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Theater review: Ballet West’s racially updated Balanchine piece is a feast for the senses

After painstaking efforts to rework Balanchine’s ‘Le Chant du Rossignol,’ Ballet West’s much-anticipated season premiere is finally revealed

SHARE Theater review: Ballet West’s racially updated Balanchine piece is a feast for the senses
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Ballet West’s “Balanchine’s Ballet Russes,” now in production at the Capitol Theatre.

Beau Pearson Photography

“BALANCHINE’S BALLET RUSSES” through Nov. 2, J.Q. Lawson Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, (801-862-6900 or balletwest.org); running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes (two intermissions)

A Chinese-themed tale written by a Danish author, turned into a French ballet by a Russian dancer. It could have been a cultural misappropriation nightmare. But Ballet West’s decision to revamp the controversial work “Le Chant du Rossignol,” which the company premiered over the weekend, was met with applause Friday night — and likely a sigh of relief from the artistic staff.

The ballet was the first of three historical Balanchine works performed during the company’s gorgeous season opening program, “Balanchine’s Ballet Russes” (Oct. 25-Nov. 3).

Most audience members were probably unaware of the painstaking process involved in altering racially insensitive movements in Balanchine’s historical work. Panels and roundtables formed in both Salt Lake and New York’s Guggenheim Museum to discuss whether changes to “Le Chant” were even necessary. Some said it was an artifact, others said it shouldn’t be performed unless the questionable movements were eliminated. In the end, Ballet West’s Artistic Director Adam Sklute decided to tweak some of Balanchine’s steps, joking in one discussion that “it isn’t like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa.” 

Having seen Ballet West perform portions of the unaltered version, I can assure you nothing was lost and much was gained by the elimination of head bobs, prayer poses and shuffling feet. It removed insult from the artist’s luxurious, poetic take on Hans Christian Andersen’s Ming Dynasty fantasy (with a minimalist set and costumes by Henri Matisse and a score by Igor Stravisnky).

The tale centers on a nightingale (danced with the right amount of fluttering timidity and winglike extension by Jenna Rae Herrera), who is brought to the court of the Chinese emperor. The songbird’s mysterious healing powers are thwarted, however, when the emperor is gifted a mechanical bird (Tyler Gum), who dances as if he is spring loaded despite choreography that called for straight legs and flexed feet. Perhaps the mechanical bird became the inspiration for later mechanical toy dancing, such as the doll in “The Nutcracker.”

The false bird nearly causes the emperor’s death, so mesmerized is he and the entire court by the manmade spectacle. The figure of Death was danced by Allison DeBona, whose movements were sly and self assured. Her long, powerful limbs filled the stage while her villainous eyes seemed to burn holes in her victims.

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Ballet West’s “Balanchine’s Ballet Russes,” now in production at the Capitol Theatre.

Beau Pearson Photography

The Nightingale and Death battled it out, using the former’s huge necklace of skulls to entrap one another. Death is finally entangled by the innocent Nightingale, but the cautionary tale warns us against adopting technology over living connections (Andersen was ahead of his time, certainly). 

Observing the dancers’ precise execution of angular, bladed hands and flexed feet within the classical context, as well as the kaleidoscopic patterns and daisy chains, could be likened to studying the early brushstrokes of famed painters.  As Balanchine’s earliest work (he was 21 when he choreographed it), “Le Chant” reveals the seeds for a ballet revolution, and the historical gravitas seemed to ring through the Capitol Theatre. 

Matisse’s aesthetic is among the ballet’s most striking elements. While the sets were simple and stark, the costumes were anything but. A living tableau, the vibrant colors and patterns played off each other in exciting ways. The warriors’ faces and limbs were painted terracotta red against sky blue body armor. The court’s flowing tunics varied from color-blocked pinks, reds and greens to yellow florals and black-and-white triangle prints. The mechanical bird sported a rooster head and colorful plumage, and death was a spindly creature, also of head-to-toe terracotta red. The dancers’ mask-like, Peking Opera-style makeup added another layer of fantasy and mystique. The program notes offered interesting background about Matisse’s study of Chinese icons, statues and cave sculptures, as well as the Tibetan tantric traditions that also inspired him.

Next on the docket, the company showcased Balanchine’s “Apollo,” in which the young choreographer joined again with Stravinsky and this time achieved international acclaim. Here, radical movement is further fleshed out and explored within classicism to broaden Balanchine’s pioneering neoclassic style.

Adrian Fry cast as Apollo, the young god of music, was most likely a reflexive choice. His fluidity and sense of lyricism and drama is meant for such a role. Balanchine wanted a natural playfulness and swagger, and Fry delivered. The muses of Apollo’s visiting half-sister underscored the clean, technically brilliant choreography, with Katie Critchlow as Calliope, Beckanne Sisk as Polyhymnia and Sayaka Ohtaki as Terpsichore.

Ballet West had never tackled “Apollo,” and elected to reintroduce elements from the original (which Balanchine eliminated in the 1970s, dismissing them as “trappings”). This included a simple black staircase at the back of the stage to represent Mount Parnassus, which Apollo ascended during the final scene. Also reintroduced was choreography that depicted the Sun God’s  birth (he first appears wrapped in linens, from which he is unravelled and takes his first awkward steps). 

Finally, after another intermission, Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” closed out the program. Based on the Biblical account, Balanchine chose to delve into the misadventures and misdeeds of the title character (danced by Hadriel Diniz), leaving the Biblical messages of forgiveness and redemption mostly unexplored. The jealous brother is nowhere to be found. 

This version imagines the rebellious son’s encounter with a siren, a femme fatale danced by Katlyn Addison, whom he meets after friends persuade him to leave his blissful domesticity. His nine “drinking companions”  aren’t a bunch of blubbering, red-faced fools one might imagine. Instead, they look like demons from hell, with shaved heads and beastly, malevolent mannerisms. They are seriously creepy. 

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Ballet West’s “Balanchine’s Ballet Russes,” now in production at the Capitol Theatre.

Beau Pearson Photography

The Siren he meets on his sojourn is another story. Diniz portrayal of the prodigal’s naïveté perfectly juxtaposed Addison’s sophisticated Siren movements. She darts for him with her long cape unraveling around her limbs, and seduces him in what has been called one of the most overtly sexual scenes in all of ballet — I’m actually surprised it wasn’t an outright scandal in 1929. She clutches his head to her breast and encloses him like a spider feasting on a fly.

After a drunken night, she and his drinking companions rob and likely abuse their unconscious victim, stripping him of his clothes and leaving him to die. He wakes up unable to walk and, in rags, drags himself home. His father, at first, refuses to greet or acknowledge his begging son, who climbs into his arms like an infant. Moments before the curtain drops, however, he slowly moves his arm to cover his child in an act of forgiveness. 

Ballet West’s newly promoted Diniz is no doubt one of the up and coming dancers to watch this season as a soloist. He is a burst of energy and light, each step soul searching and layered with meaning. First soloist Addison’s strength was also impressive, but there is sometimes a posture of uncertainty, especially in her upper body. A commanding role such as the siren requires a dancer who can become larger than life. Regardless, her mind-blowing extension and powerful legs made for a captivating seductress, and together with Diniz, a beautiful partnership. 

Content advisory: “The Prodigal Son” contains portrayals of alcoholic consumption and dance-based sexual innuendo.