Seth Olson and Maggie Wright, Principal Dancers, Ballet West
Showing the company at its best
by Kate Snedeker
Photo credit: Ballet West Principal Maggie Wright in Antony Tudor's"Offenbach in the Underworld"/ photo by Douglas Robertson
September 2004 -- Edinburgh
In late August, Ballet West performed in the 2004 Edinburgh Festival, presenting a program of ballets by Antony Tudor. During the company's successful run in Edinburgh, I had the pleasure of talking with two of Ballet West's most experienced principal dancers, Seth Olson and Maggie Wright, about dancing, Tudor and Edinburgh.
A member of Ballet West since 1997, principal dancer Seth Olson is a native of Utah. "My background was in vaudeville", said Olson and he was attracted to ballet because of its musicality and theatricality, eventually starting his formal training at the Ballet West Conservatory. Before embarking on a professional performing career, he spent two years in the dance program at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City. It was an experience that Olson feels was incredibly helpful in broadening his knowledge of dance and dance styles, and he mentions in his exposure to the Martha Graham technique.
After leaving Julliard, Olson joined American Ballet Theatre, the same company in which Ballet West artistic director Jonas Kåge danced for several years and with which Antony Tudor was associated for much of his time in the U.S. However, it was not until he was at Ballet West that Olson would finally have the chance to perform in any of Tudor's ballets.
Maggie Wright is the senior ballerina in the company, having joined Ballet West as corps member almost 18 years ago. She came to Ballet West after years of training in Atlanta, at American Ballet Theatre, the Houston Ballet Academy and the University of Utah.
Like Olson, Wright was one of the few company members to have danced in the Tudor ballets, "Leaves are Fading" and "Lilac Garden", when they were given Ballet West premieres in 1997 and 2001, respectively. Both dancers were passionate in their discussions of performing Tudor's ballets. Olson described the experience as "precious" and Wright commented that "they are an honor to dance". Olson loves the theatrical nature of the pieces: "The ballets have simple movements and simple characters" he said, "they are beautiful, simple pieces". Reflecting this sentiment Wright called the pieces "historic and understated."
Yet, while the ballets may be "simple" in some ways, the choreography is far from simple to learn and perform In the weeks of rehearsal before Ballet West headed for Scotland, Olson and Wright had to learn and relearn roles in the three ballets the company presented. For both, the process of rehearsing their central pas de deux in "Leaves Are Fading" seems to have been the most inspirational. Yet it was very different from when they first experienced the ballet back in 1997.
Olson, who had previously danced in one of the more minor pas de deuxs, said he found the experience of rehearsing and performing the main pas de deux somewhat "scary" because it is the centerpiece of the ballet and requires so much trust. For Wright, her role as the main ballerina was "so familiar" and it was "more in her soul" so that she was "able to go with it very instinctually".
Also, in 1997 the ballet was set by a representative of the Tudor Trust from notations made of the steps, and rehearsed by Kåge, who originated the principal male role (2nd pas de deux). This time along with Kåge and Sally Bliss, the head of the Tudor Trust, the dancers had the benefit of working with Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, a husband and wife team, who are renowned for their breathtaking performances of "Leaves Are Fading" during their careers at ABT (McKerrow is still a principal with ABT, Gardner retired several years ago).
Wright found that McKerrow's help was invaluable for even though McKerrow set the ballet a bit differently, it "felt more comfortable". Also, working with a dancer who had danced the role many times, and worked with Tudor himself, allowed progression beyond the steps to the emotions which are so vital in Tudor ballets. When working on a certain bit of choreography, "Amanda could tell you 'it felt THIS way'" said Wright.
Olson also spoke highly of the help he received from Kåge in learning the pas de deux, pointing out that Kåge helped to recreate a section of choreography that had been taken out year before. He explained that Kåge's partner in the original cast, Gelsey Kirkland, "was fearless", and subsequent ballerinas hadn't had the ability to carry off some of the really difficult choreography, and thus the choreography was adjusted. However, with Kåge's help the section was recreated.
With the assistance of Tudor stager Donald Mahler, Wright learned the role of "The Operetta Star" in "Offenbach in the Underworld". Though she admitted that at first, the ballet was "kind of a shock" as compared to the more serious and romantic nature of the other ballets, she enjoyed her "outrageously flamboyant" role as well as the humor and timing it required.
Olson had what might perhaps have been the most challenging experience, as he danced principal roles in all three ballets on three nights, When asked how he managed to keep up his energy, he said that "the momentum carries you through". According to Olson, also helpful in changing between characters were the differences in the ballets: he described "Lilac Garden" as "darker" and "Leaves Are Fading" as "beautiful" and "close to his heart".
Ballet West rarely ventures outside the U.S., though several years ago the company performed in several cities across China. Traveling to Edinburgh may not have involved quite the same culture shock, but the experience brought back to the dancers many of the same feelings.
Echoing some of Olson's thoughts, Wright explained that international touring provides Ballet West the valuable opportunity to be seen by audiences that have never seen and don't know anything about the company. With these new audiences, the dancers have to really earn the praise and applause, which is not only immensely rewarding, but also is a great judge of the quality of their performances. Traveling so far from home pushed the company outside its comfort zone, according to Wright, and she said this tour allowed the dancers to grow as a group : "We showed that we were a whole company of artists!"
The applause and compliments did indeed roll in for Ballet West, and Olson commented that "dancing in Edinburgh has been an incredible experience." The two dancers were thrilled with the responses of the "warm audiences" and were delighted with the wonderful atmosphere that comes with performing in Edinburgh. The company also benefited from excellent musical accompaniment by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, which Olson described as "stunning". And, the company felt very much at home because Edinburgh Playhouse, he indicated, is very much like the the company's home theater in Salt Lake City, with the audience close up, a classic design and cozy feeling.
Though much of the dancers' time in Edinburgh was taken up by class, rehearsals, photo calls and adjusting to the time change, both Olson and Wright did have a chance to do some sightseeing. Olson mentioned specifically the inspiration of performing during the festival with so many performers in the city and so many different performances going on in a small area. The dancers were housed in the University of Edinburgh's Pollock Halls right at the foot of the towering crags of Arthur's Seat, and Olson took the opportunity to walk around the park and admire the scenery. Wright, whose young child and husband joined her in Edinburgh half-way through the run, went to the castle with her family.
Though the company was in Edinburgh for just under a week, a majority of the dancers chose to extend their European trip. When performances at the Festival ended, Olson left for Germany to spend time with his brother, while Wright and her family headed north to explore more of Scotland. For all, the week in Edinburgh made quite an impression - and the both the company and audiences were left with many wonderful memories.
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