Ballet Des Moines earned their right to perform a Balanchine classic, debuting Friday: ‘It is really just a badge of honor’


Friday Feb 24. and Saturday Feb. 25, 7 p.m. at Hoyt Sherman.

Chiyo Nishida and Cameron Miller practice for their upcoming performance of Balanchine+ on Feb. 9, 2023. – Courtney Guein/Little Village

Ballet Des Moines will bring elements of classical and contemporary dance to Iowa with its performance of Balanchine+ this Friday and Saturday at Hoyt Sherman Place.

The piece’s title refers to George Balanchine, co-founder and founding choreographer of New York City Ballet. The company will perform Balanchine’s Who Cares?, a beautiful jazz-tinged dance unbound by a concrete story, said Ballet Des Moines’ artistic director and choreographer Tom Mattingly.

“Because there is no story, you don’t have to watch it and try to understand necessarily what’s happening. It’s something that’s really presented as ‘here’s something to enjoy’ and I think that warmth and approachability is probably my favorite,” Mattingly said.

Ballet Des Moines will set the choreography to music by composer George Gershwin, who Balanchine originally collaborated with to create Who Cares?. Gershwin composed about 16 songs between 1924 and 1931, including the ballet’s namesake.

Tom Mattingly, Ballet Des Moines’ artistic director, leads practice on Feb. 9, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. – Courtney Guein/Little Village

The “plus” of Balanchine+ comes from Michel Fokine’s ballet, Rhapsody on the Theme of Paganini. Fokine worked with composer Sergei Rachmaninoff to create the ballet, using segments from his similarly named opus, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

“It’s very technically demanding. So, it’s difficult to dance. But when you get it right, it feels so good, because it really feels like you are the music when you’re doing the dance,” Mattingly said. “You should see the music, and you should hear the dance.”

The George Balanchine Trust maintains control over Balanchine’s creations, and requires a lengthy application and audition process to showcase his work. This process maintains quality control to preserve his ballets.

If the Trust approves a company’s application, it sends out a répétiteur to stage the ballet. The company must also send an archival video for further examination. Ballet Des Moines had to send in a year’s worth of footage to demonstrate the dancer’s technical and artistic capabilities.

Amelia Grubb Hillman and Logan Hillman practice for their upcoming performance of Balanchine+ on Feb. 20, 2023. – Courtney Guein/Little Village

Amelia Grubb Hillman, a Ballet Des Moines dancer, has performed Balanchine’s work before with other ballet companies.

“It is really just a badge of honor to be able to have that work here. I feel very grateful to be a part of it and have been chosen to be in the ballet. I’m just really excited to perform it and share it with our audience,” Hillman said.

Hillman has been cast in both Who Cares? and Paganini. The former has a smaller cast is less classical, but Paganini is slower, so there’s more time to absorb the dancer’s movements, she explained.

“I really have time to just sort of luxuriate in the movement quality and the experience on stage.”

Chiyo Nishida tries on a new pair of pointe shoes on Feb. 20, 2023. – Courtney Guein/Little Village

Chiyo Nishida, an understudy for Who Cares?, agreed that Paganini is more classical, but added that there’s a more contemporary element to this production. The classical and contemporary elements make this imminent performance a “really fun repertory repertoire,” she said.

Mattingly has no doubt that Ballet Des Moines will get approved to further perform Balanchine work. Balanchine+ will be staged on Friday, Feb. 24 and Saturday, Feb. 25, both starting at 7 p.m. at Hoyt Sherman. Tickets are available on their website.