The ABT Touch

January 18, 2011

Gil Boggs’ easy manner with his Colorado Ballet dancers sometimes makes him seem more like a colleague than a director. When principals Chandra Kuykendell and Igor Vassine bobble a step while rehearsing the Sugar Plum Fairy pas de deux, Boggs, wearing a faded black T-shirt and black jeans, calmly walks over. He stands next to them silently as they work it out, then simply sits back down and cues the piano.

Boggs’ relaxed approach is especially remarkable in the midst of this year’s Nutcracker rehearsals: Each of the four principal casts will dance slightly different variations of the choreography. Boggs has been working individually with every pair, allowing the dancers to choose steps they want to try until all agree on what looks best. “It’s a factory,” he says, with a smile, “a Sugar Plum factory.”

Formally established in Denver in 1961, Colorado Ballet began as a school and has since grown into a 30-member professional company, a 15-member studio company and a two-location dance academy. In 2006, shortly after a new executive director helped the company recover from a period of financial difficulties, Boggs was recruited to take a fresh look at the artistic product.

The former American Ballet Theatre principal, beloved for his bravura dancing and versatility, came to Colorado Ballet after spending six years out of the dance world, focused instead on his second love: golf. “Whenever we went on tour with ABT,” he says, “I always took my clubs with me. It was my outdoor activity.” After retiring from performing, he became director of the Golf Academy at Chelsea Piers in New York City—until he got the call from Colorado Ballet. “My wife, former ABT soloist Sandra Brown, had just retired from the stage and we had recently had a son, so we were at a bit of a crossroads,” Boggs says. “I decided that it was time to return to dance.”

Upon arriving in Denver, Boggs was immediately impressed by the technical prowess of the dancers, and felt that their strength offered an opportunity to work on artistry. “I focused on getting them to project across the footlights to the audience,” Boggs says. Along with Brown, who came on as a ballet mistress, he began coaching the dancers one-on-one in ways to develop and portray their characters.

He also created an atmosphere in which the dancers can thrive as performers. “I’ve tried to instill confidence in them so they can go onstage and not be afraid to fail,” he says. Most of Colorado Ballet’s productions run for at least two weekends and have multiple casts. Certain productions, like The Nutcracker, have up to four casts of principals and soloists. This gives the dancers more opportunities to tackle leading roles, as well as time to refine their artistry over multiple performances.

Despite limited resources, Boggs has expanded the company’s repertoire, modeling his programming choices on ABT’s range of works. He’s brought in new stagings of classical full-lengths like Swan Lake and Don Quixote, dramatic works by Antony Tudor and Agnes de Mille and premieres by up-and-coming choreographers like Brian Reeder and Matthew Neenan.

“I want to give the audience many different aspects of ballet: romantic ballets, balletic comedy,” says Boggs. “I don’t want them to have one idea of what going to the ballet is like.”

He’s also careful not to ignore long-time audience favorites, such as Michael Pink’s Dracula. “When I first came, I wasn’t sure if I would continue doing it,” he says. “But then I saw how much the audience enjoyed it. They dress up, Rocky Horror Picture Show–style. It’s really an event.”

Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, this year the company had to scale back its season from the usual five productions to four. After a small recovery in 2006, donor contributions and ticket sales were hit hard by the recession. While Boggs doesn’t like downsizing during the 50th-anniversary season, he says, “Being fiscally responsible and staying away from debt is good for the audience and the company.” This year’s cuts have set up the company to enter next season strong.

Boggs has many dreams for the future, including an endowment, financial stability, a new rehearsal space, a large academy that feeds into the company and the resources to take Colorado Ballet on tour. But despite the lengthy wish list, he’s proud of the quality of work that the company produces. “We’re not the size of ABT,” he says, “but we’ve done performances that I would put on the Metropolitan Opera stage without a worry in the world.”

At A Glance
Colorado Ballet
Number of dancers: 30
Contract length: 33 weeks
Starting salary: $651 per week
Performances per year: 52 to 54 on average

Courtney E. Thompson writes about dance from Colorado.