There’s something about an outdoor venue that fills a performance with possibility, ease, and the right energy for change and open mindedness. Maybe it’s the open air—which pops the confines of the proscenium like a bubble—that creates a place where dance-goers can relax: stretching out on a blanket, feeling their toes in the grass and the sun on their skin.
Ballet West’s newly minted series at Salt Lake City’s Red Butte Garden, a triple bill featuring Juliano Nuñes’s “Orange,” Arthur Saint-Léon’s “La Vivandiere Pas de Six,” and Sophie Laplane’s “Galantheae,” mined these possibilities, boring a portal through time. The dancers showed us—in the form of Saint-Léon’s once lost choreography—where ballet comes from, and—through the two new works created for the company’s May 2022 Choreographic Festival—where it is now.
The September 9th performance opened with “Orange.” The work is certainly classical: the dancer’s movements are sweeping and elegant, with luscious, luxurious extensions abounding. “Orange” is splendid in how it carried me away to somewhere dreamier. It is exactly, in my mind, what audiences might picture when they think of ballet. At the same time, though, Nuñes brings something new to the table, layering in elements to his choreography that push the boundaries of the art form, while still existing within it.
In “Orange,” the costumes are all identical. Each member of the company, regardless of gender, wore a long, sleeved orange chiffon dress with a Peter Pan collar. As the dancers broke off from the opening section, which featured the full cast, into smaller groups of solos, pas de deux, and trios, they shared the music, choreography, and movement in a way that made them, at times, appear to be one being, living and breathing together.
Classical ballet is often described as ethereal, as ephemeral. While “Orange” certainly was these things, Nuñes’s take on these qualities is rooted in today’s world, deeply contrasting with its also ethereal and ephemeral forefathers: the Romantic-era ballets of the past.
“La Vivandiere Pas de Six” is the closest thing ballet has to a historical artifact. Debuted in 1844 in London, this segment from a since lost full-length work of the same name predates many of ballet’s classics, like “Swan Lake,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “The Nutcracker.” Reconstructed from the choreographer’s original dance notation by Ann Hutchinson Guest in the 1970s, it is regarded as one of the only existing works from the Romantic period.
The dancers in Ballet West’s iteration, all members of the second company, Ballet West II, tackled the work’s hallmark lightning-fast petit allegro with aplomb. Jonas Malinka-Thompson, who danced the work’s only male role, attacked his turns with classic bravura, and Kye Cooley’s bounding jumps—both feather light and powerful—showcased the unattainable dichotomies that make ballet so arresting and otherworldly.
This work, so similar to what we see onstage in the classics, yet so different compared to where we just emerged from in “Orange,” did feel like a glimpse into another world, or, at the very least, certainly another time. The upright orientation of the dancer’s spines, the adherence to classical lines, and the era-specific costumes, with the full, knee-length tulle skirt, traced, in movement, the lineage of the form.
“Galantheae,” the final ballet of the evening, brought us back to the present, and with that, into yet another world. The work, choreographed by Scottish Ballet resident choreographer Sophie Laplane, was named for a specific frost-resistant perennial flower, one that burrows deep into the earth each winter and re-emerges through the still-frozen ground. In addition to drawing from the life of the flower, the piece was also inspired by the Covid lockdowns—when the world went into its own hibernation—and dancer’s resilience and strength during this time.
“Galantheae” is a wild ride, leaving audiences grasping for the full story while it—until the end— manages to just barely slip away. Flower imagery is plentiful; audiences can literally see the green, white, and sometimes yellow-clad dancers emerging from the earth like saplings. Like in “Orange,” the dancers largely all began as one, embodying feeble new growth, but over the course of the work they grow in strength and character. The work—and the choreography—twist and turn, like vines unfurling, revealing new surprises around every corner.
But even with the storyline rooted in the flower itself, and with the knowledge of the way Laplane also drew from artist’s experiences during Covid, I couldn’t help but feel that there was something more to the work, some deeper, more elusive truth. For me, that truth did not reveal itself until curtain call.
In that moment, it became so clear what I’d been missing. Before my eyes, each dancer had transformed. They’d changed, not into something necessarily more beautiful, or even more real, just something different. Like flowers, like plants, like the earth, like people.
In that moment, though, as the dancers stood on stage together, I felt like I understood, I felt like they did, too. It was an honor to have witnessed these dancers transform—and to be able to continue to witness this art form’s ongoing transformation.