VAIL " George Balanchine's "Square Dance" is not your ordinary ballet. Like the name suggests, it borrows style from American country dance. As the dancers go round and round, a band on stage plays and a caller shouts out the steps.
It debuted 50 years ago in New York, and the Pacific Northwest Ballet will perform it almost exactly as the original, live band and caller included, for opening night of the Vail International Dance Festival Sunday at the Ford Amphitheater. It's rarely performed this way anymore.
The following evening, the troupe will perform it again at the Vilar Center. But this time they will dance its better known version, when Balanchine decided to revive it in 1976. This 'Square Dance' has no caller, the band is sent to the orchestra pit, and there's an added male solo, something for which the work is celebrated.
"Balanchine stripped it of its western theme. He took out the caller, he took out the hoakey costume the caller would wear. He took out the hay bales on stage," Peter Boal, artistic director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, said. "He just left the classical ballet, and I think it's interesting that the ballet succeeded just in its choreography."
Balanchine is heralded as the 20th century's foremost choreographer. Although he's originally from Russia, he's become synonymous with American dance. His work is all over this year's dance festival, a nod to the festival's new artistic director Damian Woetzel. It's no secret Woetzel is a big fan, describing Balanchine as a "genius."
It's not unusual for Balanchine to release a work and then rerelease it without all the bells and whistles like heavy costumes and sets. Boal said that the choreographer did it with "Four Temperaments" and "Apollo."
"I think he was interested in the essence of the work. The essence, which was the great choreography," Boal said, hesistant to speak for Balanchine. "Balanchine was fascinated by pure dance and how strong it could be in performance stripped of all its extras."
Within weeks of the premiere of "Square Dance" in 1957, Balanchine debuted another famous work " "Agon." The Pacific Northwest Ballet will perform it as well Monday night.
"It's simply amazing that he could work in two completely different directions at the same time," Boal said.
For "Agon," Balanchine worked right alongside Igor Stravinsky, who he commissioned for the score. Woetzel said the two often worked together, pushing each other to achieve great art.
But what's really significant about "Agon," as the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, Balanchine cast an African American male and a Caucasian female as principle dancers.
The ballet was not an intentional comment on race, but it was color blind, Woetzel said. The genius of the choreography overtook even the statement made by the casting. Boal agrees, saying the piece hasn't lost any of its luster since debuting in 1957.
"Agon is one of these works that you can't believe it's 50 years old. It's still startling."
Rounding out the Sunday and Monday's performances are "Rubies" by Balanchine Monday, "In the Night" by Jerome Robbins and "Nine Sinatra Songs" by Twyla Tharp, both on Sunday.
"It's pure Tharp. Pure entertainment," Boal said of "Nine Sinatra Songs." "It's all about seven couples and their relationships. It makes you laugh and your beat. It's one of her strongest."
Wren Wertin contributed to this story.