10 April, 2010
Hayes Christensen Theatre, Marriott Center for Dance, University of Utah
by Dean Speer
I had never seen the student performing company of the Ballet Department at the University of Utah, but had long heard of its excellent reputation and was excited to finally get to be able to see them first-hand myself on a recent visit. I was not disappointed.
Each of the shows over the course of their two-week run was dedicated to retiring professor of dance, Conrad Ludlow, after 25 years on the faculty.
Four ballets were presented: one by Ballet West’s Bruce Caldwell titled “Thru the Leaded Glass;” one by faculty member Sharee Lane, her “Remembrance;” a commissioned piece by Stevan Novakovich – “Makeshift Dances;” and two stagings by former Ballet West Principal Dancer, Maggie Wright Tesch – the Grand Pas de deux and Pas de trois from “Sleeping Beauty.”
Caldwell’s choreography indeed took us through a glass window that gave us a glimpse into a group of village women dancing as a group, then breaking up into smaller ones, including one soulful solo – all based on Renaissance dance forms such as the Pavan.
He clearly took advantage of the many strengths of the dancers, deploying medium allegro, big movement, and some petit allegro.
Novakovich’s was the most contemporary in motif, style, execution, and approach. Two men and two women who seemed to be isolated from each other yet intermixed, particularly when all four were in chairs facing the audience. It opened with the two men making shapes on the floor, dancing with each other, then the two women entering. A “chair” piece, Novakovich made excellent use of his student dancers’ considerable talents and training, including off-centered partnering and unusual shapings.
It’s clear he knows compositional tools and elements. I was impressed.
My only suggestion for improvement would be for him to vary the overall pacing a bit more and to get away from the [natural] tendency to have new phrases start on count one. Choreography, as in music, is strengthened by beginning on other beats. Beginning on one tends to become predictable and can dull an otherwise lively work.
“Makeshift Dances”deployed a good fusion of the students’ ballet skills, and had the joy of being a world premiere piece made especially for them. This was an opportunity for a talented departmental alumus to come back and create.
Lane commissioned a sound score, mixed with the music of John Williams, based on the life story of Abe Katz, a Jewish man who survived the Nazi concentration camps of WWII whose difficult and sad story of hardship survival was recorded and then used as a part of the sound score the audience heard.
After Katz had told sections of his story, the dancers re-interpreted that section for us visually. Lane probably could have given us darker, edgier dances but rounded the corners of tragic material, making the work perhaps more palatable for a general audience yet not pulling back from its root cause.
“The Sleeping Beauty” presents a standard of one type for dancers to aspire to – technically and artistically of its period. For the Grand Pas de deux, Kimberly Ballard and Matthew Helms more than rose to the occasion. It was clear they had received the kind of excellent care and coaching from Tesch that artists welcome. By this I mean coaching in style, approach (what to think, feel, anticipate in each phrase or section), and overall interpretation.
My only suggestion to Helms – who is one of those lucky dancers who is blessed with very long legs, is to lengthen that line even more . During his solo, when he make a lunge on his right leg, left back on tendu he could have extended his line between his waist, hip and top of the knee a bit more. Lastly, on his double tours en l’air he needs to be sure to keep his left knee open during the preparatory plié. Right before he took off, it pulled around to the right, rather than continuing to push in opposition to the left; it turned in. Even so, the tour itself was rapid, quick to position and landed and stuck in a good, solid fifth position. The envy of many male students who struggle with tours.
Both had the right mix of technique and stamina and her opening with the developpé front set the elegant tone for this famous work.
The Pas de trois, historically remade early by Nijinska (most versions used) and others, was another showcase for the dancers – Morgan Butler, Rachel Singletary, and Dane Arbogast .
Founded by Willam Christensen more than half a century ago, the ballet department at the University of Utah – and its many opportunities for its students – is one of this country’s treasures, second in many peoples’ minds only to Juilliard. I was thrilled to be able to enjoy an evening that showcased Salt Lake’s many talents in a setting dedicated to “Mr. C” and to his modern dance department colleague, Elizabeth “Betty” Hayes.