The woman sitting in front of me at Ballet West’ Treasures of the Ballets Russes may well have been representative of many in the audience when she said during the intermission she had been nervous about what she was going to see. A one-time dancer, she said she preferred narratives to the more experimental works on show that night. Artistic director Adam Sklute no doubt had such audience members in mind when he popped out between the curtains before the show started to give a lengthy precise of what his program notes already told us: That it was the 100th anniversary of Sergio Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes—which, Sklute said, had changed the way the world viewed ballet.
The world that is, except for Salt Lake City. Here—as Sklute’s predecessor, Jonas Kåge found out—if you stage anything that isn’t linear, that isn’t a good old fashioned story (Swan Lake next season will bring in the crowds), then you run the risk of alienating many, including powerful board members. That said, Sklute has been admirably adroit in courting his audience’s taste up to now. His choices for his Diaghilev tribute were an enjoyable mixture of feminist politics in Bronislava Nijanska’s Les Biches; some at times racy provocation in George Balanchine’s The Prodigal Son; and finally in Michael Fokine’s Polovetsian Dances from Prince Igor, an exhilarating set piece to go out with a foot-stomping bang.
Les Biches—which means the gazelles or little darlings—was the most intriguing of the three. Three young men in tight bathing suits parade around the stage at a party, showing off their muscles, while young women (notably Peggy Dolkas as the hostess twirling her long string of pearls in one hand, her lengthy cigarette holder in the other) flit around them, pursuing their own agendas. Apart from the now obvious sexual politics of the piece, it’s the feel of Monte Carlo, of a light-drenched seaside house that so informs the production and provides the perfect backdrop to this essay on the sexual self-obsession of youth.
What stood out in The Prodigal Son was the earthiness of the siren seducing the errant young man. Kate Crews pulled Thomas Mattingly’s would-be carouser into a series of sensual, devouring embraces. You could almost hear the whispered shock in the audience.
Despite the richness of the production, the often beautiful dancing, particularly in Les Biches, Treasures of the Ballets Russes did not receive a standing ovation on Saturday night, one it arguably richly deserved. As the audience filed out into the night, it was tempting to speculate that the reason for the almost defiant refusal of the audience to stand up was that 100 years after these works were premiered, they were still too avant-garde for Salt Lake City’s taste.