Beyond tutus and pointe shoes; Vail dance festival pushes boundaries, expectations |

Beyond tutus and pointe shoes; Vail dance festival pushes boundaries, expectations

Wren Wertin

We are creatures of our bodies. They walk us around and sit us down. They run, they jump, they twist, they fall. They dance.

The 16th Annual Vail International Dance Festival celebrates the mystery and beauty of the well trained body July 30 through Aug. 13 with a knock-down, drag-out lineup.

“Dance is for everybody,” said Katherine Kersten, producing artistic director of the festival. “It’s the first thing children do. Every single baby will respond to rhythm.”

Vail’s festival brings principal dancers and large dance troupes to the valley for two weeks of larger-than-life performances that span genres from ballet to ballroom, classical to contemporary.

As a little girl, Kersten would organize circuses for her neighborhood. Jugglers, twirly girls, clowns ” they were all under the make-shift tent.

“I was so turned on by Strauss waltzes,” she said, laughing at the memory. “They’re so schmaltzy and big. I’d want to dance, to create.”

She begged her parents for ballet lessons and got them. Those classes were the first of many steps she took on her way to becoming a professional dancer, teacher and producer.

A professional dancer since age 16, Kersten focused on the Russian and French schools of dance. Before a ruptured Achilles tendon ended her performance career, she was a soloist with the Pacific Ballet in San Francisco as well as the Milwaukee


“Dance is my life,” she explained.

The feisty dancer turned her attention to teaching and choreography, and served as the School Director for the Milwaukee Ballet from 1980 until 1992. Kersten has choreographed for such diverse performances as The Walton Family Playhouse in Denver and Disney’s “Out of the Box” television series. The Vail International Dance Festival keeps her busy scouting dance companies and soloists all year long, as she looks to push the envelope.

Kersten and her husband first visited Vail as newlyweds in the ’60s. Of course they came to ski. But in 1991, she was perusing Dance Magazine in Miami, Fla., and saw an ad for the Bolshoi Academy in Vail.

“I thought, ‘Hmmm… I should check this out,'” she recalled. And so back to Vail she went. Having been a dance school director for 14 years, she was already gearing up for a residency in France in order to get back to the international scene. After meeting with people from the Vail Valley Foundation, Kersten decided to help with the 1992 Bolshoi Academy. As part of the Academy, she produced a one-night-only gala evening with dancers from all over the world, and so the first International

Evening of Dance was born.

“Every so often there will be such an event as a special occasion,” Kersten said.

“But I don’t know of any other place that has them on a regular basis.”

Vail does. The response from critics and the audience was so overwhelmingly positive both Kersten and the Vail Valley Foundation realized they needed to take it a step further and make it a regular event. Kersten has been the producing artistic director for the festival for 15 years, and 2006 will be her last.

“The great challenge of doing it year after year is elevating the quality,” she said.

“The audience is there every year, getting more educated about what they like and expecting more. To meld it into something new every time is a challenge. And I do so love a challenge.”

The International Evenings are now a mainstay of the festival, anchored squarely in the middle of the event with two performances on consecutive nights.

“I think the dance festival brings together the finest dancers in the world,” Tom Russo said. “I don’t know of anywhere else you can go and see such a great combination of dancers, and such a variety of them.”

For three and a half years, Russo has called Beaver Creek home. He works at the Vilar Center. Though he’s attended dance performances all over the world, the Vail festival is his favorite.

“With the Dance Festival and Bravo!, what we have here in Vail is really head and shoulders above anything you could expect in a small town,” Russo said.

During the two-week festival, the International Evenings of Dance is Russo’s favorite.

“It’s hard for me to even describe it,” he said. “It’s more a gut feeling ” such beauty. It’s incredible, just incredible.

The premiere

Another festival cornerstone is the Choreographer’s Collection, which supports either an up-and-coming or established choreographer for a piece which premieres at the Vail festival.

“The future of dance depends on choreographers,” said Kersten. “And the future of choreography is totally dependent on the grooming of choreographers.”

Dance has evolved immensely in the past few decades. Though Anna Pavlova is still revered as the seminal ballerina, if she were on stage with today’s dancers, she’d probably pale by comparison.

“The reaches are longer, there are more lifts, more jumps,” Kersten described. “And we have choreographers to thank for that.”

This year, Trey McIntryre is the festival’s choreographer in residence. He’s very much in demand, so having him is a major coup. It’s not the first time he and Kersten have worked together in Vail, as he debuted “Chasing Squirrel” in 1994. Since Kersten is a performer at heart, she knows as much about making an over-the-top swan song of an exit as she does about making a grand entrance ” hence Trey McIntyre’s much heralded return. One cold and snowy night in New York City, the two were talking about the 2006 world premiere at the Vail festival.

“The idea of incorporating song and dance came up,” Kersten explained. “He has a connection with Jessye Norman, so it evolved from there.”

Norman is a world-renowned opera star, and will sing a smattering of Duke Ellington’s songs with and without dancers from the Trey McIntyre Project on stage.

“The Diva, the Duke and the Dance” will open the festival in style.

“I first saw her in the film ‘Diva,'” said Tom Bassett, gallery director at Vail’s Claggett/Rey. “And she was, of course, the diva. Now my wife and I have some of her CDs. She’s just spectacular.”

The dancers will also take the stage without the opera star at various points. The grand finale will be Norman’s signature piece, “Amazing Grace.”

“Of course we’re really looking forward to it,” Bassett said.

Public response

By the end of this year’s festival, Eric Sale, real estate investor and entrepreneur, will have been in Vail 10 years.

“You can’t beat the setting,” he enthused. “Being outside at the base of the Rocky Mountains, watching the sunset, surrounded by food and wine, surrounded by the arts and people of talent ” it’s amazing.”

He used to head to Denver’s Beull Theater on a regular basis to get a sprinkle of “culture,” but these days there’s no need to make the trek. Vail’s many festivals and events keep him busy enough.

“It’s great that the members of the community are actually calling for artistic expression, that they’re supporting it,” he said.

Though his sister took dance lessons, he never did.

“I’m not a dancer per se ” I’m more of a nightclub dancer,” Sale said. “Nobody would ever call what I do classical.”

Though the festival’s many artists are usually classically trained, they don’t always stick to pointe shoes and tutus. In fact, they rarely do. Today’s dancers are a genre-bending bunch. There are so many fine and athletic artists they have to be able to do it all: tap, jazz, soft shoe, modern and more.

Sybill Navas of the Town of Vail has attended at least a couple of performances every year since the festival’s inception. A ballet teacher for 25 years, she’s the daughter of a professional ballet dancer.

“I think I enjoy the ensemble performances most, what is now called ‘Festival within a Festival,'” she said, “because it provides a better example of a company’s character with more than solo performers. It also offers a better understanding of a choreographer’s skills.”

Navas is also fond of the International Evenings, especially the contemporary works. As for Kersten, of course she loves it all. She has an opinion on everything:

Ballet de Monterrey? “The fire, the passion,” she exclaimed.

Jeune Ballet du Quebec? “They’re vivacious, breathless ” the audience will be exhausted at the end of the program.”

National Ballet of China? “It is THE company in all of China.”

The Vail International Dance Festival? “Go. Enjoy. See what you like, then go again.”

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