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Ballet West: An Evening of Ballets
by Karen Webb

A version of this article was first published in the Ogden Standard-Examiner as a preview of Ballet West's An Evening of Ballets season at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City (November 1-2, 6-9, 2002).

“Beyond Balanchine”, “Balanchine and then some”, and “Balanchine to the max” were a few ways William Forsythe's work was described when Ballet West acquired the choreographer's Artifact II a season ago. His regisseur for that work, Doug Becker, explained all about the new dance language 'Billy' was developing for his body of work.

This time out, the Forsythe saga continued with a smaller work, one developed for the Paris Opera Ballet in about 1978, when Forsythe was climbing the learning curve of creating this new language. The curiously-named In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated joins reprised Afternoon of a Faun, the company's first Jerome Robbins acquisition, and Birgit Cullberg's Miss Julie, whose multiple casts, new ones all, wrung all the richness that can be wrung from Strindberg's look at morals and the roles we play in life. The entire bill, the only repertory evening the company planned for the season, opened at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City on November 1.

Rehearsing the Forsythe acquisition had been two ballet mistresses, Kathryn Bennetts of Forsythe's Ballett Frankfurt and Ballet West's home grown Pamela Robinson. “I know if I had still been dancing when the company acquired this piece,” said Robinson, “my reaction at the thought of dancing it would have been 'I'm not worthy, I'm not worthy!'” She mugged à la Wayne and Garth. “It was choreographed on members of the Paris Opera Ballet, some of the greatest dancers in the world at that time.”

Bennetts had set the piece on the company several months ago. Robinson's job had been to keep it in fighting trim till Bennetts and eventually Forsythe return. “Although it's a small cast there are just nine people in each of the two casts it's packed with difficult dancing. A ballerina, for instance, will pose with her foot on pointe but arched way over on a leg placed far from her center; from that, she'll have to spring into a pirouette onto the foot that's already overarched. “Add to that that a lot of the choreography is improvisational in nature, and you have a piece that will look different cast to cast and night to night.” She laughed about what it took to pull together the improvisational sections. “You know, ballet dancers don't grow up with the thought that they will ever have any input into choreography. We're so used to being told what to do! I really enjoyed watching Kathy [Bennetts] work with the dancers: she would tell them to release their inner child, to let their inner child come out and play!”

“Actually,” said Bennetts, “since this is an earlier work of Billy's, you'd be surprised how much less improvisation there is in this compared to some of the others! But yes, it is a challenge for classically trained dancers to get into this style of movement: it's been instilled into you that as a classical dancer, you're going to do exactly as you're told. I think I hit on the inner child coming out and playing as I mulled this problem over and saw that children are not afraid to make mistakes. So I foster a child-like approach to the improv: kids are OK with lousing up. If it doesn't work one way, they'll find another. They're not afraid to try.”

Bennetts, one of a long line of choreographers and repetiteurs in the past few seasons who have commented how hard it is to cast a piece in the time one is really allotted, commented that that child-like approach the sense that a dancer wasn't afraid to throw himself into a part, get it wrong, and try again was a factor in casting this piece. “I was less looking for a single body type,” she commented, “than for the way they worked, how easily they caught the timing of the rhythmic track, and how they approached the new. At home, when we want to bring in a new dancer, many are freaked out at first by this approach that includes improv, then they're fine. Really, most have this inner child thing instinctively; if it's lost, they just have to find it again!”

As ballet mistress for Ballett Frankfurt, Bennetts was in a unique position to describe the workings of the distinguished company. Doug Becker, who set Artifact II alluded to the entire new vocabulary of dance Forsythe had created. Bennetts elaborated: “It's like a new alphabet, a way of being able to click in quickly to what Billy wants. He'll use images from electronics, For instance, if he says, 'Video scratch,' he wants us to rewind the sequence we just did in slow motion. 'Point, point, line,' means a line drawn between two given points. His dancers catch on quickly. Billy does have an almost architectural approach to choreographing. He wants to see visual effect from space.” When she seems at a loss over how to describe this phenomena, I venture the one simile that comes to mind: “Floor patterns, like the ones Balanchine was so famous for?” And yes, she agreed, that's it exactly.

“Billy,” Robinson observed, “is a lot about going to the max.” She demonstrated, still in her chair, as if she was one half of a Forsythe diad: her own arms extended at maximum, her position in the chair suggesting the boys' arms are also well-extended and that this extension results not in simple, demure balance around a middle point but dynamic, even kinetic balance about a point that may have little to do with traditional physics. Her hand-written notes offered further mute testimony to the complexity of the piece: in a set of four measures of four counts each, a body is in motion on a different set of counts in each measure. Yet in between the hazardous duty moves and mind-twisting counts are movements of lyrical beauty. “And that sort of classical quality is still there. When Billy took over in '86-'87, they were still doing the Swan Lakes. And really even now, we could pull together one cast of Swan, maybe even two!”

During our “across-the-pond” interview, Bennetts had sad news to impart about the performing arts scene. “Of course, we've always been third as an art behind opera and theatrical drama in this country, but who ever thought the money for the performing arts would just run out? It's like waking up one day in England to find no Royal Ballet or English National Ballet. We've been state-supported so long [supported, not dictated to, Becker was quick to point out last year] I don't think we saw the implications of having the Berlin Wall come down. But when it did, because Berlin was divided and kept arts for both East and West Germans there accessible, suddenly here was a full city that had what? Three entire ballet companies, opera ballets, the operas themselves, and so on. Of course, we're down the road in Frankfurt, but if the government is simply running out of funds, they'll get to us. They have gotten to us, we will close our doors in 2004. Whether that means Billy will just guest as a choreographer – really, we spoiled him as a company; we were stable and really understood what he wanted – or will try to reorganize another company, I don't as yet know. There's the possibility of private funding, you know, but so often the people with the money are older individuals who only want to see Nutcracker.”

Also on the bill were the torrid, dramatic Miss Julie, Birgit Cullberg's take on August Strindberg's novella of the same name (in fact it should be required reading, at least for schools) Although there is a peasant corps, the action takes place amongst Julie, the wealthy but naive daughter of a count, her father's manservant Jean, and Jean's proper lady friend Kristin. At press time, last year's duos had been shaken up a bit. This year the Julie/Jean duos were Maggie Wright with Seth Olson; Kristin Hakala with Tong Wang, and newcomer Viktorija Jansone with Christopher Ruud. Richard Philp of Dance Magazine reprised his Olympic comments for Afternoon of a Faun. Olson and Jessica Harston reprised their roles; alternating with them will be Hakala and Ruud.

Tidbit for those curious about the name of Forsythe's ballet: there was a drive to execute a plethora of set pieces, mainly in fruit designs, that would continue the French Regency style in which the Paris Opera was decorated at that time. Only two were ever completed, and they were hung centerstage, “in the middle, somewhat elevated.”

 

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Edited by Malcolm Tay.

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