet West’s artistic director. “We have to be careful, we have to be smart. We have to send the message of health and safety, without a doubt. But we can also give people a live performance experience, and it’s in a safe way.”

“Nine Sinatra Songs” wasn’t the season opener Sklute planned before the pandemic. Originally, he had programmed Ben Stevenson’s massive ballet adaptation of “Dracula,” timed ahead of Halloween.

“The whole purpose of doing a ballet of that magnitude is to be able to pack the house,” Sklute said. “And in a situation when you can’t pack the house, it just wasn’t a viable option.”

Before the pandemic shut the troupe down in March, Ballet West was planning to revive one of Fonte’s earlier works, “Almost Tango.” Because of the groupings of the dancers, Fonte said, “it was literally impossible [to restage] the ballet that I had made. … I said, ‘It’s not worth trying to change it. Let me just make something new.’”

The parameters Sklute set for Fonte and Archibald — and for the Tharp piece — were simple: No more than eight dancers could be on the Capitol Theatre stage at any one time, spaced at least 6 feet apart at all times. There was one exception: Dancers could perform in pairs, but only if those dancers were couples who are married or cohabitating.

Ballet West’s corps of dancers has eight such couples — which, Sklute said, “is an unusually large amount of life partners, household couples, in one company.”

The abundance of real-life couples at Ballet West “was the spark, the impetus that we can do this program,” Sklute said.

The restrictions, Archibald said, required her to revamp her work, “Tides,” which she had started creating last November.

“A lot of that had to go out the window,” Archibald said, adding that she usually likes to design works with groups of dancers. “I just told myself I had to make a really, really strong pas de deux,” she said.

Having life partners performing together helps with the emotional weight of “Tides,” Archibald said. “There’s some really loving duets, where they do need to help each other get through hardships,” she said.

Working with dancers who are married can be tricky. “They’re either brilliant partners together or really not good together,” Sklute said. “Rarely, if ever, is there a middle ground.”

“They know each other,” Archibald said. “They know each other’s bodies. They understand their impulses. There’s an intimacy there that I don’t need to build or work out within the rehearsal."

Fonte agreed. “Because there’s that familiarity between them, there’s this whole level of politeness that’s not there,” he said. “I often joke with them, like, ‘Oh, so this duet is the beginning of the end of your relationship, isn’t it?’”

“There can be a little bit of tension because they might speak to one another in a way that you wouldn’t speak to a co-worker,” Sklute said. “But the flip side is that you know each other and you know what each other does so much better than someone that you don’t live with.”

Sklute added, “You can say two words to a couple and they will jibe together and know what it is. Or sometimes I’ve been in rehearsals with married couples, and they get to debating a point — to the point where I’ll say, ‘I’ll come back in about half an hour when you’re ready to work again.’”

The distance between performers onstage is maintained backstage, and Archibald said it’s the first time she’s had to choreograph the movement in the wings.

“Everyone had to exit one direction. So it was a flow,” Archibald said. “Dancers come in on stage left, and exit stage right, and they had to go underneath the stage in order to make sure they don’t touch each other in the wings or in the hallway.”

In rehearsals, dancers worked in “pods,” Sklute said, limiting the amount of contact among performers. Dancers also had to socially distance, so fewer of them could work in the same studio; in the biggest rehearsal studio at the Jessie Eccles Quinney Ballet Centre, next to the Capitol Theatre, they put no more than 18 dancers in a space that under normal conditions would hold 75.

When one “pod” left the rehearsal, a 30-minute break was instituted, to sanitize and air out the studio.

The break “affects your ability to creatively build a momentum,” Archibald said. “You think you’re on a roll, and they [tell you] ’30 minutes.’ … You have to keep your head in the game, even though you have these stops.”

Because of the disjointed rehearsals, Archibald said, she hasn’t seen her work performed from beginning to end. “It’s definitely like a jigsaw puzzle now,” she said, adding that she will see all the pieces together during dress rehearsals this week.

Another safety feature has also become an artistic flourish: The dancers have worn face masks in rehearsal, and will wear them in performance.

“Nicolo and Jennifer have both created their works with that in mind,” Sklute said. “That physicality and the whole concept of the works is about having a mask.”

The masks are more of a challenge in “Nine Sinatra Songs,” which Tharp debuted in 1982. The work depicts seven romantic couples, and requires the dancers to be expressive with their faces as well as their movements.

Wearing masks, Sklute said, has “really required the artists to act with their bodies and their eyes, in a way that they might not have. They can’t rely on goofy facial expressions to support the theatricality. They really have to do it through their bodies.”

Sklute said he talked to Tharp, who is 79, about performing the work before a live audience while other dance companies are either closed (New York City Ballet recently announced they won’t be back onstage until September 2021) or streaming video works online.

“She was impressed with the fact that we were trying to move forward in this,” Sklute said.

The show may be a hint of what’s to come at Ballet West. The company’s next production is “The Nutcracker,” which usually involves dozens of dancers, including children, and lavish sets and costumes. The Christmas tradition is Ballet West’s biggest revenue generator, following the tradition set by the company’s founder, Willam Christensen.

The company is working on “a unique and creative plan to present a Nutcracker experience ‘After Christensen’ that will follow health and safety guidelines, Sklute said. The show will have “professionals and children performing safely distanced on stage, but also a production that is opulent and honors Mr. C’s vision.”

That same spirit of joy that permeates “The Nutcracker” is also at work in the works in Ballet West’s season opener, the choreographers say.

Fonte said his work, “Faraway Close,” is “a celebration of the human spirit, that it has a capacity to rise above adversity and still seek out its own experience. … [It’s] a little bit about the need to connect, more than ever now.”

“Tides,” Archibald said, is about “trying to find your own way through, like a natural human response to the hardships, the psychological highs and lows of finding the light at the end of the tunnel.”

That message is especially relevant after dealing with COVID-19 for the last eight months, she said. “You can put it on the shelf, but it’s in front of you. You know why you’re sleeping a lot. You know why you’re not motivated. You know why you’re not as happy as you were when you were dancing and moving full time,” Archibald said. “It comes in waves, and you have to really dig deep to get yourself functioning, waking up every single morning.”

“Nine Sinatra Songs” has a lot of “joy and love and fun and humor,” Sklute said, and is appropriate for this age of COVID-19.

“It speaks to our time, but not in a way that necessarily only says we are feeling isolated now,” Sklute said, “but that we have a greater spirit that will prevail over the challenges of what we’re going through.”

‘Nine Sinatra Songs’

Ballet West performs Twyla Tharp’s 1982 work, plus world premieres of works by choreographers Jennifer Archibald and Nicolo Fonte.

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

When • Nov. 6-7 and 11-14, at 7:30 p.m.; 1 p.m. matinees on Nov. 7, 14 and 15. No performances Nov. 8-10.

Tickets • Ranging from $34 to $94, at saltlakecountyarts.org. Capacity is limited, due to COVID-19; some performances are sold out.

COVID-19 restrictions • Audience members must wear masks and social distance from other groups. No intermission. Hand sanitizer will be available.