BWW Dance Interview: Adam Sklute of Ballet West
Adam Sklute was named Artistic Director of Ballet West in 2007, Since then he has expanded Ballet West's repertoire, visibility, and overall outlook with exciting company premieres; increased touring and public exposure and greater focus on Ballet West Academy.
Sklute has presented over fifty-five world/Utah premiers, twenty-three works of which were never before performed by Ballet West by such renowned historical choreographers as Sir Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Bronislava Nijinska, and Michel Fokine and contemporary masters Jiri Kylian, Mark Morris, and Twyla Tharp to name a few. He has commissioned ten world premieres by leading choreographers of today such as Val Caniporoli, Nicolo Fonte, Matthew Neenan, and Helen Pickett. In 2012 Sklute named Nicolo Fonte Resident Choreographer for Ballet West.
Passionate about dance education and the development of young dancers, Sklute actively oversees Ballet West's Academy, teaching regularly and developing and guiding its syllabus and programs with the Academy faculty. Sklute is also a guest teacher and coach for dance programs and workshops worldwide, including Brigham Young University, Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, The Berlin State Ballet School, The Joffrey Ballet Schools in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, The Southwest Regional Ballet Festival, and The University of Cincinnati, among others.
Broadwayworld Dance recently interviewed Adam Sklute via e-mail.
Q. Where were you born? Any early influences?
A. I was born in Waterville, Maine, but raised in California, Sweden, and France. From a very early age my parents took me to see ballet, opera, and theater, so I had great exposure to all the arts. I would dance around the house to music and sing along with the operas. I also took piano lessons from a very young age but never had a true interest or focus in studying until I was older.
Q. You began dancing rather late, 16 years of age. How did that impact upon your studies?
A. I was actually three months shy of my 17th birthday, just when I became passionate about dancing. I was lucky to be born with proper proportions, natural ability, and musicality. I could easily lift girls over my head, and I was tall, but I always felt I was playing catch-up technically. Indeed, I spent my entire performing career feeling as if I was catching up to achieve proper technique.
Q. Tell me something about your early teachers and what they imparted to you in terms of technique, dance overview.
A. I started my training with Sally Streets, who had been a soloist under Balanchine. Her aesthetic approach to movement, line, and turnout stuck with me. I was only with her a very short time when I moved over to Oakland Ballet, as they needed men for the American premiere of Les Noces. There, Ronn Guidi and his amazing focus on the Diaghilev-era works left an indelible impression.
I danced as an apprentice with the Oakland Ballet, with only about a year of formal classical training under my belt. I enjoyed it but knew I needed to focus on formal training, so I finished high school early and went to New York. After a brief summer at SAB, I landed at the Joffrey School and started performing with their concert group right away. It was there that Robert Joffrey saw me and took me into his second company. I became one of the last two dancers Mr. Joffrey personally picked for his company before he passed away.
Q. You were in Joffrey for many years. Tell me something about the roles you danced, company atmosphere, things you learned that were to help you later in your career.
A. When I started with the Joffrey Ballet in the mid 1980's, it was a time of huge growth for the company. We split our time between LA and New York, as big ballets were entering the rep: Cranko's Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet, Ashton's La Fille Mal Gardée. I was part of the reconstruction of Nijinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps and the creation of Robert Joffrey's The Nutcracker. Then there were all the other Diaghilev era ballets, the huge Ashton rep, the Kylian rep and, of course, the ballets of Gerald Arpino. Later on under Mr. Arpino's direction we saw the reconstruction of Massine's Les Presages and the Prince collaboration, Billboards. I seemed to be in all of them. Having that type of broad, eclectic repertoire that held on to a great respect for history and art truly colored my outlook and approach. Add to that my endless fascination from my first dancing days for the great works of George Balanchine and a passion for the classics like Swan Lake and Giselle.
When the Joffrey moved from New York to Chicago, I was asked to take on additional administrative roles, beginning with scheduling, then running rehearsals, then eventually teaching class as well. When I started, I didn't even know how to work a computer, so I taught myself. I was still dancing, so I would get to the business office at 7am, work until 9:30, travel to the studios, take or teach class, post all things that needed to be posted, dance in or run rehearsals and then go back to the business offices at the end of the day and work there from 7:30 to 10. It was grueling, but it was the best on-the job training. It was a very challenging transition for the Joffrey and things just needed to be done, so I did them. I ended up slowly transitioning out of performing and focusing only on character roles. Eventually, I was promoted to ballet master, then assistant director, and then associate director. There was a team of us working under Mr. Arpino and, as tough as those times were, they were filled with a unique camaraderie that was very special.
Q. Did you ever have any ambition to choreograph?
A. I dabbled a bit in it, but very quickly felt that it was not where my passion nor my greatest talent lay. I was more excited and inspired by studying other choreographers and ballets, historical and new, and figuring out what they were all about. Examining how the choreographer's craft worked and understanding the influences-this was fascinating to me.
Q. Did you ever see yourself in the role of a company artistic director?
A. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit it, but yes. I think I always wanted to be a director even before I was a professional dancer. Exploring the inner workings of a company, helping and guiding dancers, choreographers, designers, and understanding the workings of our art form-these always inspired me as much as dancing.
Q. Ballet West was a new career opportunity for you. How were you approached about the position?
A. I was co-associate director of The Joffrey in 2006. I was responsible for so much of the runnings of the company and, as Mr. Arpino, who was of advanced age at the time and would soon be moving to an emeritus position, I did a lot of work in his name. I was informed by the Joffrey board that I would be a prime candidate in the search for a new artistic director. At approximately the same time I received a little one line e-mail asking me if I would submit my resume for the artistic directorship of Ballet West in Salt Lake City, Utah. Again, I'm a bit embarrassed, but I agreed to submit it to see what my market value would be. My entire professional career had been with Joffrey. But once I was asked to fly to Salt Lake City to interview, teach class, coach the dancers, meet with board and staff and donors, I fell in love and I realized that what was needed in my life was change. Here was an opportunity to be my own director, to honor the history of Ballet West, but build it as I wanted. At Joffrey I would have likely been too slavish to the legacy to move it into the future; at Ballet West I was being asked to re-envision how things would be. So I accepted the position in March of 2007.
Q. Had you ever seen Ballet West perform before you joined as artistic director?
A. Not really. I knew of the work of all five directors, and I personally had grown up on Lew Christensen's Nutcracker. Lew was the brother of William Christensen, founder of Ballet West, so there was a lot of history there. I had many friends and acquaintances from both my Oakland Ballet days and Joffrey School days who had danced for Ballet West.
Q. One of your biggest contributions to Ballet West (among the many stellar) has been the introduction of works never performed there, plus many world premieres. How did you go about deciding on these works?
A. When I arrived at Ballet West, they had produced very few new works and I felt it was of vital importance to have works created on our dancers, to give opportunities for our dancers to choreograph and to promote untried new choreographers. The works I brought in, such as the Kylian rep and some of the Diaghilev era work, come from my early Joffrey and Oakland Ballet days. They illuminated the way. Ballet West had a long history with Balanchine repertoire, and I just expanded it with works of his that I admired. Planning a good repertoire is like planning a good meal. Because I have eclectic tastes, it is important for me to expose my dancers and our audiences to "something for everyone."
Q. You've toured quite a great deal. Any pitfalls about a touring schedule?
A. As a dancer, it was always the challenges of a different theater, different stage, the exhaustion of traveling and then performing. Intense rehearsals and performances in one day, it's exhausting, but nerve wracking and exhilarating at the same time. But what a wonderful opportunity for my dancers and me to get seen around the world. We learn and grow from these experiences, giving world-wide audiences a taste of our great work.
Q. Can you tell me a bit about the television series, Breaking Pointe.
A. It was a great challenge to do, but I am so grateful for the experience. I hope we were able to bring the general public into the world of ballet with the program. I always said we did not do the show for the thousands of people who know and love ballet; we did it for the millions of people who know absolutely nothing about ballet.
Q. Tell me about the Ballet West Academy. You have such a great interest in dance education, you channel a great deal of your ballet passion into that.
A. It has been a priority of mine to grow and build the school, and I am so excited with where it is going. We now have four different campuses, two in downtown Salt Lake City, one down south at Thanksgiving Point and one up in Park City. We are bringing in students from Utah and around the world. Last year our graduation class of top level students achieved a 100% placement in professional/pre-professional companies-some moved up the Ballet West II, the rest on to other companies across the globe. We have much work to do, but I'm very proud of the growth our academy has achieved.
Q. What will you be presenting at the Joyce?
A. The anchors of our program are two works that met with great success as part of Ballet West's first National Choreographic Festival last May. We open with Val Caniporoli's Dances for Lou, honoring American composer Lou Harrison and we close with our resident choreographer Nicole Fonte's haunting Fox on the Doorstep. Both works are large cast ballets that show off the strength, artistry, and dynamics of the company. The middle section is dedicated to three smaller/excerpted works that again show off the eclectic breadth of the repertoire and the versatility of the dancers. The middle section opens with Gerald Arpino's very last work, a pas de deux entitled Ruth, Ricordi per Due. It has never been professionally performed in New York and it is a showpiece for our senior male principal, Christopher Ruud, and the delicate and otherworldly Arolyn Williams. it will be immediately followed by the central pas de deux and variations from Balanchine's Chaconne. We performed that last season, and the dancers had the wonderful honor to be coached by the great Merrill Ashley. For obvious reasons, I thought long and hard about bringing a Balanchine work to New York. But after the wonderful experience with Merrill and the beauty of what our dancers produced, I decided to show off three different casts in this fiendish little excerpt. Finally, in the central section, will be a preview except from a new work by Spanish Choreographer Africa Guzman, who danced with Nacho Duato and stages his ballets around the world. The full work will premiere later this year as part of our choreographic festival. I have, since I started with Ballet West, pushed and promoted the work of women choreographers. So we are presenting a meal which hopefully will satisfy all tastes but fits with the intimate and contemporary feel of The Joyce Theater.
Q. What can we expect from you and Ballet West in the future?
A. These past ten years have been years of unprecedented growth for Ballet West. I am one of those people who simply can't rest on my laurels. Indeed, the entire company is like that. We relish new challenges and jump at opportunities, no matter how far-fetched. I want Ballet West to continue to expand its repertoire, both new and classic. I want our choreographic festival to go international and really build it into "The Sundance for Dance." I want our school to become a destination ballet school. We are the premiere ballet company of the American West and that strong pioneering spirit is ingrained in everything we do!