Ballet West, from Salt Lake City, Utah, is accustomed to large audiences and opera house–sized venues, from the Kennedy Center, in Washington, D.C., to their hometown Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre, where they perform for most of the season. With that in mind, the prospects of the company performing in an intimate setting like the 472-seat Joyce Theater in Chelsea always seemed like something of a test. At Wednesday’s opening night, under the direction of Adam Sklute, Ballet West passed the exam with high marks, owing both to its attention to detail and to the emotional outpouring generated by the program (which continues through Saturday).
The evening began with Dances for Lou, which Val Caniparoli choreographed in celebration of the centennial of composer Lou Harrison’s birth. A black backdrop and exposed white stage lights hung over a cast of sixteen dancers, whose movements augmented the minimalist sound of the pipa, a four-stringed Chinese instrument. The male dancers wore shades of nude-colored tights, undulating exposed chests at one moment and stomping with hunched backs the next. The females dressed in leotards and skirts of the same hue, rolling their shoulders and hips before executing a perfectly classical arabesque. Most notably, Lucas Horns and Jordan Veit performed a sensual duet, supporting each other’s weight and waving their bodies in symmetry toward each other. (The sight of the pair arching their backs together and sharing passionate glances brought to mind a recent New York Times article in which Gia Kourlas commented on ballet’s lack of same-sex partnering.)
The program continued with two contrasting pas de deux. Arolyn Williams and Christopher Ruud performed Ruth, Ricordi per Due, the elegiac final work choreographed by Gerald Arpino. This was not the only item on offer showcasing Williams’s mature artistry, but it was especially memorable — her ability to portray an apparition was as haunting as the famous, accompanying Albinoni score. Following this dark and somber duet was George Balanchine’s light and brisk Chaconne (staged by Merrill Ashley), during which the breathtaking technical ability and expressive nature of principal dancer Emily Adams was highlighted. Partnered by Adrian Fry, Adams displayed a most regal grandeur and confidence in the seminal piece.
Audience members were also treated to a special Joyce preview of Sweet and Bitter (conceived by Africa Guzmán; music by Ezio Bosso), which is set to world-premiere at Ballet West’s National Choreographic Festival in May 2018. The dancers, wearing all white and set against a black backdrop, executed smooth transitions to looping violin and piano scores. Soloist Allison DeBona commanded the stage first, before melting into O’Connell; together, they executed a gasp-inducing partnered orbit where the airborne DeBona faced O’Connell, her hands on his waist, her legs bent and feet flexed. O’Connell held her just off the floor as he slowly pivoted in place, allowing her to revolve smoothly.
The night ended with Nicolo Fonte’s Fox on the Doorstep, with compositions by Ólafur Arnalds, Harry Escott, and Johan Johannsson. The piece began with a metronomic tick and a spotlight under which dancers moved in slow motion. Their gray, asymmetrical tunics and vests added to the cold, mysterious atmosphere. Snowlike particles fell at the end, and all the nonstop motion and virtuosic strength seemed to calm in the stillness of this final moment. A male dancer then reached his arms up, only to let them float down, slowly, one by one.