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Ballet Sun Valley
Isabella Boylston and Cory Stearns in rehearsal at Ballet Sun Valley. Photograph by Karolina Kuras

Stars in Sun Valley

Ballet Sun Valley Festival directed by Isabella Boylston

Sun Valley, ski-resort and playground for the rich and famous, is nestled by the picturesque Sawtooth mountains, Idaho. The (Western) history of Sun Valley begins in 1936 when Union Pacific Railroad chairman Averell Harriman decided to build America’s first destination ski-resort. Count Felix Schaffgotsch went in search of the perfect locale, and three days after his arrival in Sun Valley, he wired Harriman: “Among the many attractive spots I have visited, this combines the more delightful features of any place I have seen in the United States, Switzerland, or Austria for a winter ski resort.”

Less than a year later, the luxurious Sun Valley Lodge opened its doors, and celebrities flocked to America’s new grand dame of ski resorts. Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman were all guests of the lodge as they came to play in the glamorous winter wonderland. One guest in particular had as strong an impression on the area as it did on him: Ernest Hemingway fell in love with Sun Valley, and eventually made it his home. He finished For Whom the Bell Tolls in suite 206 of the Sun Valley Lodge, and his typewriter can be seen at the local history museum. His resting place in the Sun Valley cemetery is adorned with bottles, pennies and pens.

Sun Valley continues to draw the über-elite. As the billionaires and moguls were flying out from their annual retreat, the ballet set were flying in—at least, some of us were. Hailey airport, a runway nested in the clouds, is subject to capricious weather, and alas, my flight was cancelled and I missed opening night. I arrived the following day in time for Wednesday night’s programme.

The festival’s artistic director and American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Isabella Boylston was born and raised in Sun Valley, and Ballet Sun Valley is akin to a homecoming. On Wednesday night, Boylston was received on stage with warmth and praise as dancer, artistic director and entrepreneur. Now in its second year, the ballet festival forms part of a rich cultural scene that has bloomed in Sun Valley in part due to the building of the Sun Valley Pavilion in 2006, an open air auditorium with a spectacular view of the mountain scenery. The Summer Symphony series, under the direction of Alasdair Neale, is the largest privately funded free-admission symphony in America. Now, the world’s ballet stars descend for a two-night gala offering of dance.

Misty Copeland
Misty Copeland in rehearsal for “The Dying Swan.” Photograph by Karolina Kuras

In the morning, with a few cottony clouds in an otherwise blue sky, the dancers take class on stage. The mood was exuberant, dancing to Britney and grand jeteing to Bonnie Tyler’s “I need a Hero.” Germain Louvet of Paris Opera Ballet was clearly charmed when he said, “it’s impossible to find a more beautiful environment; there’s not an ugly place to look,” and I think the feeling was unanimous. As the afternoon heated up, the dancers rehearsed the evening’s programme, making final adjustments with maestro Martin West of San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, working hard with his hand-selected musicians.

In the evening, Sun Valley residents and guests flocked to the pavilion, and its lawns overflowed with certain picnic panache. Each evening offered a different classical and neo-classical selection, mixed with contemporary creations. Boylston notes that she felt both “responsibility and joyfulness” in programming work by female choreographers, and this year the festival featured work by Gemma Bond, Pam Tanowitz and Danielle Rowe.

Cassandra Trenary and Aran Bell dance Kenneth MacMillan’s “Romeo & Juliet.” Photograph by Karolina Kuras

On Tuesday evening, Misty Copeland performed Fokine’s iconic “The Dying Swan;” Paris Opera Ballet Étoile Léonore Baulac and Germain Louvet danced Forsythe’s electric “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” and word has it that ABT dancers Cassandra Trenary and Aran Bell had the pavilion on its knees with the balcony pas de deux from MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Gemma Bond’s “Depuis le Jour,” programmed for fall at ABT, was danced by Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III, and Pam Tanowitz’s “Solo for Patricia” was reprised by former Miami City Ballet principal Patricia Delgado. Boylston and fellow ABT principal Cory Stearns closed the evening with Jerome Robbins’ “Other Dances.”

Wednesday’s programme had a slightly more contemporary feel, opening with “Bier Halle” a flirty, musical piece of choreography by Ethan Stiefel, danced by Gillian Murphy and Aran Bell, the 19-year old wunderkind of ABT. Set to a suite of polkas by Johan Strauss II and Josef Strauss, Murphy and Bell made a fine alpine pair in dirndl and lederhosen. Murphy pinned a quadruple pirouette square on the beat, and Bell showed a mature style with generous beats, bringing warmth and personality to the part.

Nina Simone’s sonorous, trembling “Wild is the Wind” is admittedly not the most danceable song, but Danielle Rowe inventively weaves her mini-narrative “Pixie” through it, with some strong motifs. Danced superbly by San Francisco Ballet pair Dores André and Joseph Walsh, “Pixie” came together with enough emotional intensity and sharpness to do the High Priestess of Soul justice.

Antony Tudor’s bittersweet “The Leaves Are Fading” was danced by the handsome pair of Stella Abrera and Cory Stearns. Set to a movement from Dvořák’s string quartet “Cypresses,” “Here in the forest by a brook” the dance seemed fitting for the occasion, and was a highlight of the evening for me. In flowing autumnal dress, Abrera poetically described Tudor’s softly unfolding choreography, and Stearns provided just the right amount of gallantry. Even the arabesque turn-and-catch which had seemed so difficult in rehearsal came together without so much as a hint of effort; as organic as leaves falling from a tree, just so.

James Whiteside’s “Wallflower” took the tempo up a notch. Whiteside—what’s more than a triple threat?—principal dancer of ABT, famed Drag Queen, host of popular podcast “The Stage Rightside with James Whiteside,” also wrote the music as JbDubs. Dancing alongside Cassandra Trenary, with her performing hair, Whiteside’s “Wallflower” is no place for shrinking violets. Busting the club moves of your dreams, decked out in Converse, jean shorts and cropped white tees, Whiteside and Trenary left nothing on the stage. The tween beside me said it was her favourite piece.

After intermission came a trio of sweep-me-away gala fare including Boylston and Whiteside Christopher Wheeldon’s pas de deux from “After the Rain,” the bewitching Ida Praetorius of Dutch National Ballet paired with Stearns for the earth-shattering bedroom pas de deux from “Manon,” which was danced anything but safe. Stearns gave her a serious kiss, and they were up and away from there … but it was George Balanchine’s “Sonatine,” danced by Paris Opera Ballet’s Baulac and Louvet, that remains in my mind. Louvet, with long, graceful lines, was on the enthusiastic side, whereas Baulac was pure radiance in her execution of this jewel, originally created to capture the elegance of the French-born dancers, Violette Verdy and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux in 1975. Magnifique.

Rebounding to the present, we were treated to Justin Peck’s 2012 ballet, “In Creases” as finale. Patricia Delgado staged the piece, and although more challenging to rehearse due to the schedules of eight dancers from around the world, the ensemble piece anchored the festival. Set to movements of Philip Glass’ Four Movements for Two Pianos, a note must go to the onstage piano soloists, Brenda Vahur and maestro Martin West himself, who played as the first stars appeared over the hills, and people went wild for the ballet in Sun Valley.