Monday, January 20, 2014

Two Unforgettable Dancers at Ballet West

My husband and I had the opportunity while visiting Salt Lake City recently to see Ballet West perform their annual Nutcracker on the evening of December 28th. Upon arriving in Salt Lake we were impressed by the presence the company seems to have in the community, at least judging by their advertising efforts; brochures for the company’s 50th Anniversary Season seemed to be literally everywhere! It was my first visit to Salt Lake (and my first time seeing Ballet West live), and though I wasn’t there long enough to really experience the city, it seemed at first glance to be a city with an arts culture that appreciates their ballet company.

We attended Ballet West’s last regular Nutcracker performance of the season (other than their “Nutty Nutcracker”, which was their actual last performance), so I wondered if the dancers would seem exhausted after performing more than 25 shows. Although there were a couple of cast changes (Katherine Lawrence and Tom Mattingly replaced Haley Henderson Smith and Rex Tilton as Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier), the performance as a whole was brilliantly danced. I had read great things about Ballet West’s Nutcracker when they brought it to the Kennedy Center in 2012 (unfortunately I was unable to attend) and had high expectations, but the overall stellar level of dancing from every single dancer on stage exceeded my expectations. Rather than write just another Nutcracker review, I wanted to focus on two dancers who wowed me unexpectedly: soloist Sayaka Ohtaki, who performed the Arabian pas de deux with first soloist Christopher Sellars, and corps de ballet artist Joshua Whitehead, who performed the lead Russian dancer.

I was somewhat familiar with Joshua Whitehead due to the fact that he was featured on the second season of Breaking Pointe, the reality show on Ballet West that I very much enjoyed watching. However, Joshua was an apprentice dancer during Breaking Pointe’s second season and did not dance a featured role during the show. Now in the corps de ballet, Joshua danced the lead Russian dancer with technical assuredness, unaffected style and an easy jump. But it was the pure joy radiating from his dancing that practically stole the show that evening. At times during the performance it seemed as though some of the dancers wore an artificial smile (maybe this was the one telling sign of fatigue at the end of the run). But Joshua’s smile and his every movement communicated an honest joy and excitement to be where he was at that moment, dancing his heart out. What a thrill to see!

Sayaka Ohtaki was not featured in Breaking Pointe and was unknown to me, and when I saw the casting for Arabian I was disappointed not to have the chance to see Allison DeBona in the role, whom I admired from the show. But I was taken aback the first moment that Sayaka stepped on stage, and I could not help but ask myself--who is this gorgeous dancer and why I am not familiar with her? Although beautiful and with a delicate, perfect ballet physique, Sayaka’s presence and style were what made it impossible to take your eyes off her. Her self-assured authority coupled with sensuousness and exquisite lines made her ideal for the role. I could see from my program that she was also cast as Sugar Plum Fairy in several performances, and I wished that I could have also attended on one of those nights to see her at her full potential.

I wanted to also mention soloist Beckanne Sisk (who had a lot of exposure on Breaking Pointe) and principal artist Katherine Lawrence, who each gave very memorable performances. Beckanne is clearly amazingly gifted and made a very strong impression in the Waltz of the Flowers pas de deux with principal artist Christopher Rudd. Beckanne’s dancing looks effortless and she has that “it factor,” although her dancing could still benefit from further refinement at times.

Katherine Lawrence and Tom Mattingly performed the difficult pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier with an honest authenticity, full of intelligent artistic choices. Katherine is not a “diva” ballerina but instead dances with a humble graciousness that reveals the dancing itself.

Each of these inspiring dancers left me wondering, long after the performance had ended: how can I see more of this gem of a company? The next time they visit the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, I will be sure not to miss.

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