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Curtain call — Jonas Kage reflects on nine years with Ballet West

SHARE Curtain call — Jonas Kage reflects on nine years with Ballet West

As Jonas Kage looks back at his nine years as Ballet West's artistic director, he smiles.

"There have been some beautiful moments," Kage told the Deseret Morning News during an interview at his home. "I don't mean 'beautiful' like everything was bright and cheery, but I mean 'beautiful' as in, everyone is sweating and working hard to put together a wonderful piece of dance."

In April, much to his surprise, Ballet West terminated Kage's contract, leading to a two-month dispute over the terms, which were ultimately resolved June 30.

Kage expressed relief when a settlement — with terms that were not disclosed — was finally agreed upon. "It took a long time," he said at the time, "but I'm glad it's done. Now we both can move on."

Kage moved to Salt Lake City with his wife, Deborah Dobson, and their daughter Isabelle, when Isabelle was 9 years old. She is now 18 and plans to attend the University of Utah.

"It will be an adjustment for her to move to a university environment," said Kage. "Deborah and I are planning to move back to Sweden. We have a house there. And we are planning to make that our base.

"Isabelle has told us that she plans to follow us back to Sweden in the future, but you never know."

During his time with Ballet West, Kage introduced 32 new ballets, nine of them full-length productions.

Of those, Kage himself choreographed "Romeo & Juliet," "Giselle," "Swan Lake" and "Sleeping Beauty."

"Working with the company on those was amazing," Kage said. "Especially with 'Romeo,' which was fully done from scratch. The dancers and I worked together in the studio. I kept in close contact with the costume shop, the set design and the props master. I worked with the lighting director, and I think it was a success."

Kage had the idea of using a live narrator before each act, to set up the scenes by delivering lines from Shakespeare's poetic script. "With my background, I thought it all made sense."

And he was right. The ballet was a success, and patrons gave the work a standing ovation night after night.

In 1997, Ballet West announced Kage as its new artistic director. At the time, Kage, a former American Ballet Theatre principal dancer, was the artistic director of Sweden's Malmo Opera Ballet, a position he had held since 1988. "I had only heard about Ballet West through its reputation at the time and knew there would be some adjustments on my part because I was in Sweden. And in Europe, the dance companies are state-run. In fact, the Malmo Opera Ballet housed the opera, the ballet and theater. It was a big elephant.

"Anyway, I jumped at the chance to work with a ballet company that only worked with dance. When I got here and met the board and the staff and the dancers, I looked around and, once again, knew that this place only dealt with dance and nothing else."

Kage was inspired by the varied landscape of Utah. "The mountains, the red-rock desert, the cities — there is something for everyone here. But there is also Ballet West, an important dance company in America. And I wanted more people to hear about this company. I wanted more people to know that there was more to Utah than the red rocks and mountains."

When Kage officially took the helm at the beginning of the 1997 season, he made the decision to examine what the company had to offer. "I deliberately did not make any changes in the dancers for one year. I saw the strengths in that year. And I saw where we could improve. And let me tell you, there were nights when I couldn't sleep because I was so excited to see what we, as a company, could do."

Kage knew, however, that too much change in the repertory would alienate some of the loyal patrons, some who have been following the company since the beginning — in the mid-1950s. "I wanted to challenge the dancers and the audience without moving too much toward the edge. The dancers were all well trained. And I felt they were capable of doing more."

The new artistic director did have a vision of where the company could go under his leadership. "With a company like Ballet West that has a rich history, there is a challenge of making changes without destroying what has come before. So you build upon the foundation. You build brick by brick."

Kage began introducing the audience to an array of choreographers: Hans van Manen, Glen Tetley, Amadeo Amodio, Richard Tanner, John Cranko and William Forsythe — all well known and respected in the global ballet community but virtually unknown in Utah.

He also was instrumental in introducing such works as Jerome Robbins' "Afternoon of a Faun," George Balanchine's "Violin Concerto" and, most recently, Antony Tudor's "Echoing of Trumpets," which were well known throughout the world but not locally.

"I look back at some of the works we premiered recently that are more than 15 years old," said Kage. "But they are the type of work — like Antony Tudor's 'Offenbach in the Underworld' or Forsythe's 'Artifact II' — that look new and have stood the test of time."

In fact, Kage was able to bring four Tudor works — "Echoing of Trumpets," "Leaves Are Fading," "Offenbach in the Underworld" and "Lilac Garden" — to the Ballet West repertoire. The company performed three of those at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival in Scotland in summer 2004.

"There was a lot that I accomplished," said Kage. "And there was more that I wanted to do. I felt that I was at the right place at my capacity."

Kage's wife Deborah, who has taught ballet at the University of Utah and helped set up the syllabus at the Ballet West Conservatory, has been a support to Kage during the family's years in Salt Lake City. "Deborah and I worked together in Malmo, but when we got here, Ballet West had a nepotism law. And I couldn't utilize her as much as I wanted. But she is a wonderful companion and has given me the support I needed during my time in Salt Lake."

Although Kage is leaving under less than joyful circumstances, he says he will nonetheless fondly remember his time here. "As dancers we are used to picking up our dance bags and moving around the world," he said with a laugh. "I just didn't think I'd be doing it when I'm 53."

E-mail: scott@desnews.com