Adam Sklute strides around a studio in rolled-up sleeves, washed-out jeans and black sneakers, coaching about 50 dancers in a firm but gentle tone. Standing 6’1” tall, with a boyish face and broad shoulders, the 57-year-old artistic director of Ballet West has the physique of a retired football player, but when he stops pacing to demonstrate the next sequence, his inner ballet dancer flares up. “Plié, plié, change,” he says, bending his knee, his feet taking on a life of their own. There’s nothing obvious in the room or his demeanor to suggest the revolution taking place at this modest ballet company in a midsized Western city.
He pauses to check in with Jenna Rae Herrera, the first Latina to be cast as the female lead in Michael Smuin’s “Romeo + Juliet.” They talk briefly, he pats her on the shoulder and resumes his tour. It’s a trivial exchange but a symbolic one nonetheless, a nod to the fact that people of color have become an integral part of the company — not a given in an industry where white dancers are still the majority, where even costume accessories are designed to emulate pale skin tones.
Entering the 15th year of his tenure, Sklute exudes quiet confidence. In that time he has managed to turn a troubled troupe into one of the premier regional companies in the country, aiming for the kind of name recognition typically associated with heavy hitters like the New York City Ballet. The troupe’s dancers have performed in Havana’s International Ballet Festival and at New York’s storied Joyce Theater. It was featured in a BBC-produced reality show and, most recently, in a docuseries shot during the pandemic. And it has managed to establish itself as a breeding ground for talent thanks to its expanding dance academy.
More consequentially, however, Sklute has worked to bring the company up to speed on racial diversity. Of Ballet West’s 52 dancers, seven are Black, and three of its eight principal dancers are people of color, including Herrera. The troupe has finally ditched skin lighteners used to “whiten” dancers holding classical roles in “Swan Lake” or “Giselle,” and when the company unveils new creations during its Choreographic Fest V in May, spectators may notice that Black performers wear shoes matching the hue of their skin. In many ways, Sklute was the right man to “bring Ballet West into the 21st century,” as he puts it. But how he got here was an unlikely journey.
Sitting behind his desk among yellow walls in his office at Ballet West, Sklute looks relaxed in an anthracite-colored jacket and slip-on emerald sneakers as he recalls growing up as an only child in an untraditional family. He spent his early years in Berkeley, California. His mother, Barbro Klein, was a Swedish anthropologist and his father, John Sklute, was a professor of English at the University of California. The couple imbued him with a love for the arts, giving him broad exposure to ballet, opera, theater, and taking him to concerts and museums.
With Sklute at the helm, Ballet West has also found new avenues to create a name for itself beyond the intermountain region.
He was still a small boy when his parents split. His mother took Sklute to Sweden with her new romantic partner, a photographer. She found fertile ground in Europe for studying ancient rune stones as the family spent several years hopping from one capital to the next before settling in Paris. “I had a very hippie background,” Sklute says.
They lived in the city’s posh sixth district, right around the corner from Le Bon Marché, a chic department store frequented by well-heeled Parisians, and a few blocks away from the Luxembourg Gardens, ground once walked by American writers like Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. Sklute, who was nine years old, lived like a feral child. “I skipped school all the time,” he says. Instead, he explored, rifling through American comic books at antique stores and haunting stamp collectors to indulge in his newfound passion for philately.
When that idyll ended, the family moved back to the U.S. and Sklute went back to the Bay Area to live with his father. He was growing to be the kind of idiosyncratic teenager one might see in a Wes Anderson film: a literate and well-traveled student and master dilettante. He took piano lessons, sang, painted and played lacrosse and basketball, but didn’t excel at any of these endeavors. “I loved doing all of it,” he says. “I was just lazy.”
A turning point came when his high-school girlfriend, a dancer, suggested he take ballet classes. He took her advice and immediately fell in love with the art form. “All of a sudden, here was the theater, and the music, and the athleticism and the art, all rolled into one.”
After training for a mere six months, he told his parents he intended to turn professional. But they’d always wanted their son to become an academic like them, and ballet wouldn’t get in the way of their expectations. “No, you’re not,” they told him. “That was all I needed to hear,” Sklute says.
Sklute was 18 years old when he auditioned for The School of American Ballet, the New York academy founded by George Balanchine, after saving his own money to pay for the flight to Los Angeles. About 300 kids were there to try out, most looking much younger. He felt so nervous that at one point, he ran out of the room, sick to his stomach. At the end of the lesson, the scouts had dancers stand in groups at one end of the room and went on to pick one or two dancers from each group as new recruits. When Sklute’s group stood in front of the school reps, a woman pointed her finger at two performers. “You and you,” she said. Slowly, she dragged her finger in the air until it settled on Sklute. “And you,” she finally said.
After attending the program, Sklute joined the Joffrey Ballet in New York, the first company ever to perform at the White House. Sklute’s mirthful tone falls to a deferential hush at the mention, and he nods at a black-and-white photograph of Robert Joffrey, the pioneering choreographer who gave him his shot, nestled high in a bookcase facing the desk. The frame is set against August Bournonville’s “Letters on Dance and Choreography.” In the image, a bearded Joffrey is shown directing a ballerina, his left arm extended at an oblique angle, his left forefinger propping up his chin.
“He was a funny little man,” Sklute says. “When he hired me, he said, ‘Adam, I’m taking you into my company against my better judgment,’” Sklute says, adopting a nasal tone to mimic Joffrey’s voice. “But you’re smart, so I know you’re going to succeed. Now you just have to learn how to dance.”
At 20, Sklute had managed to become a professional performer. He was a skinny but muscular young man, capable of sending women flying over his head. His physical prowess and gangly looks earned him a nickname: Super Chicken. But he would have to grow a thick skin. Gerald Arpino, who co-founded the company, was “a bit of an ogre in the studios,” Sklute says. “The first time he saw me dancing, I was in the background and I was so excited just to be in that rehearsal. And he called out, ‘Hey, you with the spatulas at the end of your legs, get out of my sight!’” Far from feeling discouraged, Sklute took the criticism in stride. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, he noticed me!’”
Sklute was expected to build the caliber of the company, put it on the map internationally and develop the academy attached to the troupe.
It helped that Sklute wasn’t living the starving-artist life: He arrived in New York just as his mother and stepfather were moving back to Europe, so he moved into their rent-controlled, three-bedroom duplex apartment in Midtown Manhattan, a few blocks away from the United Nations’ headquarters. He would spend the next 22 years with the Joffrey Ballet, following as the company moved to Chicago in 1995 and eventually serving as Arpino’s associate artistic director. Then, in 2007, he got a brief email from a recruiting consultant. Would Sklute be interested in applying for a job as artistic director of Ballet West?
It was Super Bowl Sunday when Sklute flew to Utah from Chicago to interview for the position. He found stores with their curtains drawn and an opaque sky — caused by what he was told was the worst inversion in 30 years. “My first impression was, “What the heck is this place?’” he remembers. Ballet West wasn’t exactly a cozy landing pad, he was about to find out, but for entirely different reasons than its geographic setting.
Jonas Kage, a Swedish dancer who’d served as artistic director for nine years, had just been ousted by the board a year before the end of his contract, ostensibly because of a negative evaluation. Kage had helped breathe fresh air into the company, staging works by renowned choreographers like Hans van Manen, Glen Tetley, Amedeo Amodio and Richard Tanner for the first time in Utah. But the board, citing shrinking revenues, ramped up costs and disaffection among principal dancers, presented Kage with two prewritten press releases, one announcing he’d resigned, the other that he’d been fired.
The ugly breakup came during a period of intense turmoil. In the years prior, soaring operating deficits had prompted the board to cut workweeks, staff, performances and dancers. In two years, the number of dancers had been slashed. This led to a drawn-out battle over unionization efforts by the dancers, who ultimately prevailed.
This may explain why the dancers showing up for Sklute’s first lesson — as part of the interview process — eyed him with suspicion. “They were terrified and nervous,” he says. The company’s eight-month search for a new director ended when the board unanimously picked Sklute for the position, saluting his “contagious enthusiasm” and “tremendous experience.” It was a huge step up for Sklute, 42 at the time.
But the new job brought with it a set of daunting tasks. Sklute was expected to build the caliber of the company, put it on the map internationally and develop the academy attached to the troupe. Within a year, he earned plaudits for his managerial savvy and charming schmoozing, with The Salt Lake Tribune describing him as “Ballet West’s magic Sklute.” David Leta, chairman of the board, went so far as to say that Sklute “has done for the ballet what Barack Obama has done for the Democratic Party.” In other words, he reinvented it, and energized it.
Sklute has a dream for the company to one day hold no one racial majority, but it won’t be easy.
Sklute’s ability to court donors and assemble epic lineups — his first season included Stanton Welch’s “Madame Butterfly” and “The Tempest,” as well as “The Nutcracker” — made a splash. Over his tenure, that translated to improved financial health for the company. Its revenues reached $13.5 million in 2018, more than double what it earned in 2006, thanks in part to swelling contributions, as detailed in the organization’s tax returns.
During those years, Sklute, seemingly indefatigable, has become a fixture on the Salt Lake City circuit, appearing at Rotary Club dinners, offering at-home personalized dinner menus concocted under his direction at Ballet West’s annual gala auction and directing dancers featured in a Zions Bank commercial. With Sklute at the helm, Ballet West has also found new avenues to create a name for itself beyond the Intermountain region.
In 2012, the company voted to participate in “Pointe Break,” a reality show produced by the BBC for the CW network. To say that the show earned mixed reviews is an understatement — it was excoriated by a New York Times critic as “breathtakingly bad” — but for all of its cringy drama, some of its 16 episodes still managed to attract a million viewers. In 2020, cameras poked their noses into the dance studios again as the company struggled to work through the Covid-19 pandemic, this time for a nine-episode web docuseries titled “In the Balance: Ballet for a Lost Year.”
But these aren’t what Sklute cites as his proudest achievements. Rather, he notes that under his tutelage the dance academy has expanded from 100 to 1,000 students, now spread across four campuses in Park City, Lehi and Salt Lake City. The reason Sklute insists on this point is that he sees this recruiting pond as perhaps the best way to bring more faces of color to the company.
The dancers drawing aerial arabesques in pointe shoes tend to be overwhelmingly white and there have long been calls to bring more racial diversity to ballet generally. But the 2020 murder of George Floyd was a jolt for Sklute, he says. During a summer of reckoning that saw millions of people take to the streets, he and a dozen other directors — predominantly white men — took to Zoom to vent and discuss what they could do. “Sometimes they were just crying sessions because there were a lot of strong feelings,” Sklute says. “We were being held accountable for a lot of things as leaders in our field.”
The troupe moved to do away with skin lightener. It now paints slippers to match the skin tone of each dancer and supplies tights and shoe straps matching their complexion.
Ballet West took some concrete steps as a result. After conducting an audit, the troupe moved to do away with skin lightener. It now paints slippers to match the skin tone of each dancer and supplies tights and shoe straps matching their complexion. But some of Sklute’s goals are much more ambitious. Along with 15 artistic directors, he pledged to design new programs that create more access for young artists of color. Last year, the company held a virtual “open house” for prospective dancers of color to ask questions to the troupe. Sklute didn’t attend the session to make sure the dancers would feel comfortable sharing their opinion. He says he now reserves particular attention to applicants of color, auditioning some of them twice, for instance.
Sklute has a dream for the company to one day hold no one racial majority, but it won’t be easy, especially not in a state where 90 percent of the population is white — with a reputation to match. “He’s doing a great job, considering he’s in Utah,” says Lauren Anderson, who was the first Black principal ballerina of a major American ballet in Houston Anderson has joined an ongoing conversation series on race organized by Ballet West titled “Dismantling Racism in Classical Ballet,” and earlier this year walked onstage to present flowers of congratulations to Katlyn Addison, the first Black female principal dancer at Ballet West. But the challenge is formidable.
“If you have a Black kid coming in, and Ballet West offers you something but then Dance Theatre of Harlem offers you something,” she says, “where are they going to feel more comfortable going?” Still, Sklute wants Ballet West to open its doors even more broadly. “I feel like I spent my entire career proving that I can do something,” he says. Ballet “is and can be much more than people think.”
This story appears in the May issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.