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Ballet West Delivers a "Sensation"-al Closing Show

by Karen Webb 
While this picture, courtesy of Ballet West, was taken a year ago, Christiana Bennet and Christopher Rudd are still doing impressive work for Ballet West.

If you follow Ballet West, in one sense you’ve already seen everything in "Spring Sensations," the Salt Lake City dance company's season-closing Balanchine-and-Bruce rep bill.

Is that a reason to stay home? Nope. In another—and truer—sense, you haven’t seen these pieces at all until you’ve seen the casts that are currently dancing them. Dancers reprising roles have grown into them so they fit like a comfortable second skin; dancers new to roles present them with an appealing freshness and vivacity. The Capitol Theatre audience witnessed these lively performances on Wednesday, April 13, starting the final four days of the production after Friday and Saturday evening performances on April 8 and 9.

I didn’t realize how much I missed Michiyo Hayashi until I saw her return to the stage after her maternity leave. She seems to be treading a path similar to the one that fellow principal Maggie Wright trod before her. A true talent before she tackled the role of motherhood, she returns with even more dimension to her dancing. She’s given away nothing when it comes to technique, and now there is a depth and pliancy—almost a sense that her reach has grown—that simply wasn’t there before.

Hayashi and Kristin Hakala led the cast of “Concerto Barocco.” As much as I like this ballet and as well as they danced it last season, this year the piece has a sparkle, an energy that didn’t quite come across the last time it played. Hakala and Hayashi achieve something in this piece the lead women don’t often do. They feel the music in very similar ways, yet there is enough difference in their attack and overall style that the difference between the first and second violin you hear in the music is given perfect visual life. Hakala is at her lyrical best while Hayashi sweetly flirts with the audience, using every part of her body so that even her eyes seem to be dancing.

With I'm very fond of Kelly Parkinson, Ballet West's regular guest violin soloist, I have to applaud the work of solo violinists Rosalie McMillan and Krista Utrilla, both of whom played with beautiful fluidity and style.

Christopher Bruce’s dramatic piece, “Ghost Dances,” seems, if anything, eerier and more topical than it did on its last run. He developed it as a paean to the common people of post-Allende Chile, who regularly have wars roll right over them without those battles stopping to ask who is getting killed or why. “Ghost Dances” is that rare piece that is affecting without being preachy.

The ghosts, played here by Jason Linsley, Hua Zhuang, and Christopher Ruud, look a lot like the Death figure from Kurt Joos's “The Green Table,” and they play a similar function. The rest of the cast are peasants going about the business of living when war overtakes them. Although the choice of which character the ghosts tag in each variation is obviously choreographed, Bruce imparts a sense of randomness that rings true. Linsley, Zhuang and Ruud look fabulous with this choreography: clean, dynamic, and truly menacing. Like Ruud dancing the Stepsisters in Cinderella with Seth Olson, there’s an extra element of drama when big guys start throwing each other around the stage with such conviction.

The choreography for “The Dead” is challenging with a lot of quick reverses in direction and a lot of fast shifting—from the free and lyrical to the angular, from the suspended to the completely collapsed and back to suspended again. The standouts were Kelly Ocharzak, who had a wonderful sense of consonance with both the music and the movement, and Heather Thackeray, who has undergone a tremendous artistic growth spurt this season.

It was also fun to see Michael Bearden, whom I think of mainly as a classical dancer, cut loose with Victoria Lock in the young couple’s variation. Tackling the quirky bird-walk movements seemed to pull something out of him I haven’t seen before. He and Lock made an appealing couple in the first flash of love, maintaining their sense of youthful fun and innocence until the very moment that the Ghost Dancers appeared to claim Lock.

As a final note, the backcloth for this piece is stunning: you feel like you’re looking out from a high mountain valley across high plains almost to the end of the world. On the other hand, I was beset with eyestrain from the lighting, which I did not remember being quite as subdued in previous productions of the piece.

A reprise of Balanchine’s “Who Cares” closed the program. Christiana “this is how I get my Balanchine fix” Bennett is debuting in the woman’s role that includes “The Man I Love” duet, and she is wonderful: all sultry class and perfectly measured phrasing.

In fact, what’s fun about this particular cast is that you get to see Olson with the three ladies with whom he has the most dynamic onstage chemistry: the statuesque Bennet as well as the smaller Hayashi and Wright. He lifts Bennett as though she were whisper-light, yet he never seems to tower over Hayashi or Wright. His solo variation is a delight: his jumps are crisp, his turns knife-sharp.

Hayashi, who previously turned at the speed of sound, now turns at the speed of light. And really, is Wright ever anything less than a class act? One might debate the wisdom of building a piece on this much Gershwin music, but, when danced with this much verve, “Who Cares?” becomes the perfect send-‘em-home-happy piece.

"Spring Sensation" continues through Saturday, April 16 at the Capitol Theatre (50 W. 200 South). Tickets are available from ArtTix (, (801) 355-ARTS. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. with a 2:00 p.m. matinee on Saturday. Visit or call (801) 323-6900 for more information.

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