Thursday, December 1, 2022

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Center Stage

Ballet Des Moines dynamically forges engaging new works


Ballet Des Moines professional dancer Savannah Cox in “Salem,” premiering Oct. 20-29 at the Des Moines Performing Arts Stoner Theater. Photo by Jami Milne for Ballet Des Moines

Central Iowa continues its strong upward trend when it comes to cultural enhancement through performing arts. The community, from patrons to corporations with a strong foundation of local support, helped central Iowa’s cultural scene remain solvent during the COVID years. The Symphony, the Opera, multiple theater companies, anchored by world-renowned Des Moines Performing Arts, all benefited. Ballet Des Moines now builds on a long legacy with a vibrant infusion of creative productivity and adds its shine to this multi-hued radiance as it prepares for another world premiere.

Tom Mattingly, Ballet Des Moines’ artistic director since his hiring last year, is the catalyst for this renaissance of Iowa’s professional ballet company. Mattingly’s muse remains highly inspired since this spring’s Valentine’s homage “Love Flight,” to its explosive “Of Gravity and Light” including Mattingly’s premiere of “Flight.” Now comes the October world premiere of “Salem,” “an immersive exploration of the infamous story illustrating the horrific consequences of mistaking different for dangerous.” “Salem” uses the smaller black box Stoner Theater, creating a dynamically intimate experience. 

“The stage space setup we use seats only 94 people,” Mattingly shares. “The farthest seat from the stage is only 20 feet. This allows us to create really immersive storytelling. I’m very passionate about providing an accessible first interaction with ballet to the people of Des Moines. With this intimate space, the story of the Salem witch trials seemed like the perfect vehicle, especially for Oct. 20-29 performances to get people into the Ballet to see what we’re all about.”

What they’re all about is opening minds well beyond pre-conceived thoughts of traditional ballet, to new irresistible realms where ballet can elevate the cultural soul. 

“One of the things I really love about ballet is that it creates so many different avenues for production and interaction,” Mattingly continues. “Ballet allows for the huge productions like ‘Swan Lake,’ ‘Giselle,’ and ‘Nutcracker,’ but it also is really fantastic for these more intimate and contemporary works like ‘Salem.’

“What you will get with ‘Salem’ is some really incredible, athletic dance, captivating storytelling and a reinterpretation of history that is based on historical events. We are not doing a historical recreation of one set story. What we’re doing instead is taking all of that as inspiration, kind of having a historical fiction of a story line that could have happened at the time.

“We are working with a Drake professor, Lisa West, who teaches a course specifically on the Salem witch trials. She works with us in our speaker series. Another Drake professor (helping) is Erin Wegleitner, who is actually a direct descendent of one of the families involved in the Salem witch trials. She will visit the company to share her experiences and connection on a very personal level.”

BDM’s wardrobe director, Sarah Dornink, takes her “Salem” design inspiration from the very strict dress codes of the time, down to certain colors that could and could not be worn. 

“We also have a character that’s very central to the plot of ‘Salem,’ which is Fear. It was fear and unchecked power that ran rampant in Salem, not witchcraft. For our story, one of our dancers is the character of Fear who is a constant presence and influence to the other dancers in the ballet, even though they can’t see him.

“Ballet presents a method of artistic communication that is special to its own art form,” Mattingly offers. “I really see dance as a movement language, and although we are not using spoken word in this production, the music language we are producing with this choreography and with the staging I think is the perfect vehicle for telling a story. There is so much to be told about just a look, or a hand gesture, or the tension between two dancers. Tension of the group swarming around another. I think you don’t need to have spoken word to have an effective story. We are going to be incorporating some American Sign Language into ‘Salem.’ It’s a natural partnership, as ASL is literally a movement language. By using sign language in certain aspects of the ballet, I feel like we are producing a richer work that is more inclusive to our community as a whole.”


The opportunity to experience the best in the region’s talent perform Broadway favorites continues to grow. The Pura Social Club (see sidebar) has become a hot spot for thematic Broadway song indulgence. Other single-night pop-ups keep happening, another sign that live performing arts is on a strong return path. ♦

John Busbee is a creative project developer, critic, playwright, author, producer and media professional. He has produced his weekly show, The Culture Buzz, on KFMG since 2007.

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