Amy Potter and Hadriel Diniz in “Return to a Strange Land” by Jiří Kylián. Photograph by Beau Pearson

Deeply Storied

Ballet West’s triple bill featuring Balanchine, Kylián, and de Mille

Ballet West in George Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco,” Jiří Kylián’s “Return to a Strange Land,” and Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo”
Capitol Theatre, Salt Lake City, UT, November 4, 2022
Sophie Bress

For me, watching dance has always been a haven, a cocoon of sorts, where I can settle in under dimmed lights and watch a moving meditation play out right before my eyes. In the darkest of times, it’s been an escape, a place where I can finally put my mile-a-minute thoughts to rest for a few hours. In the best of times, it’s been a mirror to the world, a place where I go for inspiration, one that always fills me with wonder and a new way of looking at life.

Ballet West’s most recent triple bill, which featured George Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco,” Jiří Kylián’s “Return to a Strange Land,” and Agnes de Mille’s “Rodeo,” brought about the full spectrum of these feelings, carrying me away in some moments, and in others, bringing me back to reality with a flood of ideas, thoughts, and questions.

Emily Adams and Olivia Gusti in “Concerto Barocco” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Beau Pearson

The evening opened with Balanchine’s “Concerto Barocco,” and with all the perfect symmetry, kaleidoscopic formations, and boundless, reaching movement that I’ve come to love from a Balanchine work. This piece, for me, was transportive, creating one of those gaps in space and time that was purely mindful: just me, the music, and the dancing.

Although Balanchine’s ballets are widely recognized as plotless, neoclassical works that favor form and musicality over character and narrative, Ballet West’s rendition was deeply storied. Each dancer brought a bit of themselves to the famous work, which—consequentially—was gifted to the company’s founder, William Christensen, in 1965 by Balanchine himself to help bolster the new troupe.

Ballet West in “Concerto Barocco” by George Balanchine. Photograph by Beau Pearson

Principal dancer Katlyn Addison, in particular, imbued her role with a distinct artistry, weaving out of the choreography a character who was strong, powerful, and—in typical Balanchine fashion—illusive. Though the choreographer himself never created a storyline for Addison’s part—or any of the parts in the ballet—it was apparent how deep into herself and into the movement Addison dug, excavating the lessons learned in her years with the company and bringing the audience members into her world.

“Concerto Barocco” was followed by Kylián’s “Return to a Strange Land,” a twisting, turning, wrenching work exploring grief, longing, and life after. In some moments, the work was almost agonizing in its desire, as the dancers reached and stretched for something that remained out of reach. In other moments, the synergy between the artists as they lifted one another, shared weight, and used each other’s physicality to achieve the impossible was not only bolstering of body, it was bolstering of spirit.

Amy Potter and Hadriel Diniz in “Return to a Strange Land” by Jiří Kylián. Photograph by Beau Pearson

Amongst the cast of “Return to a Strange Land”—a showcase of the supreme talent in Ballet West’s ranks—first soloist Chelsea Keefer stood out in the soulful way she channeled feeling into the impossibly acrobatic movements of Kylián’s choreography. Keefer’s artistry made the choreography feel like much more than just an awe-inspiring show of flexibility, strength, and lithe limbs. It became a true portal into the depths of the human soul.

“Return to a Strange Land” is a magical work, somehow anointed with the ability to conjure up memories along with movement. As I sat in the audience, enveloped in the safety of a hushed theater, I felt able to explore my own life’s losses and yearnings through the work, gathering up my own memories and scattering them across the stage like the leaves piled along the back curtain.

Ballet West in “Rodeo” by Agnes de Mille. Photograph by Beau Pearson

The evening ended with “Rodeo,” de Mille’s one-act story ballet that follows a cowgirl living on a ranch in the American Southwest as she searches for love.

The piece opens with the cowgirl (Jenna Rae Herrera), lovesick and lusting after the head wrangler (Brian Waldrep), who doesn’t show her much interest. Through a series of fun and spirited vignettes, the cowgirl watches from the sidelines as her love interest falls for the girly and feminine ranch owner’s daughter (Lillian Casscells), and the rest of the cowboys chase after the equally ladylike “Kansas City Girls” and “womenfolk.” When the cowgirl garners the attention of the goofy and flirty champion roper (Tyler Gum), at first she isn’t sure how to react, but soon the two begin to fall for each other. When the cowgirl retires her workwear for a yellow dress and hair ribbon, she joins the men and women in their dancing reveries—and even turns the head of the head wrangler, who surprises her with a kiss. Despite being the initial object of her desire, though, the cowgirl realizes after the kiss that the champion roper is the one she’s really meant to be with.

Victoria Vassos and Brian Waldrep in “Rodeo” by Agnes de Mille. Photograph by Beau Pearson

With the change from practical boots and pants to a flouncy skirt and bow, and the focus on finding love, “Rodeo” isn’t outwardly the picture of modern feminism. However, in 1942, when de Mille choreographed the piece, there wasn’t as much flexibility in what a ballet storyline could be. But, where there was room to bend the mold, de Mille surely did.

Firstly, de Mille was one of just a handful of female choreographers working at the time, making her a trailblazer by simply existing in that space. De Mille also sought to make ballet more accessible to a wider variety of audiences—an effort that is still very much ongoing in the industry today. She approached this by both changing up setting and character—take the Western ranch in “Rodeo,” as opposed to the ethereal and otherworldly spaces more commonly associated with ballet—and by infusing other styles of dance, like tap and folk dance, into the ballet-inspired choreography.

As Herrera danced the role of the cowgirl (a part de Mille herself originated) she paid homage to this history, and, although her character changed clothes and appearance, Herrera’s expert understanding of the part allowed her to avoid changing the way her character moved, empowering the boot-wearing, horse-riding cowgirl to continue to shine through.

“Rodeo” for me, was a flood of questions and realizations which, after the escape provided by Balanchine and the memories triggered by Kylián, rooted me back in the moment, albeit through a look at the past. As I considered notions of modern femininity alongside dance’s history, de Mille’s contributions, and Herrera’s portrayal, I was welcomed back to the present, just as I love to be after watching dance: full of thoughts and ideas. For me, dance is at its best as it was that evening: when it both removes me from reality and cements me firmly in it.