Dallas — As in any other industry, rising competition and the ever-changing economy have forced ballet companies across the nation to step outside the box when it comes to broadening their audience base and exposing more people to the art form. So when Ballet West’s Artistic Director Adam Sklute heard that BBC Worldwide Productions was looking for a ballet company to be the focus for a new reality series he jumped at the opportunity. After several interviews and screen tests Ballet West was chosen to star in the CW’s reality series Breaking Pointe, which premiered in 2012. Even though the show only lasted for two seasons, Ballet West is still feeling the impact with sold out shows and an expansive touring schedule.
The Salt Lake City-based company was formed in 1963 by Willam Christensen and is currently run by former Joffrey dancer Adam Sklute. At age 17 Sklute began training with the Oakland Ballet and San Francisco Ballet schools. He was one of the last two artists hand-picked by Robert Joffrey and spent 23 years with the Joffrey Ballet before joining Ballet West in 2007. During his time as a dancer Sklute got to perform leading roles in works by Gerald Arpino, Sir Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, John Cranko, Agnes DeMille and Robert Joffrey, to name a few. In addition to Breaking Pointe, Sklute’s other TV credits include The Joffrey Ballet’s Dance in America filmings of Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps and Arpino’s production of Billboards as well as Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table. In 2003 he assisted with and appeared in Robert Altman’s The Company and in 2012 appeared in The Joffrey Ballet: Mavericks of Dance, a documentary chronicling the history of The Joffrey Ballet.
Since joining Ballet West Sklute has expanded the company repertoire and visibility through numerous world premieres, increased touring and greater focus on the Ballet West Academy. Over the last eight years Ballet West has presented more than 55 world/Utah premieres. The company has performed works by historical choreographers, including Sir Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine and Michel Fokine as well as contemporary masters such as Jiri Kylian, Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp. Sklute also oversees Ballet West’s Academy and is a guest teacher and coach for dance programs and workshops around the world.
Dallas audiences will get to see Ballet West in all its classical glory when they come to the Winspear Opera House May 29-30, closing TITAS’ 2014-15 season. The company’s diverse program will include George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 (1956), In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated (1987) by William Forsythe and Jodie Gates’ Mercurial Landscapes (2013).
TheaterJones asks Adam Sklute about the changes he has made to Ballet West, bringing dance to larger audiences through reality T.V. and some of his fond memories working with Robert Joffrey.
TheaterJones: You have such a long rich history with the Joffrey Ballet. What convinced you to move to Salt Lake City and join Ballet West?
Adam Sklute: I had been with the Joffrey Ballet for 23 years starting as a dancer and eventually moving to the position of associate director. The company was going through a transition in 2006-07 where one of the founders, Gerald Arpino, was moving to the position of emeritus and they were going to do an international search for a new artistic director. I was told I would be in the running and I was very interested in the position, but I was also curious to see my market value would be outside of Joffrey. So, when I received a request to apply for Ballet West I thought this was the perfect opportunity to find out my market value. I went through the interview process and was asked to fly out to meet and work with the dancers and the staff, and while I was there I feel in love with the city and the company. I just thought that this was a place where I could really make a difference and I could be really happy living. In that moment my whole perspective changed and I knew it was time for a change and I have never regretted it.
Looking back over the last eight years are you satisfied with what you have been able to accomplish with the company?
Going in I knew I was joining a company that had a great legacy and history itself. I mean it was founded by one of the pioneers of American dance, Willam Christensen, and following him as artistic director was Bruce Marks, Sir John Hart from the Royal Ballet and Swedish dancer Jonas Kåge. And all of them had brought a unique and individual stamp to the company. I am a perpetual student so I enjoyed learning and understanding the company that I was going to be a part of and was going to lead artistically.
I set some very strong goals about what I wanted to do in terms of repertoire and expansion and I worked very hard to get them moved forward. On the other hand, you have to kind of move with the tide. I mean things would happen. Opportunities would come up and changes would occur. My goodness the economy fell out from beneath us just as I was hired. The best laid plans are always there to be modified and changed. What I would like to attempt to be is very much a forward thinker and an intense planner for the future, but then be able to move with the tide and go where its obvious things are happening. With that said I have been very proud of the accomplishments of Ballet West over the last eight years and yes, not a little surprised about some of it, and then also quite gratified.
How does Ballet West’s classical style differ from other ballet companies in the U.S.?
I like to use a poetic phrase to explain our dancers, which is they are as tall and dramatic as the Rocky Mountain region that we represent. What I mean by that is first of all I love long-limbed dancers and very linear kind of looks. What people are going to see is that very lengthy and expansive type of movement that comes from these long-limbed dancers. And even the shorter dancers have that same sort of length and expansion because that’s how we move and it’s how we dance. But on top of that we have a great deal of intensity and theatricality and the dancers understand who they are on the stage. They have a stage presence and the knowledge of how to captivate an audience. So, I think what’s special about us is that we are once a very linear company, but we are also a theatrical company and all that mixed together I think creates a very beautiful and unique look and style.
Do the three pieces on the program, Divertimento No. 15 (1956), In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated (1987) and Mercurial Landscapes (2013), clearly capture the company’s versatility and unique style?
Absolutely, and I have to say Charles Santos was a big part of the decision making process for the programming because he really knows his Dallas audience and he also wanted to represent us in our best light. And I appreciated that tremendously. So yes, the program does show off so many of the facets of what we have done and in a number of ways what I have done since I have been here with Ballet West.
How did you get involved with the reality series Breaking Pointe?
How it came together was BBC Worldwide Productions had been experimenting and shopping around this idea for a reality Television show all about ballet for several years. They had gone to a lot of companies that were bigger than ours who either said no they didn’t want to do it or said yes, but in the end they couldn’t work it out with all their company members and union rules. We were on a long list of companies that they were interviewing and they also wanted us to do a screen test where they would come and spend a week with us filming as many classes, rehearsals, meetings and social gatherings as possible. And also interview all of the dancers interested in being part of the show. We did that and they put together a promo for our company and shopped it around to the networks and the CW picked it up. Now, we were very specific about contracts and time such as when they could film us and when they couldn’t. Each individual had control over what they were allowing people to film and what not to. For instance, I said I was not going to have any cameras in my home. With that said, yes, what you are seeing is the real us and yes, every single situation that happened was real. What you have to remember is that how it is presented on the screen had a lot to do with how pieces were edited together.
When it came to the dance scenes in the show did you have a hand in the editing process?
So, what I was able to do was say “you can film this, but you can’t film that.” I wasn’t there in the editing room so I had to trust BBC a great deal. BBC told me they had two members of the Royal Ballet who would be viewing all of dance scenes in the editing process and would not let any less than desirable dancing go onto the screen. The thing that I can say is for a myriad of reasons we never had as much dancing in there as I wanted. A lot of that had to do with the various trusts and foundations for the choreography that we worked with who either did not want that much of it shown or who were charging a lot of money for that shot. And that also went for the music that we used in the show.
Are you happy with the way you and the company were portrayed on the show?
All of the drama and everything else aside, what I know is that every clip of the dancing came out good. Ultimately, the company showed itself well as a group of dancers and we showed the world the highest caliber of dancing. So, even if the show was based more on the drama stuff what was always there was the quality of the dancing. And I know it sounds cliché, but we also had loftier aspirations than just what the show could do for Ballet West. We felt like we were doing something for the world of dance and for ballet in general. We did not do this show for the thousands of people that know and love ballet. We did this show for the millions of people who know nothing about ballet.
Can you talk about some of your favorite moments working with Robert Joffrey?
By the age of 19 I was a professional dancer with the Joffrey Ballet. I was in class one day when Robert Joffrey showed up and invited me to one of his personal workshops in San Antonio, Texas. He said I needed to go to this and work with him personally. He would give these three hour technique classes and they were the most amazing things I have ever experienced in my life. I had never met anyone who was so meticulous, so detailed orientated and yet so inspiring. I never felt like the details were bogging me down. He hired me after very little study.
Robert Joffrey also had a quirky sense of humor. When he hired me he said to me “Adam, I am going to hire you for my company against my better judgment.” And I said OK what does that mean and he said that “you are smart so I know you are going to succeed. Now you just have to learn how to dance.” He knew that’s how I needed to be spoken too. I am not one for a lot of ego stroking. I respond better to a challenge. And he was right. I had the right proportions for ballet and could do the movements, but it didn’t look like anything because I had no sense of technique. And I spent my entire dance career learning and understanding technique. Like how to stand in fifth position and how to create lines. But Robert Joffrey saw that in me and that was a huge inspiration for me.
» Katie Dravenstott is a freelance writer and dance instructor in Dallas. Visit her blog at www.kddance.wordpress.com