You can only call Ballet West's periodic visits to Washington D.C.'s hospitable Kennedy Center a reaping time.
The company comes out of the West, confident of its dancing but not entirely sure of its reception, having worked for so long in relative isolation from the artistic power brokers.But since it first performed there almost a decade ago, dancing "Swan Lake" and Harald Lander's "Etudes," Ballet West has had little to fear from the Kennedy Center. Washington, D.C., has taken the dancers and their programs to its heart, and the good news continues through this fourth visit, with performances Oct. 9-13.
"Performing at the Kennedy Center is a kind of check with reality," said company executive director Susan Barrell. "We need to know where we stand in relation to other companies."
Comparisons they received, and survived very nicely, thank you. How about this from Washington Post critic Alan Kriegsman:
"The best news about the reappearance of Ballet West . . . after a five-year hiatus, was the giant step the company seems to have taken toward major stature as a classical troupe. This seems to be an emerging pattern, one that is giving the lie to previous condescending attitudes toward so-called `regional' ballet companies in this country.
". . . Ballet West is now demonstrating how fully deserving it has become of the appellation `national'. . . It's time to retire the word `regional' in this connection; the distinctions between the country's leading classical ensembles have ceased to be a matter of geographical location."
Octavio Roca of the Washington Times commented that the company came into the center "with a program designed to show (its) growth. It works. Under the direction of John Hart, the dancers have blossomed into one of our national treasures."
Such reviews as the above are not new to Ballet West in Washington. Every previous visit has been successful, and leaders of past pilgrimages deserve their share of credit. The company has a certain imprimatur that it consistently measures up to, as it has done since the days of founding artistic director Willam Christensen.
But as the designer and executor of Ballet West's present success, John Hart well deserves his accolades. As Kriegsman points out, "Under the artistic direction of Royal Ballet veteran John Hart, the 40 dancers - a majority of them new since the company's last Kennedy Center engagement - have graduated to a remarkable new level of facility, cohesion and artistry."
Kriegsman found the epitome of these qualities in the Balanchine Divertimento No. 15, where he noted "individual felicities" too numerous to mention among all soloists, in a performance in which "technical precision, musicality, ensemble rapport and the joy of dancing combined in equal measure."
Though gratified at such comments, Hart was not surprised. "Our company needs recognition outside of Salt Lake City, and every decision I have made has been with that in mind," he said. "Our young dancers are as good as any company of comparable size and stature; they have earned their recognition. We are indeed a `national' company, and we have attained such a level of expertise that we always look the same, whatever the turnover in dancers from year to year."
Press reaction to "The Age of Anxiety," the company's Kennedy Center-commissioned choreography by John Neumeier, was less favorable. Both Washington critics saw it as dated, heavily freighted with Germanic symbolism, and not up to delivering what it attempted.
Kriegsman called it "a meandering, idiomatically eclectic, ponderously symbolic tract, indistinct in meaning and splotchy in form," though he admired the "conviction, skill and intensity" of the performance, and thought Zack Brown's staging almost compensated for the choreographic shortcomings.
While expressing reservations, Roca noted that the piece "did provide ample opportunity for the dancers to show that Ballet West's commitment to dance as theater is no casual fling . . . (the dancing) was uniformly splendid."
This piece was well-liked by Utah audiences, who apparently were ready to see Ballet West tackle an entirely different type of subject than its usual classics and romances.
Sheldon Schwartz, director of dance programming at the Kennedy Center, put in perspective what the Center hopes to accomplish through its commissioning of six American companies to create and dance works by all-American creative teams.
"We were glad that Ballet West selected John Neumeier, an American working as director of the Hamburg Ballet," he said. "And you must realize that Americans in general don't have as much intellectual curiosity as Europeans where dance is concerned, they are more entertainment-oriented.
"We know that the six pieces we are commissioning cannot possibly all be masterpieces, but we also know that we must stimulate new creation. The future of dance depends upon creating new works. We feel that Neumeier has stimulated thought, and we are satisfied with the outcome of our commission."
Among those attending the opening of "Anna Karenina" on Friday night were Oleg Vinogradov, director of the Kirov Ballet (next up at the Kennedy Center), and his wife Yelena Vinogradova.
New York Times critics also attended both programs, but their reviews appeared too late for this story. For a wrapup on Ballet West's Washington engagement, see Thursday's Deseret News.