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Jonas Kåge, Artistic Director, Ballet West

Far From Sweden

by by Dean Speer and Francis Timlin

February, 14 2003 -- Salt Lake City

What a great Valentine’s Day present – to see a performance of Ballet West in their magnificent production of "Sleeping Beauty" and to have had also the opportunity to chat with the Artistic Director of the Company. We spoke with Mr. Kåge in his second-floor office, in Salt Lake City ’s restored Capitol Theatre (built in 1913 as SLC’s second Orpheum) complex, above the press of the crowded foyer during the intermissions between acts.
between acts.

Mr. Kåge, who was appointed artistic director of Ballet West in 1997, leads the Company during its 40th anniversary season. Throughout his extensive association with ballet as dancer, choreographer and director, Mr. Kåge has continued the company’s tradition of expanding ballet’s reach toward new audiences. Ballet West originated in Salt Lake City in 1963 as the Utah Civic Ballet. Utah 's "First Lady of the Arts," Glenn Walker Wallace, was the company's founder and first president. Willam F. Christensen, creator of the company and its first artistic director, is also noted for establishing, with his brothers Lew and Harold, the oldest ballet company in the Western United States , the San Francisco Ballet, in 1937. Christensen also is heralded for establishing the first ballet department in an American university, the University of Utah, in 1951 and for being the first American to choreograph full-length versions of “The Nutcracker,” “Copplia” and “Cinderella.”

Mr. Kåge has established significant relationships with many international masters of the art form, including Hans van Manen, Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe, and Glen Tetley. As a result, Ballet West has added to its repertoire a wide range of American and world premieres including “Polish Pieces” and “In and Out” by van Manen, “Bach Moves” by Ted Brandsen, “Artifact II” by William Forsythe and Kage's own award-winning staging of “Swan Lake.” 

What follows is an edited transcription of our talk.]

How would you compare Ballet West as it is now, as opposed to how it was when you first assumed leadership? How has it grown, what kind of new ballets have you introduced into the repertory, and what have your brought back (such as Balanchine)?

I felt it was important to not make too many changes, particularly at the start of my tenure, and so have taken a conservative approach. For example, I kept the Company roster the same during that first year. Now, as in the natural course of things, there are only a handful of the same dancers left after 7 years. Retirements, people moving on...

Yes, as you know, this Company has had a long history of Balanchine ballets in its repertory, so it’s nice to bring back or introduce them to "Violin Concerto" or "Four Temperaments" – and have continued showing "Theme and Variations" and "Concerto Barocco." We’ve also brought in ballets by Hans van Manen, William Forsythe; Val Caniparoli, and Christopher Bruce.

What are some of your long-term artistic goals for the Company?

We want to freshen the repertory, so I hope to commission new works, bringing in the best that we can afford – the cutting edge on top of the trade. We are lucky to have and, as we hire in the future, will to continue to look for dancers who can handle this variety of mixed repertory. Glen Tetley’s "Rite of Spring" that we’re doing in April is a big difference from "Sleeping Beauty"! I believe our loyal audiences are starting to enjoy the mixed repertory programs, in addition to the full-lengths.

What are some of the challenges?

Everyone, regardless of size, has similar problems: Funding! This Company has been built carefully over 40 years, and it’s also very fragile in that you can lose it very quickly, if not careful artistically and financially. I believe it’s important to maintain artistic standards and resist doing Peter Pan and Dracula ballets, as they don’t really solve long-term finances nor do they help build the Company.

Describe some of your day-to-day activities. Do you give Company Class? How involved are you with rehearsals?

Oh, I love to be on the rehearsal floor. I try to teach Company Class at least once a week. I think it’s important for the Artistic Director to articulate standards, defining a “look” for example. Like my colleagues, I’m very torn because of administrative pressures.

Many in leadership roles find themselves increasingly doing more in the way of fundraising and being publicly "visible." Have you found that to be true for yourself as well here in Salt Lake ?

Yes. I’m learning to do more of that here and would like to do more, time permitting. In Europe , it’s not done as much due to the high level of State support for the arts; the money is just there. There are the most wonderful people here in this community and one of the benefits of needing to be more visible is being able to keep better in touch with the community that supports us. I also wanted to let you know that Kent (Stowell) and Francia (Russell) have been so supportive and great friends.

Is there any thing in particular you would like us to say about Ballet West?

Absolutely! Ballet West is in a renaissance. I hope to get the Company out more and we need to tour. I’m thrilled that we are going to be at the Edinburgh Festival this coming Summer! We are taking, at the sponsor’s request, an all Tudor program. "Leaves are Fading," "Lilac Garden," and "Offenbach in the Underworld."  It’s very exciting to be seen by new audiences and ballet fans world-wide. Touring gets the Company together and it’s great for morale.

As we have a little extra time, please tell us about your background. How did you start in ballet and eventually land in Salt Lake City?

My mother was briefly a dancer who worked with Birgit Cullberg. When I was little, I used to dance around a lot in the living room to the radio. Mother made a deal with me that I try a year of ballet lessons. These I started when I was about 8. I auditioned for and got into the Royal Swedish Ballet when I was 9. I got to carry lots of pillows and capes! (Children are used frequently in the operas and ballets.) This is how I got interested in opera. My father was a pop singer and my grandfather an actor, so you can imagine that I got a lot of home support, which was great!

One of my big idols, Erik Bruhn, took over the Royal Swedish Ballet and was given some great breaks. I got to dance in Kenneth MacMillan’s "Romeo and Juliet" with Georgina Parkinson when I was only 19. Mr. Bruhn later invited me to ABT, where I danced for four years. This was a great time at ABT, with a lot of expectations and pressures, with a great generation of people. Makarova and Misha where there as well as the “greats” still being around.

I then spent a year in Stuttgart under Glen Tetley and then 10 years at Zurich Ballet during the years that Patricia Neary was director. I got to work with Mr. Balanchine there as he’d come over for vacation and would stop by to rehearse and coach us in his ballets. Nureyev was a big influence too, while I was at London Festival Ballet. I admired his determination to do things “right” -- he didn’t cut corners and was a lesson in demonstrating the need to push ourselves out of the comfort zone.

I’m very happy that I got to meet with Ballet West’s Founding Director, Willam Christensen, a couple of times before he passed. He was an amazing gentleman. I once joked with him that it was great to meet the person we get to “blame” for all of these Nutcrackers! [Note: Mr. Christensen choreographed the first full-length Nutcracker for San Francisco Ballet in 1944.]

I’ve been most fortunate to have been around some very influential and exciting people and feel that I was part of something special – a feeling that I’m trying to pass along here in Salt Lake City and with Ballet West.

Edited by Holly Messitt

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