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Fancy feat: Ballet West programming is a delicate dance

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SALT LAKE CITY — Cue the “Mission Impossible” theme song, because planning the perfect Ballet West season seems nearly as complicated as masterminding a coup.

In the business of ballet, curating a menu of programs each season can be a knotty equation of personal preferences, ticket sales, subscriber requests, artistic import, dancer satisfaction and diplomatic maneuvering. For Ballet West artistic director and CEO Adam Sklute, the challenge keeps him … on his toes.

“It’s like a puzzle,” he said. “I have to constantly ask myself if the program I’m looking at fits with where I want the company to go.”

Celebrating his 10th anniversary at Ballet West during the 2017-18 season, which kicks off Nov. 3 with "Carmina Burana," Sklute maintains that each wrangled-over and hard-fought piece is sanctioned as one befitting the mission of Ballet West: to inspire, empower and educate audiences.

To create a vibrant and viable season, Sklute must balance classics like “Cinderella" with contemporary, often non-narrative ballets, like Jiri Kylian's "Return to a Strange Land," deemed imperative to company growth.

“I won’t deny that if I’m looking to put on something that is good for our artistic profile, but not expected to sell as well, I’ll plan for a popular story ballet to offset that,” he said.

Ballet West dancers will perform "Cinderella" during the 2017-18 season, one of the traditional ballets for this season.

Ballet West dancers will perform “Cinderella” during the 2017-18 season, one of the traditional ballets for this season.

Beau Pearson

However, Sklute insists the two aren’t mutually exclusive. The classic story ballets aren’t simply bread-and–butter shows.

“Not only are they incredibly popular and beloved, the ‘Swan Lakes,’ and ‘Romeo and Juliets' are the pillars, the giants in every respectable company’s repertoire,” he said.

They also seem to serve as a litmus test for how companies stack up. New York Times’ head dance critic Alastair Macaulay traveled from coast to coast during the month of December in 2010 to compare over 30 “Nutcrackers,” judging ballet companies against each other. Ballet West, by the way, was singled out as a favorite.

Satisfying the Utah audience is at the forefront of Sklute’s priorities. With ticket revenue up 22 percent in the last four years, the artistic director is attempting to put his money where his mouth is, noting that every comment and suggestion from audience members is important to him.

“I’ll be walking my dog in the afternoon and someone will lean out of their car window to request a ballet or tell me what they think,” he said. “I take that seriously.”

Ballet West notes every phone call and offers surveys and comment cards in playbills.

“We do all that, we look at what is often requested and we factor that in as we move forward,” he said.

One shouldn’t be surprised, however, that audiences never seem to agree. Ballet West volunteer Jeanne Potucek, a season subscriber since 1983, has helped the company conduct subscriber polls for years.

“At the end of the evening of calling, the results always seemed to be a 50-50 split,” she said. "About half say, ‘Yes, I love all the new contemporary stuff,' and the other half say, ‘No, I don't like that new stuff. Stick to the classics.’”

Ballet West’s 2015 production of the classical Petipa ballet “Swan Lake.”

Ballet West’s 2015 production of the classical Petipa ballet “Swan Lake.”

Luke Isley

With almost 10 years making the tough decisions and fighting the battles, Sklute knows he can’t always make everyone happy, try as he may. He sticks to this mantra, albeit tongue-in-cheek:

“When planning a dinner, a party, always make something you like,” he says. “That way at least one person will enjoy it.”

Potucek says she never tires of the classics, herself — largely because of the music.

“The varied motifs from ‘Giselle,’ for instance, stay with me as ‘ear worms’ for weeks,” she said.

Local dance teacher and longtime Ballet West patron Mimi Jones is also a fan of the classics.

“I never tire of ‘Swan Lake,’” she said.

Both Jones and Potucek are fans of the classics, and while they applaud Sklute's choices for the repertoire, both were eager to offer up lists of ballets they long to see again."

“Taming of the Shrew” and “Coppelia” top Jones’ list of requests, while Potucek hopes for “Lark Ascending,” “Lady of the Camellias,” “Rosalinda” and “Anna Karenina,” to name a few.

Ballet West principal dancer Kristin Hakala, facing right, with artists of Ballet West in Bruce Marks' "Lark Ascending" in 2004.

Ballet West principal dancer Kristin Hakala, facing right, with artists of Ballet West in Bruce Marks’ “Lark Ascending” in 2004.

Photo by Quinn Farley

Both mentioned Christopher Bruce’s “Ghost Dances,” a stirring ballet set to Chilean folk tunes — absent from the repertoire since 2005.

“We are looking to bring it back in the next few years,” Sklute said.

Gaining — and in some cases maintaining — the rights to a ballet is a dance in itself. Sometimes, no matter how much an audience begs for a particular ballet, the company can’t deliver it. Timing, funding, politics and availability are central causes for rejection, and once in a while, the owners of a piece are simply stubborn.

“The foundation that grants such rights often comes to see the company before handing over the ballet,” he said. “If they don’t think you have the proper mix of dancers for it, then you aren’t going to be able to produce it the way they expect.”

The artistic director is constantly mining for new works to premiere, making nice with foundations and trusts, attending performances around the globe and alerting the staff and board members to worthy programs — and their potential costs as they look down the road. He said he starts planning a season as far as eight years out, often with certain dancers in mind.

“I’ll look at some of my younger dancers and think, ‘This person would be perfect for that role down the line,'” he said. “So programming is also largely affected by my dancers and how I want to see their growth."

In the end, it is the artistic director who must decide on a season where wishes and realities find middle ground. New works that kick up the company’s profile are balanced with oft-repeated but beloved works from the repertoire. Thus, the 2017-18 season reflects a hard-fought battle.

“Looking at the wonderful growth in our audiences and budget, we must be doing something right,” Sklute said.

If you go ...

What: Ballet West's "Carmina Burana"

When: Nov. 3-11, dates and times vary

Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City

How much: $29-$87

Phone: 801-355-2787

Web: balletwest.org