Sunday in the Park
We weren’t dance people. Musical theater, yes. Movies. Musicians. But I don’t remember any dance, other than the hula at some summertime party that was less than inspiring to watch. Square dance and folk dance: I guess that was part of the school curriculum. Days in the gym when the phonograph sang about a big black dog that sat on the back porch and Bingo was his name. Then you counted out the spaces to see which cootie-laden partner you would end up with for the next round.
By junior high I was doin’ the Twist and the Swim and the Monkey. Then somehow the music changed and dance became very free form and without name. You just moved to the music. In genteel settings there were still gala events where ball-gowned ladies were guided around wooden dance floors in three-quarter time. But I was absent from all that in the ’70s.
But I did make babies then and I wanted them exposed to all the worlds I had not visited. When I saw an ad for the Nutcracker, as presented by the San Francisco Ballet Company, I made plans to attend, even though we lived four hours away in Lake Tahoe.
San Francisco at Christmas was always magical. The anchor store on Union Square was The City of Paris and all the finest things from around the world were there (think Neiman Marcus before there was such a store). But the very best was Christmas, when inside the four- or five-story rotunda a giant Christmas tree filled the open center space. On that tree were full-size dolls and teddy bears and train engines and oversized toy-soldier nutcrackers.
I am embarrassed to admit I had no idea what the Nutcracker was, exactly, before I attended with my four-year-old son. It looked exciting from the ads on television and I thought it was high time for us to attend a live performance of, well, anything. I didn’t realize there were no speaking roles and the performers danced the entire show. Musical theater this was not.
But it was clearly magic.
And I was smitten with it all. And to my great surprise, so was my son, and later my daughter. Attending the Nutcracker became our holiday tradition even when all other traditions were uprooted when we moved to Utah. What a surprise that the famed Mr. C of the San Francisco Ballet Company, who had brought the Nutcracker to America from Russia (along with Swan Lake), had started another company in Salt Lake City. And though the local version in the early ’80s was bit downsized from the over-the-top productions we had seen for years in San Francisco, the kids didn’t notice. The snowflakes danced, the Mouse King fought, the Russian dancers kicked and it was all great fun. Sometimes in the middle of the year, for no reason at all, I would attend a ballet performance. The beauty of the athletically-trained bodies always left me in awe and transported me, if only for a few hours, to a life very removed from my own.
Fast forward to now, when I work in a job that involves presenting performers from a variety of disciplines. We knew would present music, theater and dance, even though we were told dance would be the least attended and was a dying art. That’s really all I needed to hear to want to make dance succeed in our space. And every year, for 10 years now, we have presented two to three even four in some seasons dance companies from classical to modern. I have grown to love the universal wordless storytelling that comes with careful choreography that matches music to bodies and uplifts us all.
Last Saturday night I had the great privilege to be a guest at the annual gala for Ballet West, Mr. C’s old company (he passed away in 2001 but his family intentions are still represented on the board by his granddaughter, local Sarah West). There was to be an hour of showcase performance at the Capitol Theater, followed by dinner and dancing at the Grand America Hotel. It was a black-tie event. There was something that felt like another time and place, seeing the elegant crowd fill the lobby and chat before the bells told us to take our seats.
As the overture music started to swell under the baton of longtime orchestra director Terence Kern, there were excited murmurs and by the time the red velvet curtain parted there was an audible gasp of delight as the youngest members of Ballet West Dance Academy took to the stage and wowed us with the energy of the little ones and the skill of the older students. It was a fast-paced piece with the patter of toe shoes on the stage that ended in a flutter of tutus dipping to wild applause. There was a short Balanchine piece and a Twyla Tharp piece and the world premiere of a Heather Gray piece that was very modern and very exciting.
There was a solo danced by prima ballerina Christiana Bennett that was so exquisite and floating and technically proficient that I had a moment where I felt like my childhood jewelry-box ballerina had come to life and found her way to the stage. On loan from the Houston Ballet Company was Sara Webb who, along with rising Ballet West star Beau Pearson, performed to the music of piano soloist Jared Oaks. It was a work of such strength and elegance and beautiful intimacy that one just sighed at the grace of the dancers.
And finally, the big company ending was from the upcoming Tempest production. Dozens of dancers took to the stage in fabulous silver and white costumes and Juno and Neptune and Bacchus and the rest of the bunch danced in an excerpt from the wedding celebration that left the audience on its feet in shouts of "Bravo" at the conclusion. It was all simply marvelous.
Later, at the dinner, new artistic director Adam Sklute, the man responsible for the change in the dynamic energized company, introduced, one by one, the principal dancers who had changed into stunning young women in ball gowns and handsome dark-suited young men. As he finished presenting them, Adam said to the audience, "This is your company. This is Ballet West." And there was a sense of pride in room. Maintaining a full ballet company is a feat of no small proportions, and we all share the responsibility and the joy in having such an arts group alive in our midst.
But these are perilous times for all of us in the arts. Our existence is fragile. Instead of a necessity, to keep our souls stirring and give us hope, the arts are often thought to be a luxury. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I urge you to make a ballet part of your personal mental-health program in the days and weeks ahead. There are world premieres and new touches to classics. And, of course, there is the Nutcracker, a ballet so accessible even dads suggest buying tickets. Adam was spot-on in introducing the dancers as "this is your company." Let’s keep them dancing now more than ever. I plan to buy tickets for my grandchildren, to introduce them all to The Mouse King, this very Sunday in the Park
Teri Orr is the director of the Park City Performing Arts Foundation that provides programming for the George S. and Delores Dore Eccles Center for the Performing Arts and the Big Stars Bright Nights Summer Concert Series at Deer Valley. She is also a former editor of The Park Record.
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