There was a pleasant pervasive hum throughout Ballet West in the Garden at Red Butte Garden Amphitheater last Friday evening. Not from the bees that earlier menaced the company’s onstage mark-through, but rather the audience sprawled across the lawn, emboldened in commentary and conversational asides by the open air. This performance venue provided the sight lines, sound, and lighting production of a theater experience, with the liberating addition of the free-form gathering of general seating, food and drink, and personal mobility familiar to musical concert-goers. There were more families with children present than typically attend a triple-bill mixed repertory evening; the many kids roaming and twirling around heightened the communal feeling.
This social/communal experience was reflected in the first work, Piece of My Heart by BW resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte. The piece was earlier set on Ballet West II in 2019 at a Beer and Ballet event and is well-suited to these more casual and explicitly fun performances. Piece of My Heart was high-energy and not overshadowed by the prominent and powerful delivery of the Janis Joplin songs to which it is set. The crowd was drawn into the evening by the dancers’ exuberance and sharp execution within the shifting ensemble formations. The seven-member cast circling up to foreground solo moments was a very familiar device for echoing social dance conventions. It did, however, showcase their true virtuosity, especially after such a protracted pause in regular training during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
In contrast to the individuated casual seventies attire of Piece of My Heart, soloist Chelsea Keefer’s entrance in the rich red costume of The Solo Year was instantly arresting. The modern fit bodysuits coupled with the elaborate patterned embellishment and wind-catching back-panel skirts captured the quality of this contemporary piece set to Baroque concertos. Keefer’s signature attack and sustain, especially in partnership with Jordan Veit, is well-matched to choreographer Matthew Neenan’s movement. This movement was characterized by a classically-inflected elegance interpolated by exaggerated gestures intended to jar and surprise, ranging from sensual to silly. Duets and quartets dominated the eight-person piece, each playing out fully before its structured ceding to the next. When they eventually arrived, the regal stature and bearing of Katlyn Addison and Emily Adams was thrilling. I’m eagerly awaiting Addison’s first full season as a principal dancer.
The evening was capped with excerpts of the classical Romantic ballet Paquita, choreographed by Elena Kunikova after Marius Petipa, first ballet master of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres. Which is to say — really, really classical. The piece began with corps lines of many mazurka steps, a kind of chugging brush, and heel-clicking cabrioles, and would continue in that exciting, but exacting vein. The dancing in this ballet really finishes, fully completing before the next step commences, which is challenging but technically rewarding to watch. The dancers of Ballet West carried it off remarkably, especially without a full dress rehearsal on the unfamiliar stage, and the presence of some unexpected flora and fauna. With its pancake tutus, neck and headpieces, and lace, and its traditional compositional elements of variation like grand pas classique and finale, Paquita felt like a subsequent context for the referents of The Solo Year. It was a nice complement to the anteceding works.
The sequencing of the pieces drew us deeper into a classical ballet experience, as the night deepened and our glasses emptied. With the night-blooming flowers fronting the stage, crescent moon overhead, and the susurrus of appreciative murmurs, Red Butte provided a comfy and human gathering place for taking in a performance on a less-smoky, rather lovely evening. I hope they repeat this program in future summers.
This article is published in collaboration with loveDANCEmore.org.
Nora Price is a Milwaukee native living and working in Salt Lake City. She can be seen performing with Municipal Ballet Co. and with Durian Durian, an art band that combines post-punk music and contemporary dance.