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Meet Ballet West's new music conductor. He's young, he's from Utah and he's a 'risk-taker'

SALT LAKE CITY — During the next couple of weeks, Ballet West’s new music conductor, Jared Oaks, will run his own version of a marathon, albeit in a tux instead of running shoes.

"It is definitely a workout," Oaks said of the two hours he will spend conducting each evening during George Balanchine’s “Jewels,” the company’s season-opening program running Nov. 2-10 at Capitol Theatre. With three classical pieces to get through, Oaks’ nightly routine will include exercises and stretches, as his arms rapidly gesticulate and his body subtly contorts, flexes, crouches, lifts and lowers.

His face, too, won't rest. From a raised eyebrow to cue the trumpets to a nod in the direction of the violins, Oaks will do all he can to ensure his musical interpretations enhance the Ballet West artists onstage.

Ballet West Principal Beckanne Sisk. Ballet West will perform George Balanchine's "Jewels" from Nov. 2-10.
Ballet West Principal Beckanne Sisk. Ballet West will perform George Balanchine's "Jewels" from Nov. 2-10.
Beau Pearson

Inspired by 'Billy Elliot'

Soft spoken and unassuming, Oaks flipped through a score composed by Igor Stravinsky during a Deseret News interview, one of three pieces he will conduct as part of the program. He was searching for a quote he wrote in the margins from his mentor, former Ballet West conductor Terence Kern, who retired in 2012 after 28 years directing the company’s music. Kern passed away in 2015.

Oaks filled the composition with markings only he can decipher, including dance steps like "bourrees" over each musical bar. He continued his search while describing his upbringing, and how a choral conducting student stumbled into the ballet world and learned the technicalities of the art form.

Raised in a military family, Oaks grew up mainly in Tacoma, Washington, as the oldest of three brothers. His mom signed him up for piano lessons at age 7, inspiring a lifelong love affair with music.

After serving a mission to Sweden for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he attended Brigham Young University, where, after earning a bachelor’s degree in piano performance, he set out to earn a master's degree in choral conducting. Around the same time, he happened to view the 2000 Oscar-nominated film, "Billy Elliot," about the son of a coal miner who sneaks off for ballet lessons.

“It was life-changing,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘I have to do that.’"

Soon after seeing "Billy Elliot," Oaks enrolled in three semesters of ballet, studying under Ballet West alumnae Sandra Allen and Susie Wood. The young pianist, fuelled by his new love for dance, quickly took on the role of piano accompanist during ballet classes and rehearsals at the university.

“My first audition as a rehearsal pianist was after dance class — still wearing my tights,” Oaks said. “So in a strange way, I auditioned as a dancer.”

Soon he added piano gigs for ballet summer intensive programs to his workload, including a stint at Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle.

“It wasn’t until the flight home from PNB that I thought, ‘What about Ballet West?’” he said. “I remembered seeing the company perform Balanchine years earlier and being completely taken by it. I felt I could hear the music better by watching it.”

Hearing dance the Balanchine way

The late George Balanchine would have certainly approved of Oaks’ appraisal. Such were the intentions of the prolific 20th-century choreographer with the many ballets he created, including “Jewels,” which Ballet West will perform with three different casts over seven days.

Balanchine was less interested in telling stories through ballet than he was in helping viewers find new meaning and hear the subtle nuances in the music. In fact, there is an anecdotal story that says when he was asked what "Rubies," one of the “Jewels” movements, was about, Balanchine responded, “It is about 20 minutes.”

Although “Jewels” is indeed a plotless triptych featuring three diverse musical masters — Gabriel Fauré, Igor Stravinsky and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky — there are doubtless nationalist undertones, even if no story exists. The music and mood is definitively French, American and then Russian — in that order — reflective of the places in which Balanchine spent significant, career-defining periods of his life.

The program, much of which Oaks has conducted for past productions, will be a “rewarding challenge,” he said, for his debut as music director at the ballet. Ballet West's Artistic Director Adam Sklute has nothing but confidence in Oaks' new role.

“He has developed an amazing sympatico with the artists on the stage and the musicians in the pit,” Sklute said. “Ballet demands a unique skill set for a music director. It doesn’t automatically translate. Jared knows each of the dancers’ strengths and how to bring those out within the context of the music.”

Mentored by Ballet West's musical best

Sklute hired Oaks, now 36, nearly a decade ago as a rehearsal pianist and assistant conductor because he was struck by his energetic approach, his knowledge of the art form and what he describes as an intrinsic kinesthetic awareness.

Artists of Ballet West. Ballet West will perform George Balanchine's "Jewels" from Nov. 2-10.
Artists of Ballet West. Ballet West will perform George Balanchine's "Jewels" from Nov. 2-10.
Beau Pearson

“He can get into the heart of what the dancers are doing, what the choreography is and what the nature of the work is. He adds dimension and depth,” Sklute said of the new music director.

Oaks, in turn, described feelings of gratitude for the relationships that have guided him — from piano teachers and professors to his most recent mentor, Tara Simoncic, who assumed the baton during the past three seasons before deciding to step down due to her demanding travel schedule conducting around the world.

“We were famous backstage for our tradition of singing ‘You’re the Inspiration’ by Chicago before performances,” Oaks said. “I’ll miss her. She has been so supportive of me in my new role.”

It is obvious, however, that Oaks has a special place in his heart for Kern, likely because he spent the greatest amount of his training under the maestro’s tutelage.

At last, the young conductor found the scribbles he’d been searching for during the interview. It’s advice from his mentor notated deep within a score of “Swan Lake.” Although retired, Kern would sometimes drop in for a visit and advise his protegé, even up until the year he died. Marked January 2015, Oaks found the quote at the top margin of Tchaikovsky’s third act pas de deux.

“Don’t forget to keep taking risks,” Oaks read aloud, his voice tinged with sentimentality — Kern died three months later in April of that year. It's a message that Oaks took to heart.

“I never thought of myself as a risk-taker until one of the orchestra members commented that something I was asking him to do was risky," he recalled. "I took it as a complement and a tribute to Terry.”

Ballet West will perform George Balanchine's "Jewels" from Nov. 2-10.
Ballet West will perform George Balanchine's "Jewels" from Nov. 2-10.
Beau Pearson

While Oaks is a soulful listener to the lessons of the past, he eagerly looks to days ahead as he attempts to demonstrate the virtues of his new appointment as one of the youngest conductors of a major American ballet company. Acting as liaison between what’s happening above and below stage, he said he most loves the camaraderie and collective joy felt by each performer — whether musician or dancer.

“I once overheard the dancers being encouraged not just to dance to the music, but more importantly to dance with and enjoy each other,” Oaks said. “I think the same feeling manifests itself in the pit. We’re friends, we’re professionals, we’re there for the music, for the ballet and for each other.”

As the interview wrapped up, he couldn't resist adding one last nugget from Kern, passed along to him during a rehearsal of Frederick Ashton's “Cinderella.”

“'Don't forget the magic of it,’” Oaks read. He paused, then looked up. “I hope I never will.”

If you go …

What: Ballet West presents George Balanchine’s “Jewels”

When: November 2, 3, 7-10, 7:30 p.m., 2 p.m. matinée on Nov. 10

Where: J. Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South

How much: $30-$87

Phone: 801-869-6900