Graham Watts sees ‘Stars on the Yellowstone' in Montana
|Stars on the Yellowstone
|Yellowstone International Arts Festival
|Yellowstone Hot Springs and Resort, Paradise Valley, Montana
|2 August 2023
If The Nutcracker reigns over the Northern Hemisphere's winter ballet, then its ubiquitous summer equivalent must be the gala. A quick run through recent Instagram posts shows ballet's equivalent of the variety show recently performed in countries as far afield as Denmark, Italy, Hong Kong and Japan (and I reported to Gramilano upon another outdoors gala in Wiltshire's Hatch House just a week prior to this one-off performance in the American Wild West).
Despite this plethora of competing events, Stars on the Yellowstone was a show unlike any that I have previously experienced. These unique attributes start with the most spectacular setting imaginable, the performances taking place on a large mobile stage erected in a field alongside the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley, set against a natural backdrop of the Rocky Mountains and enjoying a sunset and full moon to boot. This unique vista would have made witnessing a game of chess a memorable life event. The small audience of just 200 humans would have perhaps been supplemented by the grizzly bears, mountain lions, elk, bison, rattlesnakes, wolves and other creatures watching these strange brightly lit happenings from the adjacent mountainsides: although, happily, from a very safe distance!
Secondly, true to its title, this was much more than just a ballet gala. There was plenty of ballet, more of which later, but also bagpiping, barnstorming dance from the indigenous American culture, superb tap routines, operatic arias, and some tremendous musical interjections by international cellist, Ian Maksin.
The third unique factor was a cast of dancers not normally seen on the international gala circuit. Except for the three Mackay/Khan siblings, I hadn't experienced any of the other dancers performing in a gala before. The eldest of that clan, Maria Sascha Khan is also the Yellowstone International Arts Festival's artistic director (her mother, Teresa Khan MacKay, is executive director, a veritable general factotum). Julian MacKay – now a principal at Bayerisches Staatsballet – performed in three of a generous helping of pieces and his half-sister, Nadia Khan (from Teatro dell'Opera di Roma) danced in a further pair. The youngest, Nicholas MacKay, himself a former student at the Bolshoi School, now an international dance photographer, was a key player in the production team.
The venue was at the edge of Yellowstone Hot Springs resort, situated a couple of miles from Gardiner, population 833 (and, no, I haven't missed any noughts). You can perhaps gauge its remoteness by the fact that the only grocery store in Gardiner is without competition in a 60-mile radius! The Khan/MacKay quartet were all born or brought up in Paradise Valley and the fact that all four studied ballet to the highest level, three becoming professional dancers, with no family ballet legacy and from such a remote place is itself a story with Hollywood potential.
August in Paradise Valley is apparently always dry although the day of this performance certainly bucked that trend. I awoke to a fearful storm; so powerful that chairs and tables outside my Sage Lodge resort were overturned. By the scheduled start time of 8pm it was still raining and gusty around Gardiner and the opening was delayed by 50 minutes as the guests queued in their plastic, waterproof ponchos. In similar circumstances, a sports event would have been called off, but the stage was only hired for one night (indeed, it was dismantled immediately after the show) and so postponement was not an option. After an hour of tirelessly drying the stage – special kudos to the volunteers for their show-saving efforts with mops, towels and brooms – it finally got underway but even then, the continuing rain and wind caused significant problems for dancers in the first two pas de deux.
Following a bagpipe prelude by Maureen Wallace (from Billings, Montana) in a march through the audience and onto the stage, the programme was opened by English National Ballet's Francesca Velicu, partnered by Josh Fisk, another Montana “local” from Helena, formerly an ENB School student now in the corps de ballet at Sarasota Ballet. They danced the Act II pas de deux from La Sylphide and, to their credit, neither gave way to the challenges of the weather, which was authentically relevant to a Scottish moorland setting: Velicu was delightfully seductive as The Sylph and Fisk was a revelation in his cameo as James, performing with great maturity. Their mutual coordination in the jumping sequence was achieved with pinpoint harmony. It's clear that Sarasota Ballet has picked up another natural ballet talent from Montana and Velicu delivered a calling card for the opportunity to perform the full ballet (it must have something to do with that Kobborg training in Bucharest where Velicu danced before transferring to London). Later, in the second act, with the rain and wind now abated, they returned to perform a delightful grand pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty, which neither had ever danced before. They were naturals and, again, I can't wait to see Velicu perform a full ballet as Aurora, a role to which she is perfectly suited.
But, back to the second rain-affected piece, the Don Quixote final act grand pas de deux, danced by Julian MacKay, showing the frontier spirit by giving absolutely no quarter to the dangerous conditions, and Anastasia Smirnova (of the Mikhailovsky Ballet). I can't imagine any more challenging piece for these conditions, and I suspect that performing on an ice rink would have been no more difficult for Smirnova's pointework and she sensibly decided to cut her variation to avoid the potential for injury. At this point, wrapped up in my waterproof coat, I was wondering whether it was safe to continue but happily the rain began to subside although the waterlogged stage still presented problems through to the interval when the volunteers went back to work with their towels.
Ballet continued to dominate the early programme. Firstly, with what was claimed to be the first-ever performance of La Spectre de la Rose in Montana – and who would argue with that assertion – danced endearingly (and carefully) by Nadia Khan in her Little Bo-Peep costume and Alexander Romanchikov as the spirit of the rose. They were followed by Maria Beck (a recent recruit at principal level at the Hungarian National Ballet) and Zecheng Liang (a principal at Philadelphia Ballet) who ripped through Petipa's Talisman pas de deux, a gala favourite, which nonetheless seemed freshly minted by these two excellent dancers. Liang's confidence and strength in the presage lifts was notable and Beck's elegance of line was never less than pristine.
Music dominated the next part of the programme, beginning with the Dio che nell' alma infondere amor duet from Verdi's Don Carlo, performed by the acclaimed American tenor, Joshua Stewart (a regular at the Yellowstone Festival) and baritone, Isaac Hall – another local, from Bozeman – currently in his senior year at the Manhattan School of Music. Despite the vast difference in experience, Hall held his own in this challenging duet, especially when performed at altitude, a mile above sea level. It was one place where the dampness in the air must have been a boon. Later in the first act, both singers returned for solo arias: Stewart performing Quando le Sere al Placido from Verdi's Luisa Miller; and Hall rollicking his way through the “Figaro” aria, Largo al factotum, from Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia. They weren't finished, returning midway through the second act with back-to-back arias – again accompanied by pianist, Lori Rosolowsky (another Bozeman resident) – Stewart singing Io la vidi e il suo sorriso, again from Don Carlo, followed by Hall performing Beethoven's Adelaïde. The power of these voices, accompanied just by a piano, in this magnificent setting, was utterly arresting.
There was a lengthy section – perhaps a tad too long given the overall length of the programme – of original compositions by the cellist, Ian Maksin, who has a very distinctive, jazzy style, recording in real time his own riffs which are then layered into his live performance, encompassing catchy melodies with percussive effects on the cello casing and repetitive motifs in the recordings. Maksin is a charismatic performer who remained onstage to perform the programme's world premiere, a solo entitled Sacred Fire, choreographed by Julian MacKay, performed in a free-flowing, elegant contemporary style by Maria Sascha Khan.
The first act was completed by an astonishing display of virtuoso tap dancing by Bayley Graham – a semi-finalist in America's Got Talent (although Bayley, 23, is from New Zealand). His extraordinary technique and speed in this charismatic interpretation of Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca was repeated even faster and Bayley – who has an arresting rapport with his audience – is clearly an avid student of the history of his art, throwing in references to the great tap masters of the past. The use of slightly shortened trousers and white socks to emphasise his footwork was a clear throwback to the sartorial style of Gene Kelly.
The second act opened with a delicious excerpt from Sebastien Bertaud's Renaissance, which although I had seen in a different form at Hatch House just a week previously, was a US premiere. MacKay and Smirnova (now dried off) returned in the luscious jewel-encrusted costumes borrowed from Paris Opera Ballet to dance this romantic, sinuous duet to Mendelssohn's sentimental music. It was a highlight of an outstanding evening of dance. Smirnova was not yet finished as she returned later in the programme to dance another piece choreographed by MacKay – Rebirth of the Reef (a US premiere) – to music by Shostakovich, but this time partnering Liang in another passionate and strong duet. Already an astounding dancer, MacKay seems also destined to become an outstanding choreographer.
Nadia Khan gave a dreamy performance as Giselle in the second act pas de deux with Albrecht (Romanchikov); Maria Beck performed The Dying Swan to the live accompaniment of Maksin's cello, enhanced to the max by this mountainous and riverside setting under a full moon; and the show closed (just before midnight) with an impromptu contest between Graham and MacKay, each trying to outdo each other in their virtuoso improvisations to music by Ludovic Bource in what I would judge to have been an entertaining score draw!
I have left the most fascinating performance until last. As a professional dance critic for many years, it is now a very rare thing to experience a new kind of dance but that is exactly what Chitat Killsback brought to Stars on the Yellowstone. Killsback – just 18 – is a member of the Northern Cheyenne and Oglala Lakota tribes and his performances in each act – both entitled Fancy Dance – were in the traditional indigenous fancy feather dance style that he learned from his brother; no doubt passed down through generations of Cheyenne. It adds one more dance genre to my experience and, although each dance was brief, the energy expended was immense with continual rotations and stamping. Killsback's multi-coloured costume (yellow, pink and lilac much in evidence) extended to an elaborate headdress and two batons, not unlike feather dusters. It was hard to tell where the human ended, and the costume began in this full-on, ebullient performance.
This was not only the most unique gala that I have experienced but also –starting in weather conditions that would have deterred less hardy performers – the bravest! When the performance ended, everyone decanted to the Hot Springs for “Chef on the Yellowstone” with another Montana resident, the celebrity chef, Eduardo Garcia, cooking an al fresco dinner (two hours later than planned). Luxuriating in the balmy environment of hot springs at 2am under the Rocky Mountains was just another tick on the bucket list from this fascinating, sometimes windswept but thoroughly enjoyable event.
Note: The author's travel and accommodation expenses were sponsored by the Yellowstone International Arts Festival
Photo Gallery – Stars on the Yellowstone 2023
Graham Watts is a freelance writer and dance critic. He writes for The Spectator, Tanz, Shinshokan Dance Magazine (Japan), Ballet Magazine (Romania), BachTrack and the Hong Kong International Arts Festival and has previously written for the Sunday Express, Dancing Times, Dance Europe, DanceTabs, London Dance, the Edinburgh International Festival and Pointe magazine (USA). He has also written the biography of Daria Klimentová (The Agony and the Ecstasy) and contributed chapters about the work of Akram Khan to the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Ballet and on Shobana Jeyasingh for the third edition of Routledge's Fifty Contemporary Choreographers.
He is Chairman of the Dance Section of The Critics' Circle and of the UK National Dance Awards and regularly lectures on dance writing and criticism at The Royal Academy of Dance, The Place and (until the war) for Balletristic in Kyiv. He was a nominee for the Dance Writing Award in the 2018 One Dance UK Awards and was appointed OBE in 2008.