Ballet West Rediscovered: Holding onto Its Utah Roots While Looking toward the Future

By Peterson, Jessica Romine | Dance Magazine, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Ballet West Rediscovered: Holding onto Its Utah Roots While Looking toward the Future


Peterson, Jessica Romine, Dance Magazine


Artistic Director Jonas Kage is revitalizing Ballet West's image and outlook while maintaining legacy of the Salt Lake City company's founder, the late Willam Christensen. While honoring the ballet classics, Kage is devoted to presenting the best of today's choreographers as well as the modern masterworks he once danced with a succession of top-rank companies. "I sometimes say, `It should not always be safe to go to the ballet,'" he says. * In this way, Kage follows the lead of Christensen, who shaped and guided Ballet West for fifteen years before he retired in 1978 (see Transitions, page 74). The artistic directorship passed from him to Bruce Marks, John Hart, and most recently to Kage. * Each director made his own contributions. Marks expanded the company's breadth by introducing new works, including the re-creation of August Bournonville's Abdallah in 1985. Though Ballet West had only forty members and limited rehearsal space at the city's Capitol Theatre, Marks directed the company's first full-length production of Swan Lake in 1984. When Hart succeeded Marks in 1985 he supported a strong sense of classicism, focusing on the full-length classics. Hart applied his years as assistant director and, later, administrator of England's Royal Ballet to help Ballet West mn smoothly. * Kage, 51, a native of Stockholm, Sweden, danced during his seventeen-year career with the Royal Swedish Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Stuttgart Ballet (under Glen Tetley), Geneva Ballet (under George Balanchine and Patricia Neary), and Zurich Ballet. He was a guest artist with the London Festival Ballet (now the English National Ballet), Royal Swedish Ballet (after leaving its full-time roster), and Munich Opera Ballet. Kage then returned to Sweden, where he was the artistic director of the Malmo Opera Ballet from 1988 to 1995. Thereafter he worked as a visiting artist and master teacher before taking charge of Ballet West in 1997. * Kage embraced the opportunity to build a relationship with Christensen--"Mr. C.," as he was fondly called. "Connecting with Mr. C. has been very rewarding," Kage says. "He always wanted to know what was going on and he was always asking, `How can I help?'

"Projection [onstage] and artistic communication were always big for him," Kage remembers. "We totally agreed on that." Christensen's death, Kage admits, "leaves a big void." On the other hand, he feels honored to lead the founder's company into the twenty-first century. "It's certainly inspiring. It's up to me now. I feel like I'm starting to shape the company in the direction I want it to go," Kage says. "It takes time to establish a company that's well structured for the goals we have. Ballet West is on the threshold of a renaissance, ready to be discovered again."

Ballet West produces two mixed-repertoire programs and two evening-length ballets each season with its forty-six dancers. Kage says he's committed to reevaluating the approach to the classics. Utah audiences, accustomed to the traditional and classical interpretations of ballet, need to see how the art form continues to evolve, he stresses.

"Yes, we need harmony and beauty, but we need to be challenged and reminded. [Ballet] should stimulate us both emotionally and intellectually," Kage says. He has expanded the repertoire with more Balanchine works as well as dances by such contemporary choreographers as William Forsythe, Hans van Manen, Christopher Bruce, and Val Caniparoli, while searching constantly for new and emerging choreographers. "This is where my responsibility to Mr. C. comes in," Kage explains. While waiting for the new generation of choreographers, he says, "I am tapping the resources of a great era of dance that I was fortunate to be a part of. I want the company to dance it as clearly and as well as possible."

Christensen was an avid dance educator. He established the ballet program at the University of Utah in 1951 after starting a program for dance instruction through the university's division of continuing education. …

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