Director’s Notes: The Real World

After scouting for a ballet company to feature in the melodramatic reality show “Breaking Pointe,” the producers made a U-turn back to Adam Sklute, the CEO and artistic director of Ballet West in Salt Lake City. “They said, In our screen tests, your company is the most photogenic. They have really interesting stories and we’d love to have them on camera,” recalls Sklute. The show, which focused on Ballet West’s backstage drama and intramural romance, premiered in 2012, ran for two seasons and brought fame to dancers like Beckanne Sisk and Allison DeBona. “Some of our dancers could be supermodels. They are as tall and as dramatic as the Rocky Mountains that we look at,” says Sklute. “I want a company of tall, beautiful dancers who produce a glamorous stage picture.” Still, there’s far more than glitz and good looks at this midsized company.

Sklute coaches corps artist Kazlyn Nielsen (photo courtesy Ballet West)

When Sklute took the reins of Ballet West in 2007, he became the fifth director of the company founded by Willam F. Christensen in 1963. “I feel very connected to the backbone of the classics and the works of Balanchine,” says Sklute, referring to the bulk of Ballet West’s early repertoire. “But I also want to expand that into the future. My dancers are 21st-century dancers.”

Much of Sklute’s approach to seeking contemporary voices was shaped by his career with the Joffrey Ballet, where he danced from 1985 to 1995. Afterwards he became a ballet master and then associate director of the company. Like Robert Joffrey, he has also embraced historical masterpieces, like Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table, to be performed in April.

Sklute has presented 48 world and 30 company premieres, including ballets by legends such as Bronislava Nijinska and Sir Frederick Ashton; contemporary masters Jirˇí Kylián, Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp; and commissioned works by Val Caniparoli, Matthew Neenan, Helen Pickett and Nicolo Fonte, the company’s resident choreographer. In February, Ballet West will reprise Sklute’s adaptation of The Sleeping Beauty.

Whether it’s Ashton or a choreographer whose first language isn’t ballet, Sklute demands stylistic perfection. “I insist on a proper approach,” he says. “How to prepare for pirouettes, the syncopation of a pas de bourrée, where the arms are—these are all stylistic details that I want our dancers to adhere to.” He also takes pride in Ballet West’s esprit de corps—the teamwork that values every dancer and position within the company.

Principal dancer Emily Adams, who rose through the ranks after joining the corps in 2007, describes Sklute’s energy in rehearsal: “He’s so passionate that he’ll get up in the studio and do the role. Doing four pirouettes isn’t his main focus. He likes individual expression.”

This season, Adams will dance the ballerina role in Balanchine’s Chaconne, and in the past she’s performed the Fairy Godmother in Ashton’s Cinderella. She relishes the variety. “At New York City Ballet, I would never have been immersed in [Ashton’s] style,” says the School of American Ballet–trained dancer. “We’re a midsized company, so I get to do so many roles. I don’t get typecast.” Adams has also choreographed for past Innovations programs, an opportunity initiated by Sklute in 2008 that encourages company members and emerging choreographers to create new works.

At first, Sklute was surprised at how ballet-friendly Salt Lake City is. “It’s committed to it in many ways that bigger cities are not,” he says. “An interesting part of my job is broadening the horizon of all things that classical ballet can be.” This May, Ballet West is producing its first National Choreographic Festival, with original ballets for the company and recently created works for Pacific Northwest Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theatre, Sarasota Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. “My goal is hopefully to position Salt Lake City as a hub for new creations in dance, similar to what Sundance and Park City do for film.”

Sklute also wants the company to acquire a global reputation. In November, Ballet West performed at the International Ballet Festival of Havana, in the Cuban premiere of the pas de deux from Balanchine’s “Rubies” and Fonte’s Presto. As for “Breaking Pointe,” despite some cringeworthy scenes (like when Sklute fired a dancer on camera), he says “it brought new audiences in and an overall awareness internationally.” Even his extended family in Germany and Sweden watched it—dubbed in other languages. 

at a glance

Ballet West

Number of dancers: 38, plus 14 in Ballet West II

Length of contract: 37 weeks

Starting salary: $974 per week for corps (AGMA union company)

Performances in 2016–17: 73

Website: balletwest.org

Audition Advice

Though Sklute prefers to hire dancers from Ballet West II into the corps, the company holds auditions annually, this year in New York (March 25) and in Salt Lake City (early April). The average height for women is 5′ 8″ and for men, 6′ 1,” but “there are always exceptions,” says Sklute. “I like an artist who creates magic onstage. Also someone who listens, because it’s that attention to stylistic detail that matters so much.”

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