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Ballet West Comes to the Joyce

Published: 03/13/2015
By MARINA HARSS, The New York Times -- “We suffer physical pain and shocking injuries,” a female voice intones as images of calloused and bandaged toes flash across the screen. “There’s rivalry,” says a pretty brunette, “and relationships.” Cut to a glimpse of an anxious dancer biting her lip in the studio, followed by a couple gazing into each other’s eyes while locked in a balletic embrace. “Why do we do it?” the voice continues. “To have that one single moment onstage when everything comes together.” Then: “We do it,” pause, “to be perfect.”

So began the first episode of “Breaking Pointe,” the television reality show that depicted a heightened version of life behind the scenes at Ballet West in Salt Lake City. For two seasons, 2012-13, it delivered on its promise of drama beyond the footlights. Gallons of tears — of frustration, pain and heartbreak — were spilled.

“Breaking Pointe,” produced by BBC Worldwide and broadcast on the CW network to decent, if not spectacular, ratings, was the subject of much debate in the dance world. Was it an embarrassment or a crossover breakthrough for ballet? Did it put dancers in a bad light? Was there enough dancing? (Rehearsal and performance footage was delivered in snippets, out of context and set to poppy music.)

Despite the worries and righteous indignation at the company’s supposed lowbrow treatment of ballet, Ballet West seems to have emerged from the experience in fine shape and with an undeniably more prominent profile.

“I’m glad we did it,” Ballet West’s artistic director, Adam Sklute, said recently by phone. “We have a name recognition we never had before. In auditions, dancers say it looks like a great place to work. And the dancing that was shown made the company look good.” (It’s true, the dancers on the show looked strong and stylish.)

Though there is no definitive correlation, ticket sales in the last two years have risen by more than 20 percent, and Ballet West’s touring schedule is busier than ever. In December, the company’s run of its “Nutcracker” at the Kennedy Center sold out; Sarah Kaufman of The Washington Post described the leads, Beckanne Sisk and Christopher Ruud, as “one of the most appealing pairings of Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier in memory.” On March 25, the company of 40 comes to the Joyce for a five-night run, its first full New York season in more than 30 years.

Mr. Sklute took the reins in 2007 after 23 years at the Joffrey Ballet, first as a dancer and eventually as associate artistic director. Some had expected him to lead the Joffrey one day, but instead, he went to Salt Lake, a city of great natural beauty and strong community support for the arts. The handsome Capitol Theater, which the ballet shares with opera and theater companies, was built in 1913 as a vaudeville house, in the Venetian Renaissance style. Since January, the company and its school have occupied a new five-story building next door.

When Mr. Sklute arrived, he saw nothing but potential. Ballet West already had a distinguished history. The company was founded in 1963 by Willam Christensen, the oldest of three brothers who grew up in a Mormon family in Utah. The Christensens started their dancing careers on the vaudeville circuit and wound up leading and founding a series of ballet companies and schools in the West. One brother, Lew, was the first American to dance the lead role in Balanchine’s “Apollo.” Willam danced with the San Francisco Opera Ballet and, when the dance company became an independent entity as the San Francisco Ballet, became its director in 1942. Harold presided over the company school. Then, in 1951, Willam left to create a ballet program at the University of Utah, the seed that would one day lead to the founding of Ballet West.

For many years, the company specialized in the 19th-century repertory. In the 1980s, under the direction of the British dancer John Hart, it began to diversify, adding ballets by Frederick Ashton and John Cranko, as well as by Val Caniparoli, who served for a decade as choreographer-in-residence. Jonas Kage, a Swede, brought a more European flavor with ballets by William Forsythe and Hans van Manen. Mr. Sklute has gone further, adding 55 works in eight years, including ballets by Jiri Kylian, Ashton, Balanchine and Twyla Tharp, as well as rarities from the Ballets Russes back catalog.

Gradually, Mr. Sklute began to shape the company to his taste: “I won’t deny it, I like tall dancers,” he said. “Our average height for women is 5-foot-7, and we have men who are 6-5, 6-6.” This gives the company a distinctly elongated, commanding look. Mr. Sklute has also shown an eagerness to commission new works. “He’s pushing us to do things we didn’t know we could,” Allison DeBona, a company soloist who came across on the show as a bit of a drama queen, said recently via Skype.

The Joyce program underscores this hunger for the new. All four works being presented date from the last three years. All are danced on point, and all are by American choreographers: Helen Pickett, Nicolo Fonte (the company’s resident choreographer since 2012), Mr. Caniparoli and Matthew Neenan. They share a certain dramatic flair.

“The Sixth Beauty,” by Mr. Neenan, is an elusive dance-theater piece whose ghostly atmosphere suggests a painful memory. “The Lottery,” which Mr. Caniparoli based on the story by Shirley Jackson, is a straight-up narrative ballet, in the manner of Agnes de Mille. Mr. Fonte’s “Presto” is more self-consciously contemporary, with off-kilter partnering, florid arms and snazzy unisex costumes.

The newest work, “Games,” is a world premiere by Ms. Pickett, a riff on Nijinsky’s daring 1913 “Jeux,” a ballet that toyed with the idea of same-sex attraction. Mr. Sklute requested that the choreographer use the original score, by Debussy, and keep the idea of the threesome. “It’s a female couple that invites a guy into the mix,” Ms. Pickett said in a telephone interview.

The New York season did not come about because of “Breaking Pointe,” Linda Shelton, the Joyce’s executive director, emphasized in a recent phone interview. Rather, she had been impressed by the company’s appearances at City Center’s Fall for Dance festival in 2009 and 2012. Like many other people in the arts, she’s unsure of the long-term impact of forays into pop culture like reality TV. When companies experiment with mass-market entertainment, she said, “People come out of the woodwork” to see them, “but then do they come back” for more?

It’s a question every company is asking, including New York City Ballet, which recently collaborated with Sarah Jessica Parker on a web series, “city.ballet.” The series, which has had two seasons so far, is composed of short features covering issues like dancers’ injuries, their backgrounds, and training and rising through the ranks; the second season has been viewed 16 million times. The style is less hyped-up than that of “Breaking Pointe,” with fewer melodramatic flourishes, and more in line with City Ballet’s own marketing videos. (Ms. Parker, the executive producer, is on the company’s board.)

Ballet West’s brush with reality TV was more of a gamble. “Adam, from the get-go, understood that in order to bring ballet to the masses, a reality show like this was the best approach,” Izzie Pick Ashcroft, an executive producer of “Breaking Pointe,” said by phone. “He understood it, and he wasn’t scared.”