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December in Utah

Imagine Ballet Theatre - 'Nutcracker'

Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company - 'Lost', 'Inky Deep', 'La Petite Rag', 'Hexentanz', 'Silken Tears', 'Spite'

Ballet West - 'Nutcracker', 'Red Angels', 'Coppelia: Wedding Pas de Deux', 'Swan Lake: Black Swan Pas de Deux'

by Karen Anne Webb

December 2008 -- Utah, USA

When I hear about a new Nutcracker by a local company, my usual reaction at this point is, “Oh, good, another Nutcracker.”  (That was sarcastic, in case the tone didn’t come across in print.)

Well, if all newborn Nutcrackers could be as fine in conception and execution as the one offered by Ogden’s youth ballet, Imagine Ballet Theatre, it would put an end to reactions of that type forever.  The production played at Peery’s Egyptian Theater in Ogden.

Artistic director Raymond Van Mason sets a very high standard generally when it comes to both production values and artistic fluency.  He certainly pushed his young dancers, but not past the point where they could embrace the challenge.

“This is hard stuff!” he had said in an earlier interview.  “But one fun thing about working with kids is that they don’t know it’s supposed to be hard, so they do it anyway.  There’s a sequence of piqué arabesques stepping back into soutenu that I made for the Snow Queen.  There are ballerinas I knew at Ballet West who would have said, ‘Forget it!  It’s too hard.’  But my Snow Queen Tessa Whiting just says OK and does it.”

Mason’s approach is one I wish more companies would use (New Jersey Ballet is the only other company I’ve seen use it).  His Clara is neither a child nor an adult ballerina going on a psychosexual excursion.  She’s a teen dipping her pointe-shoe-clad toe into the waters of a coming of age story.  She retains the eyes-of-youth perspective first popularized by the Christensen Brothers in San Francisco and Salt Lake City (yes, their productions pre-date Balanchine’s), yet she is up to the challenge of complex pointe work and partnering.

His two Claras, Sarah Guyon and Jennifer Jackson, are very different dancers.  Guyon has feet and a back to die for and a lovely lilting quality.  Jackson is a powerhouse of energy and strength.  There’s a video of the 1959 eruption of Kilauea on YouTube in which lava goes in an instant from gentle bubbling to geysering 1000 feet in the air.  That’s what her grand jetés look like.

Clara and the Prince (guest Troy Sorensen) are given both double and triple work, so they do pas de trois with both the Snow Queen and the Sugar Plum Fairy (guest Christie Freebairn-Perry).  But the dances keep their melodic line and show none of the intrusive feeling of, say, Baryshnikov’s “grand pas de trois” in which the Prince and Drosselmeyer are both trying to cart the ballerina in a different direction.  Sorensen is a wonderful partner for a young ballerina to have.  Like Jackson, he is an explosive jumper; his manèges are wonderfully buoyant, and he doesn’t begin to lean into his radius of turn as many do around the fourth chassé coupé jeté.

Although the company of about 35 was supplemented by another 40 or so children and adults from the community, nothing was watered down.  Mason uses his dancers’ strengths very well.  Given that any enterprise like this draws more competent female than male dancers, the second-act variations were somewhat more estrogen-driven than they are in many productions.  But they worked!  The eight-person Russian included only one boy and was very folk-oriented, but it proved to be one of the ballet’s big show-stoppers.

The Snow and Waltz of the Flowers corps (despite Whiting’s brilliant attack and technical wizardry as the Snow Queen) served as self-contained stars.  Indeed, Mason was giving his dancers a taste of what life in the majors is like, when corps members might realistically dance Snow, Waltz, and a variation in one performance.  Many of these ladies were performing on pointe for the first time, and the choreography was not first-time-out fare.  The ballerinas all proved themselves up to the challenge, the only exception being an occasional laxity of the feet when they were not on pointe.

Other notables included Galen Chatterton as a more manically gleeful Drosselmeyer than one often sees.  The trio of McCall Bowden, Alyssa Alger, and Lonica Jacobson and Aubrie Smalley as the first act dolls (Toy Drummer, Doll, and a Jack-in-the-Box, an unusual and fun take on this music) were delightful: Bowden has extraordinary natural ballon (get this girl into a Bournonville program!), Jacobsen and Smalley have extraordinary gymnastic skills, and Alger — well, she just looks like a ballerina.

Meanwhile, on the modern dance front, the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company took over the Black Box Theatre in the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.  The centerpiece of the program was associate artistic director Charlotte Boye-Christensen’s new “Lost,” intended as a collaboration with some local Hispanic youth who had exited the gang life.  While assorted difficulties (including an arrest and a deportation) changed the collaborative orientation to one of the piece being “informed by” the poetry and visual art of the youth, Boye-Christensen was still able to develop a powerful piece.  She described her vocabulary as being looser than is typical for her, in part so the dancers could keep going for the 12 minutes of the work, so I was expecting something like “Sue’s Leg.”

Nope.  Tension and dynamism still reigned supreme here.  It is, obviously, a dark piece.  The characters, such as they are, have not lived happy, touchy-feely lives.  While there was body contact, Boye-Christensen’s aesthetic had a way of suggesting that, while bodies were touching, nothing else was.  The dancers inhabited a world from which humanity had been withheld for so long that they had simply stopped looking for it.  The one thing that would have been an interesting addition was a readable version of some of the poetry, which flashed across the backdrop so quickly it only gave tantalizing glimpses.

Also full of angst was a reprise of Douglas Nielsen’s 1991 “Inky Deep.”  I think I would have gotten that this piece was about coming to terms with death even if I hadn’t known beforehand.  The vocabulary was fluid, almost balletic in places — an interesting contrast to the overall dramatic tension.  Yet the final tableau with a dancer exiting on the ladder, the piece’s one prop, borne aloft by the ensemble, going essentially into the unknown, had a poignancy and a sense of resolution that brought tears to my eyes.

The other premiere on the bill, Joan Woodbury’s “La Petite ‘Rag’” was about as opposed in orientation to “Lost” and “Inky Deep” as one could get.  Showing her Nikolais roots, Woodbury came up with a piece that blended the abstract costuming and whimsy of a group like Mummenschanz with modern dance.  I’d like to say that the costume made dancer Erin Brown look like nothing so much as a technicolor lhasa apso, but that doesn’t communicate the finesse, the cleanliness and economy of movement with which she turned this conglomeration of dangly bits into discrete shapes.  Heck, the piece was just plain fun.

Also on the bill was a reconstruction of Mary Wigman’s “Hexentanz,” performed by Elizabeth Kelley with live accompaniment by Mason Aeshbacher: the work has a tribal feel, more shamanistic than witch-y, and even the hands and feet posture.  Shirley Ririe’s “Silken Tears” captures the essence of a culture taken over by oppression; dancer Ai Fujii Nelson gives the impression of being a beautiful bird whose wings are being tragically clipped.  And Joe Goode’s wickedly funny “Spite,” while feeling like it could have used one more section, is still such a sly look at our obsession with beauty and when good love goes bad that it remains a welcome addition to any bill.

Over at the Capitol Theatre, Ballet West did both its annual outing with “The Nutcracker” and a special rep bill for its supporters.  The blow-you-away piece for the rep bill was the company’s first presentation of Ulysses Dove’s “Red Angels.”  Dove’s is a felicitous union of ballet and modern dance aesthetics reminiscent of some of the William Forsythe work the company has presented.  Recognizable ballet vocabulary, ladies on pointe, but also a very modern dance dynamic.  Long balances in second on quarter-pointe, hips off-center and turned in, arms that are angular and articulated, jumps that just explode out of nowhere, an almost relentless pressure carried by both the music and the steps.

Hua Zhuang, whom I think of as more of a classical technician, looked great in this choreography, as did Kate Crews and Christopher Ruud, both of whom turn everything they touch to gold.  The real surprise, though, was relative newcomer Jacqueline Straughan, who wore the choreography like a second skin.  All four embraced the quirky choreography and danced it divinely, but with Straughan, there was a sense that this was less dance steps she was doing and more a language she had been raised speaking.  This was a career-making performance, and I hope the artistic staff took note of it.

              Also a treat was Jason Chinea partnering Katherine Lawrence in the wedding pas de deux from Willam Christensen’s production of Coppelia.  The pas de deux itself is a pleasant old chestnut for pas de deux evenings no matter whose choreography is used.  What was fun about this is that Chinea has so often been cast in demi-charactère roles.  Granted, you can categorize Franz as this sort of role, but here Chinea showed off not only his great jump and perfectly centered turns, but his excellent partnering skills.  If the company needs one more youthful romantic lead, it need look no farther.

The classical showstopper, the Black Swan pas de deux, went to principal Christiana Bennett and soloist Michael Bearden.  Bennett is always a class act, of course.  Bearden partnered her the first time I saw her dance Sugar, and seeing the two of them together again, it is easy to see how his partnering skills have matured.

Nutcracker notes: while the company has done more tightly presented party scenes, there was some engaging new stage business, and the pace just accelerated from the battle scene onwards.  Standouts were Ballet West 2 member Christopher Sellars leading off a thrilling Russian, Chinea in a “you need an instant replay to see the mechanics of that jump” Chinese, Nathaniel King in the new version of Spanish (here’s another one who has such ballon you want to see him do Bournonville), Zhuang partnering Annie Breneman in the Waltz — oh, does this look like a partnership worth developing! — and newly-promoted Elizabeth McGrath with Ruud in Sugar.  McGrath, actually subbing for an injured Bennett, is everything you could ask for in a ballerina: womanly, secure on her turns, bright in her jumps, lyrical in her adagio work.  And — hooray! — new artistic director Adam Sklute reinterpolated the true crescendo of the grand adagio and the tag to the Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation, which have been missing in action for quite a few years.

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