Ballet West’s annual mixed bill presents the work of neoclassical icon George Balanchine (Square Dance), Ballet West’s resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte (Almost Tango), and contemporary ballet pioneer William Forsythe (In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated). While the evening’s program is titled Almost Tango after Fonte’s newest Utah premiere, the choreography of Balanchine and Forsythe retain a timeless luster that outshines the new, many decades later.
While the ballet premiered almost 60 years ago, Balanchine’s Square Dance continues to challenge the technically supercharged dancers of present-day with its swift, demanding choreography. Ballet West chose to reinstate the caller, of American Contra dancing tradition, though the ballet has been performed without a caller since the 1970s. The role of the caller is taken on by artistic director Adam Sklute, who puts his own delightful and whimsical spin on this movement-centric ballet. Aside from evoking giggles from an otherwise serious audience, Sklute’s clever rhymes and references, often calling out the dancers by name, add an accessible window into the onstage world. As Sklute calls out “Here comes Rex [Tilton] to dance with Katherine [Lawrence],” the dancers are introduced as humans, rather than anonymous moving objects on the stage. Sklute’s rhymes about cowhides and his onomatopoeia-like descriptions of steps give the dancers a true reason to sustain smiles through Balanchine’s quick petite allegros and fast pirouettes. As Sklute chants to the dancers, “the more you dance, the better you feel”, they all appear to have taken this line to heart. A slow, brooding solo midway through the ballet danced by Rex Tilton provides a palate cleanser between upbeat sections. The solo is a refreshing take on the usual showy male bravura, coupling emotional expression with physical prowess.
Fonte’s Almost Tango, while a company premiere for Ballet West and the program’s namesake, provides some disappointment. The ballet opens with an all-male tableau. As they begin to move, soft yet strong arms and torsos and male-on-male partnering exhibit often underexplored possibilities for male ballet dancers. Adrian Fry stands out amongst the men of the ballet; his lusciously extensive yet grounded limbs possess an innate musicality, and he successfully melds softer, more effeminate nuances into moments of strong, sweeping virtuoso. Alex MacFarlan also shows an ability to perform on a qualitative spectrum, as his duet with Jordan Veit toggles between support and surrender. While the all-male sections of Almost Tango feel like new ideas, the introductions of female soloists throughout the ballet are typical and uninteresting. Clad in low-backed leotards with chokers, the women are hoisted around by the men, flex their pointe-shoe clad feet a few too many times, and generally feel like a tired trope sprinkled into a new all-male ballet with potential unto itself. Fonte’s intricate partnering work can often appear dangerous, and that is exciting; however, the use of women in this ballet feels merely like a choreographic obligation to show off favored female soloists.
The ordering of the evening’s triple bill proves to be a relief, and the program ends on a high note with Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. The company appears more sure-footed than ever in this 1987 ballet. The dancers of In the Middle exude a newfound contemporary confidence and pelvic mobility that exhales to allow visceral engagement with the choreography. Perhaps it is the crashing, pulsing Thom Willems score that drives the dancers to this new place, perhaps it is the invigorating sensation of performing one of the single-most renowned contemporary ballets; perhaps, both. Regardless, the dancers reach an emboldened climax through a sense of urgency in this ballet that Ballet West does not always achieve in its contemporary explorations. Forsythe’s subverted balletic forms accelerate into attack mode and indulge in the extreme positions of the extremities; simple green leotards and sheer black tights emphasize the sinews and contours of the dancers’ bodies. It is this brazen fascination with the potential of the body’s mechanics that allows Forsythe’s ballet, which is not so new these days, to feel fresher and more audacious than, say, Fonte’s Almost Tango.
The program, overall, is one that Ballet West excels in, perhaps more than in mixed bills of the past. However, it is disheartening when ballets of past eras exhibit more modernity and innovation than ballets of the present. Balanchine’s Square Dance, from 1957, provides the audience with a still-unconventional light-hearted and human window into the lives of the dancers onstage. Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated, from 1987, continues to push modern ballet dancers to the limits of their physical beings, despite an increase in athleticism of the dancer’s body between then and now. But Fonte’s Almost Tango, originally staged in 2002, seems to only glance along the surface of contemporary ballet tropes explored in the period of time between Balanchine and the present day. A future investigation of this all-male scenario introduced in Almost Tango could be an opportunity for deeper exploration of dancers’ roles and purposes in the landscape of the contemporary ballet. And as exhibited by this program, the dancers of Ballet West are ready to tackle any contemporary challenge the future may present.