Ballet West
Capitol Theatre
Salt Lake City, UT

November 3 and 4, 2023
Firebird, Fever Dream (world premiere), Stars and Stripes

Dean Speer

I’d long heard that Willam Christensen (aka, “Mr. C”) had been a terrific choreographer — beyond his charming and delightful, and first full-length American production of Nutcracker — and went to Salt Lake City to see this for myself with the showing of Ballet West’s revival of Mr. C’s Firebird in early November. Staged by Bruce Caldwell, it follows the programmatic Stravinsky score well and, having known Mr. C myself somewhat, both by reputation and in-person (as a teacher), I knew it would also be very and marvelously theatrical, and so it was.

Great effects — such as statuary that come to life after they are freed from the evil Kostchei’s curse — and costumes, perfect for each character. Long, lovely gowns for the Tsarevna and her attendant princesses, and animals for Kostchei’s monsters:  apes, praying mantises, wild wolves, and then spectacular Russian-style period work for the rousing wedding scene finale. Everyone gasped and loved the moment when Ivan (our hero) breaks open the egg that holds Kostchei’s soul and a spark flash goes off. Great fun. I also note the use of the ape goons holding torches that are actually lit, and am happy this is allowed in today’s overly-fearful liability atmosphere.

Ballet West in Willam Christensen’s “The Firebird”
Photo by Beau Pearson

There was also effective group choreography by Mr. C, such as the dance of the 12 princesses with their leader, the Tsarevna (Emily Adams on Friday and Kazlyn Nielsen on Saturday). Ditto his work for the monsters, each getting to show off his double tours en l’air and other strong “male” movements and steps.

Kazlyn Nielsen, Jordan Veit, and Ballet West
in Willam Christensen’s “Firebird’
Photo by Beau Pearson

Katlyn Addison (Friday’s show) received a hearty round of applause upon her running and grand jeté, relevé into a held arabesque entrance. I liked both the bird-like choreography, with sharp, short small movements and how Addison used her eyes to convey being a fowl but also how she interpreted her distress at being caught by Prince Ivan and her gratitude for being released — giving him a magic feather that later saved him from Kostchei and his minions as Ivan summons the Firebird back and her magic, deflecting the “double whammy” and showing where to find and literally break the evil spell.

Amy Potter and Jordan Veit in Willam Christensen’s “Firebird”
Photo by Beau Pearson

Similarly, I also enjoyed Saturday’s cast of Amy Potter as the titular Firebird and Jordan Veit as Ivan. I note that Potter also received a well-deserved clap for her magical entrance as well.

Ballet West in Willam Christensen’s “Firebird”
Photo by Beau Pearson

If you like seeing evil characters cackle and relish in their supposed powers, you would have greatly enjoyed both Dominic Ballard (Friday) and Tyler Gum (Saturday). The choreography calls for a good (and fun) dying scene which practically conjures up the visual of Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West lamenting after Dorothy accidentally tosses water on her — “I’m melting, I’m melting…” In fact, Saturday’s audience nearly guffawed as Gum really got into it.

Dominic Ballard and Ballet West
in Willam Christensen’s “Firebird”
Photo by Beau Pearson

The Ballet West Orchestra, under the baton of Jared Oaks, sounded superb and handled the lush Stravinsky score with aplomb.

Fever Dream received its world premiere, with both choreography and its musical composition by former Ballet West company member Joshua Whitehead. It’s a dance that uses a contemporary movement palette, infused with a ballet vocabulary. A group work, it also features a male duet, where the two men echo, mimic, and riff off of each other’s motifs. Featured were Hadriel Diniz and Jordan Veit on Friday and David Huffmire and William Lynch at the Saturday show. The duet was interesting, visually, and gave the men something meaty to sink their dancing chops into.

Ballet West in Joshua Whitehead’s “Fever Dream”
Photo by Beau Pearson

I enjoyed some of Fever Dreams‘s fresh movement motifs, such as having the group have their left arms up in unison with a beak-like shape of the hand, and accenting a backward movement of the trunk/torso, with the heads turned to stage left, over the shoulder. My only caveat is that I’m not a big fan of pointing, but fortunately Whitehead kept this to a minimum and deployed other uses of the hands and fingers (such as counting). This new work was a crowd-pleaser and should be kept around for subsequent viewings.

(l-r) Jordan Veit and Hadriel Diniz
in Joshua Whitehead’s “Fever Dream”
Photo by Beau Pearson

Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes is what I might call a “rouser” — effervescent, and perhaps his most patriotic ballet, set to the arranged marches of Sousa and that made its Ballet West debut in 1983, revived in 2010, and staged for this current revival by Balanchine Trust authorized stager, the inimitable Colleen Neary, whom I recall as a dazzling and sizzling hot dancer from her PNB days.

If I may be permitted to quote from the program, which encapsulates it very well:

This ballet, more than any other, symbolizes George Balanchine’s deep love and respect for America. He and Hershey Kay selected several of John Phillip Sousa’s marches and used them in working out what can only be described as a balletic parade…This is quintessential Balanchine — pure, elegant, challenging, classical ballet presented with lighthearted and fun-loving showmanship.

Emily Adams and Hadriel Diniz
in George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes”
Photo by Beau Pearson

“Showmanship” — truly a word that describes Mr. C. and a nice tribute to his vision for the ballet in the Valley.

Two “regiments” of women, followed by an impressive one of men, with an exciting display of 12 men and one soloist, the dozen at a midway point, making a circle ménage of coupé jeté. Very wow! Leads were Tyler Gum on Friday and, making his debut in the role, William Lynch on Saturday.

Ballet West in George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes”
Photo by Beau Pearson

I was excited that we were treated to one of Ballet West’s own effervescent ballerinas for the “Fourth Campaign,” its pas de deux, Jenna Rae Herrera, partnered by David Huffmire for the Friday show and Emily Adams and Hadriel Diniz for Saturday’s. Diniz’s balon and elevation during the traveling pas de chat jumps were extraordinary and breathtaking. These two casts really “got” the ballet and, while technically hard, nevertheless showed enjoyment and fun and the innate humor of the work.

In this case, the Ballet West Orchestra was under the baton of guest conductor, Gabriel Gordon, for the Saturday campaign and Oaks for Friday.

Jenna Rae Herrera and David Huffmire
in George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes”
Photo by Beau Pearson

The Company looked quite fine, the dancers were in shape, in the moment and thoroughly enjoying these ballets and their respective assignments. Ballet West is one of America’s treasures and one that I’ve long-admired, having been introduced to it by my deceased spouse, Francis Timlin, who was a U of U grad (music) and a big fan of all things Christensen, of ballet and the other very respected arts groups in the greater Salt Lake area, including its symphony and other dance companies, for which I’ll always be grateful.

The Artistic Director, Adam Sklute, curated a terrific program, one both of depth and entertainment, and one that really did pay homage to founding director and raconteur, Mr. C. Thank you!