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Collective Forward Motion

As Ballet West celebrates its 60th anniversary, it is clearly on an upward trajectory. The company is consistently filling seats, tackling more ambitious work, and the company’s first triple bill of the season was no exception. Featuring company founder Willam Christensen’s “The Firebird,” George Balanchine’s “Stars & Stripes,” and the world premiere of former Ballet West demi-soloist Joshua Whitehead’s “Fever Dream,”the program brought in an impressive crowd, and put stellar technique and captivating artistry front and center.

Performance

Ballet West: Willam Christensen’s “The Firebird,” George Balanchine’s “Stars & Stripes,” Joshua Whitehead’s “Fever Dream”

Place

Capitol Theatre, Salt Lake City, UT, November 3, 2023

Words

Sophie Bress

Katlyn Addison in “The Firebird.” Photograph by Beau Pearson

Throughout the evening, magnetic performances by the corps elevated each ballet, building a foundation on which one or two outstanding featured dancers could dynamically emerge. In the first ballet of the evening, Christensen’s “The Firebird,” principal dancer Katlyn Addison was this artist. 

“The Firebird” tells the story of Prince Ivan Tsarevich (Hadriel Diniz), who discovers a beautiful creature, the Firebird (Addison), while trespassing in the garden of the evil King Kostchei (Dominic Ballard). In Ballet West’s production, Addison’s Firebird, bolstered by a corps of dancing princesses and Kostchei’s grotesque minions, reigned supreme. Her fast, fluttering bourrées were complemented by a powerful, wing-like port de bras, imbuing her with the formidable and beautiful aura of the titular character. When she entered, answering Ivan’s call for help, it was wholly believable that she could make the entire stage freeze with the execution of a commanding sous-sus. In this moment, it was not the virtuosity of the step—which is one that is practiced by even the most fledgling of ballet dancers—but rather the way Addison executed the sous-sus, with an understated yet undeniable power, that spoke volumes.  

Although “Firebird” was the only narrative ballet of the evening, it was easy to get swept up in the quality of the dancing, letting the story become secondary. Addison and Diniz have a palpable onstage chemistry, with a natural, flowing way of partnering one another. And the corps formed shifting tessellations and patterns on the stage, making visual delectation the focus. 

Katlyn Addison and Hadriel Diniz in “The Firebird.” Photograph by Beau Pearson

The evening switched gears with “Fever Dream,” a world premiere from former Ballet West demi-soloist Joshua Whitehead. But in this work, too, the corps was cleverly organized in unison and canon to allow individual talents—such as Tatiana Stevensen, who danced a featured role—to surface and then meld back with the collective. 

“Fever Dream” is an emotionally rich work, that perhaps asks the viewer to draw their own conclusions. As the stage erupted in staccato, twitching gestures, feelings of anxiety and running out of time came to the forefront, especially with a recurring motif that resembled counting on one’s fingers. The piece also featured a great deal of smooth partnering and languid, sumptuous extensions, bringing about contrasting feelings of calm, ease, and yearning. The backdrop became a sort of mood ring for the work, changing colors as the movement dynamics, musical cadences, and subsequent emotions shifted. 

Whitehead brings a dancer’s eye to choreography, creating organic, flowing phrases that almost looked improvised, with dancers responding and adjusting to their partners thoughtfully, but without hesitation. The piece, set to an original composition by Whitehead, was also deeply musical. Each step perfectly melded with the score, sound and body becoming one.

Ballet West in “Fever Dream” by Joshua Whitehead. Photograph by Beau Pearson

The triple-bill ended with “Stars & Stripes,” Balanchine’s acclaimed balletic ode to America. It’s clear why “Stars & Stripes” remains a crowd-pleaser, filled with virtuosity, overzealous smiles, set to a series of upbeat marches by John Philip Sousa. After “Fever Dream,” though, the work felt a bit campy, with story and substance taking a backseat to showmanship. This, however, did not detract from the joy of watching and appreciating the athleticism of the dancers and delighting in the humor offered by their exuberance and enthusiasm. In dance, there’s always a place for lightheartedness.

The corps, once again, buoyed the work, with the male dancers in the third campaign emerging as standouts. Led by principal dancer Tyler Gum, the cast of 12 additional danseurs commanded the stage with perfectly unified jumps and a stunning manège sequence. The female corps, which (like the male ensemble) pulled from Ballet West II to fill out the large cast, made the stage bright with vibrant colors and sky-high kicks— and the audience approved.

Ballet West in George Balanchine's “Stars and Stripes.” Photograph by Beau Pearson

The evening was designed to be a reflection on the company’s past and a display of its present. “The Firebird,” a ballet classic in its own right, showcases the work of Christensen, who founded Ballet West in 1963. “Stars & Stripes” was featured in the company’s first public showcase, with Balanchine himself sending New York City Ballet principals Melissa Hayden and Jacques d’Amboise to Utah to perform the pas de deux. “Fever Dream” encapsulates a bit of the current moment, spotlighting the company’s artistic devotion to fostering new work and bringing new choreographic voices to Utah. 

Glimpses of the company’s future were apparent, too: a bustling theater for a triple bill and a contemporary new work, which encouraged devoted audiences to explore beyond the story ballet. And onstage, the presence of dancers of color in principal, soloist, and corps roles alike showed that the company’s diversity efforts move beyond the symbolic. It was also a joy to watch newly-promoted Ballet West II member Olivia Book, who is the only dancer in a US company with a limb difference, dance in the corps of “Stars & Stripes.” 

Sophie Bress


Sophie Bress is an arts and culture journalist based in Salt Lake City, Utah. In her writing, she focuses on placing the arts within our cultural conversations and recognizing art makers as essential elements of our societal framework. Sophie holds a Master’s degree from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She has been published in Dance Magazine, L.A. Dance Chronicle, The Argonaut, Festival Advisor, and more.

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