SALT LAKE CITY — At first glance, basketball legend Michael Jordan and Ballet West dancer Christopher Sellars might not appear to have a lot in common, but both are among the most gifted jumpers in their respective fields.
While a nickname like “Air Sellars” isn’t likely to catch on or sell Nikes any time soon, it may very well sell tickets to Ballet West’s production of “Cinderella” at Capitol Theatre, where audiences can catch a glimpse of the soloist getting airborne during his high-jumping role as the Jester Feb. 9-25.
“In the royal courts, the jester had to be ‘nonstop’ — he had to entertain because his life depended on it,” said Sellars, who often dances high-energy, high-jumping roles like the lead Russian in “The Nutcracker” or Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” “I try to dance as if my life depends on it.”
As a master of hang time, Sellars is used to garnering big applause from the audience. Nothing pleases the crowd in dance or sport like gravity-defying spectacles, whether it takes the form of grand jetés, dunks, spikes or high-flying interceptions.
So how does Sellars get so much air?
“From an early age, I danced and really developed those muscles,” Sellars said of his training. “In ballet, we learn to develop a deeper plié (a knee-bend with turned out feet) before takeoff because it produces more elevation, and we learn how to use our entire physique to jump — even our head and our arms, instead of just calves and ankles.”
The role of the Jester in Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella” is a show of nonstop virtuosity filled with consecutive leaps and turns. The character’s showmanship lends itself to the gaiety of the prince’s royal court and the moody music of Sergei Prokofiev.
The ballet follows the well-known fairytale of a beautiful young maiden, mistreated by her stepsisters, who is transformed by her fairy godmother in order to attend the royal ball. There, she meets and dances with the enamored prince before disappearing into the night, leaving behind a single glass slipper.
Dancing the lead role of Cinderella is Arolyn Williams, Beckanne Sisk, Katherine Lawrence and Emily Adams. The prince’s role will be danced by Rex Tilton, Tyler Gum, Chase O’Connell and Adrian Fry.
The two-hour, three-act dance marathon can be especially exhausting for those in the lead roles, but a few different casts performing on alternating nights offers some recovery time. It also offers Sellars, who previously performed the role in 2013, the opportunity to mentor his fellow Jesters, Oliver Oguma and Joshua Whitehead.
“In such a hyperactive role,” Sellars said. “I have learned — and hope to pass along — how to economize my movement so I can focus on developing the character and his nuances.”
In other words, Sellars has refined strategies for making a demanding series of jumps and turns look effortless and enjoyable — even if his muscles are screaming and he’d rather screw up his face and double over with exhaustion instead of smile after his variations.
“I didn’t realize how difficult this role was,” said Oguma, a rising star in the company who seems to be equally at ease in both the classical and contemporary genres. “This character comes out like a cannon, and that’s pretty much how it goes whenever he’s onstage.”
Also cast in the high-jumping role, demi-soloist Whitehead said although he played football and basketball growing up, he credits ballet for teaching him to jump.
“In football and basketball, the coaches don’t tell you how to jump, they just tell you to do it,” he said. “Then later I found out in ballet that coordination is key. If you use the arms, legs, posture — you can really explode.”
Ballet West Artistic Director Adam Sklute said classical ballet training has found its way into the regimen of many athletes.
“We’re seeing it more and more because it builds fluidity of motion and coordination,” he said. “People are discovering that this centuries-old art form is beneficial to all kinds of athletes because it is designed to help people jump higher, turn more and move better.”
Despite the results ballet can deliver, Sklute said his dancers are less anxious about measuring their vertical leap or competing for highest number of turns. Instead, they are concerned about the artistry. Unlike figure skating, there is no commentator to interrupt the emotion or drama and no judge to pin a score on a fouetté turn.
“We are not about scorekeeping but about storytelling. Even if it’s an abstract work, we work with emotion,” he said. “So yes, we can have jesters who jump higher, princes who turn more, a Cinderella who can balance longer. But in the end, are we telling Cinderella’s story? That’s our true aim.”
If you go …
What: Ballet West’s “Cinderella”
When: Feb 9-25, times vary
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South
How much: $20-$88
Note: Ballet West will host "Warm Ups," a pre-show discussion led by a member of the artistic staff, one hour prior to the show. The program is free of charge for ticket holders.