Fairytale ballets like Swan Lake and The Nutcracker guarantee sold out houses for Colorado Ballet, which leans on those productions to ensure it makes budget. While coastal cities enjoy more consistent, challenging, modern repertoires, it's an every two-years treat in Denver. In part, that's because audiences aren't supporting innovation.
The Little Mermaid, which the company performs in April, sold out weeks ago, yet Ballet Masterworks, which will challenge audiences with something different than standard saccharine fare, is running now, at the Ellie Caulkins Opera house, and tickets are still available.
Colorado Ballet has one of the largest companies off the coasts. Its dancers' skill is unparalleled; they are absolute machines. Many of the performers hail from other countries: Ireland, Italy, Japan, Canada, Ecuador, France, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, Cuba and the U.K., and should be given a break from playing the same tired fairies, animals and princess, again and again. Yes, storybook ballets help a company make payroll by appealing to younger audiences. But they shouldn't be the only works the public supports.
This is nothing new. In the late 1800s, there was a rupture in the ballet world, and a divide emerged between contemporary and classical ballet that split audiences, and that divide has not been repaired.
Now, companies like Colorado Ballet have to make hard programming decisions, fearing that their audiences might not know about George Balanchine, one of the great twentieth-century choreographers, but, thanks to Disney, will show up in droves for The Little Mermaid and buy up the seats.
One dance in the performance, Balanchine's Serenade, which debuted in 1934, was his first work to be performed in the United States. It caused a stir with its minimalist costuming, acting as a prelude to a host of other works created by New York City Ballet, where the focus was movement and the body rather than plot or set design. To this day, his works are as "modern" as many classical ballet companies will go regularly, and it's not that modern.
Sergei Diaghilev's choreography for Firebird, included in Ballet Masterworks, was, like Serenade, innovative when it debuted in Paris in 1910. Based on Russian folklore about a magic bird that both inspires and torments its owner, the piece moves quickly, with a fantastic, Phoenix-inspired costume worn by the ballerina. It is in a staple of "contemporary works" that classical ballet dancers get to perform once in a blue moon.
In Ballet Masterworks, we are also at long last able to see the dancers perform a work by a living choreographer. This happens infrequently, which is a shame, because Colorado Ballet is the only company that can hold a work like Czech-born Jirí Kylián's Petite Mort to the high standard at which it should be performed.
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This work is athletic and abstract. We don't see this side of Colorado Ballet very often, which is a shame. Too many years have passed since Denver was treated to a piece with such raw, sexual energy.
If you enjoy The Nutcracker every season, great. Now is your chance to support what these dancers are fully capable of once they shake off that Sugar Plum Fairy tiara.
Ballet Masterworks runs through February 26 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House; for more information, go to the Colorado Ballet website.