Regulars and Shorts

Dance: The Secret Ingredient

By Amy Brunvand

How competition spices up dance programs.
by Amy Brunvand
The success of dance shows on reality TV seems to have inspired some of Utah's professional dance companies to stage choreography competitions, and from an audience perspective that's a very good idea. Last season Repertory Dance Theatre gave us the wonderfully entertaining (and surreptitiously educational) "Iron Choreographer" competition, which was successful enough they are doing it again this year. Now Ballet West is staging a choreography competition, too.

In September, season ticket subscribers to Ballet West got an invitation to a somewhat mysterious special performance called "Curtain Up." The standing-room-only show was a public preview of six works-in-progress choreographed by Ballet West dancers, using members of Ballet West II (average age: 19.6) as guinea pigs to perform the movements. The prize for three of the six choreographers will be to present the final polished version, danced by Ballet West company artists for the paying public, at the "Innovations" program in May 2008.

During the Q&A session, a woman in the front row who was clearly getting into the spirit of the event asked "Does the audience get to vote?" Artistic Director Adam Sklute shot down the suggestion in her question, saying the process is meant to be nurturing.

Still, in the end only three works will be chosen, and I'm not sure how Sklute will decide. Personally, I think the pas de deux by principal dancer Christopher Ruud is a shoo-in due to the visually appealing power moves and the blatantly romantic theme, but I may just be partial because I love watching Ruud on stage. Even when dancing a generic Prince Charming, he manages to put substance behind the charm. Ruud said he used music by Bach because that is his own favorite dance music, and that he was inspired by love for his wife Christiana Bennett who also happens to be a Ballet West principal, and memories of his father, Tom Ruud, a former Ballet West dancer who died tragically young at age 50.

Ballet West soloist Peggy Dolkas created a New Wave piece titled "Yes, but how did you get there?" She used modern dance moves, no toe shoes, and a tape mix made by her boyfriend (a.k.a. DJ Robatroid) using a children's recording that she found at Deseret Industries.

The other pieces suggested that at heart, ballet dancers are romantic sentimentalists (but then again, probably so are people who buy ballet tickets). I liked the way Emily Adams represented her idea of "not being afraid to take a plunge" by making her dance look like a water ballet. Even without artistic stage lighting, you could envision watery buoyancy. Michael Bearden called his piece "Life Elevated" (thank you, Utah Office of Tourism), and it was about an alluring stranger arriving in town. However, he set the piece to Astor Piazzolla, which raised the question, if the townsfolk already knew how to tango, how naive could they really be? Megan Furse brought her dancers on an emotional journey from trepidation to trust, and Jason Linsley killed off half of one pair leaving behind a grief-stricken ballerina.

Part of the pleasure of watching unfinished works by obviously talented dancers is that ideas and inspirations are still raw. You can see the potential as well as the flaws, and anything derivative pretty clearly exposes its origins. When the event is set up as a competition, it's impossible to avoid forming an opinion, and making a judgment draws you into a deeper apprecia-tion for the process of creativity and an awareness of the qualities that make a dance good or not-so-good. Setting up a competition is an ideal way to split open a dance and let the audience in on the secret of how it works.

When Repertory Dance Theatre does their Charette fund-raiser they aren't aiming to produce a lasting work of art, just to provide an evening of fun. The event is both a little sillier and a little more cutthroat than the competition at Ballet West. RDT invites seasoned choreographers with presumably tough egos to be contestants and uses a panel of (local) celebrity judges and audience applause-o-meter response to declare a winner. Like the surprise ingredient on TV's Iron Chef, the Iron Choreographer draws a theme out of a hat, and then gets one hour to create an interpretive dance and teach it to six dancers. The audience nibbles snacks and strolls from room to room to see how it's all going, and when the results are performed on stage they get to cheer boisterously for their favorite. Last year, U of U Modern Dance professor Stephen Koester triumphed with the theme "Joy of Life" which he interpreted cynically. The defending champion, Natosha Washington, may have been handicapped by drawing the unworkable theme "Pilates." On the other hand, several months later she starred in SBDance's "Yoga: The Musical" as a glamorous yoga diva with plans for world domination. I wonder if her absurd Pilates dance might have had something to do with it.

Amy Brunvand is a dance enthusiast and a librarian at the University of Utah. Repertory Dance Theatre-"Charette: The Search for Utah's Iron Choreographer," March 8, 2008. Ballet West-"Innovations," May 29, 30, 31, 2008. Both at Jeanne Wagner Theatre.

This article was originally published on October 31, 2007.