NEWS + REVIEWS
Below you will find the most recent critical reviews of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet performances as well as online versions of Ballet News, the quarterly newsletter of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. If you are looking for specific information about an upcoming ASFB performance, please check the Performances or Press Releases sections of our site.
A Tradition of Innovation
By Debra Levine
By Zachary Whittenburg
More Than Modern: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in the Early 21st Century
By Theodore Bale
Outside Eyes - Impressions of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet
By Zachary Whittenburg
A TRADITION OF INNOVATION
By Debra Levine
One hundred years ago, Sergei Diaghilev, the great Ballets Russes impresario, labored (without email mind you) to book his troupe in suitable theaters, meet his payroll, negotiate with presenters, hang on to his dancers, engage artistic collaborators, remedy company squabbles, woo the press, and soothe an orchestra leader who was loathe to conduct The Rite of Spring.
A full century later, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s artistic director, Tom Mossbrucker, and the troupe’s Executive Director, Jean-Phillipe Malaty, can relate to the great man. The two pass their day in much the same fashion. Mossbrucker and Malaty, of course, have iPads , cellphones, and text messaging. Another difference: the expression “business model” wasn’t even invented in Diaghilev’s lifetime, whereas it falls trippingly from the tongues of Mossbrucker and Malaty.
When Aspen-based dance patron Bebe Schweppe invited Mossbrucker and Malaty from the Joffrey organization to head up her company in 1996, it was in a different economic environment. The dot-com boom was taking off, and the country was on the brink of serious wealth creation. Major dislocations in arts funding would only come later. Whether by prescient planning, instinct, or just luck, Mossbrucker and Malaty built a flexible and affordable dance structure, and, in the process, forged a viable alternative to ballet’s big-city behemoth. They created a choreography incubator for the likes of Jorma Elo, one of the dance world’s top freelance guns-for-hire. They gathered a tight-knit troupe of dancers, all of whom bear the joy and burden of soloist duties. And this band of gypsies, who keep pointe shoes permanently packed, Malaty proudly describes as “lean and mean.” Malaty may sound like a new-age corporate COO. But in fact, for a chamber-scaled company like Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, the similarities in the dance world since the era of Ballets Russes outnumber the differences. Even in the 21st century, it’s still a boatload of struggle to run a successful ballet company, a humongous labor of love. The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’ans have managed to find a structure that works. Officially headquartered in Aspen (population 6,000), ASFB shares naming rights with a sister city larger by ten-fold, Santa Fe (population 68,000), a 300-mile, six-hour drive away. ASFB provides a year-round permanent presence for ballet in these two thin-air capitals, the former a premier Rocky Mountain ski resort, the latter the mystical mecca of the Native American. The two-city setup enables a roster of activities to flourish season long, both in performance and in dance education, lending crucial diversification to the company’s revenue stream. This income flexibility keeps Mossbrucker and Malaty’s endeavor back from the precipice on which Diaghilev spent much of his professional life.
Just for fun, imagine that a clutch of Ballet Russes dancers, say, Vaslav Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina, Anna Pavlova, and Leonide Massine, could watch the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’ans perform one of Elo’s ultra-modern ballets. Peering on to the stage from the wings of Santa Fe’s Lensic Theater (as they may have done for the Cocteau-Picasso-Satie-Massine collaboration, Parade) the Russians would take in the bending human pretzels in body-baring costumes, duets of twisting beauty, and Elo’s new way of hearing old music. Watching this, they would be sweating bullets. Their hearts would pound, eyes narrow in disbelief. Some would even stub out their cigarettes, enraptured and intimidated by the blizzard of technical virtuosity that we, today, take for granted. Experimenters in the early 20th century that they were, and though accustomed to the quirky demands of Fokine, Nijinsky (especially Nijinsky), and Nijinska, they would find Elo’s hammering pace, his jagged shapes, and unisex partnering beyond their ken. But the ASFB audience is used to it, thanks to Mossbrucker and Malaty’s unwavering commitment to producing contemporary art. The two have “broken in” eyes, they’ve held feet to flame of the art form as it evolves, even when audiences may have preferred an easier route. Because similar to Ballets Russes, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is a hothouse of invention, fomenting cutting-edge choreography of tomorrow. Nearly 40 dance makers are represented in the company’s repertoire, a good third of them by multiple pieces, and most of America probably doesn’t even know their names.
Elo, who already had three works danced by the company, just unleashed a fourth in OVER GLOW, a prestigious commission from the Wolf Trap Foundation. The Finnish born dance maker’s abstruse choreography dazzled, and, in some cases (for example, one key critic), perplexed at its debut last July at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts outside Washington, D.C.. Set to music by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, OVER GLOW already holds a special place in the ASFB repertoire, assembled as it was in high quality, uninterrupted creative time offered to Elo at the company’s Santa Fe studios. Then there’s Cayetano Soto, the Spanish-born choreographer attached to Ballet Theater Munich. Soto’s work of last season, Uneven, made for eight dancers, is rigorous, spirited, and angst-ridden. The work’s smart set design features a white Marley floor, yanked like an area rug onto a diagonal. One corner drips over the downstage lip toward the audience, like a Salvador Dali painting, and the other rides up the theater’s back wall, curling ‘round from the upstage side. Tucked into that corner is a cellist, who accompanies a recording of David Lang’s agitated, minimalist score, “World to Come.” To call this dance maker’s tangled vine of a ballet merely eye-gripping undervalues its heady beauty. And for those who get to dance it, an advanced degree in the ASFB School of Thick and Thorny Partnering.
Others in ASFB’s choreography family include Nicolo Fonte, a Brooklynite, whose works danced by ASFB now number eight, more than by any other American dance company. Fonte describes his creative sessions with ASFB as being “totally in sync,” and reaching a “point of total collaborative complicity”. As Jorma Elo, speaking last summer in the midst of creating OVER GLOW, said, “Other choreographers have their own company; they get to practice and rehearse, but I am a freelancer without my own company. I don’t think it’s a natural thing for me to be a director. In America, it’s the fundraising and the social aspect. I’m not a social guy; I’m used to being with dancers.” When he is in Aspen, Elo said, he “cannot wait to get in the studio with the dancers.”
Another choreographer, Helen Pickett, formerly of William Forsythe’s Frankfurt Ballet, represents an endangered species, the female choreographer. In interviews, Pickett praised the company’s “readiness” and its “warmth.” Rounding out this elite artistic squadron are Israel’s Itzik Galili, the Frenchman Thierry Malandain, and the Taiwan-born Edwaard Liang. Clearly, there’s a Rocky Mountain high going on here that someone forgot to tell John Denver about.
The company’s edgy repertoire keeps its audience on guard. As do the dance companies ASFB presents and sponsors in its home markets. Why present other companies? Would Diaghilev? No, the Russian was exceedingly jealous and competitive where the success of competitors was concerned. For ASFB, it’s more a philosophical tenet than an economic activity. “There’s no money in it,” noted Malaty, with a tinge of regret in his voice. “But we think it’s important. Most companies protect their turf. We go the other direction, believing that an educated audience is a better audience.”
The economic implosion hit full force during the 2008-2009 season. Presenters, swirling down a sinkhole, grabbed a lifeline in ASFB’s offerings—to the benefit of their audiences. With major funders retreating and box offices shrinking, in bourréed the spunky Westerners with their sophisticated avant-garde repertory. “We were smaller, cheaper and ready. We danced in 45 cities that season,” said Malaty, then added with a mordant laugh, “and we almost died.”
Thus, one hundred years after the Ballets Russes reinvented the classical idiom in Europe, a new engine of ballet creativity has emerged, this time an American version. Like Ballets Russes impresario, Serge Diaghilev, the leaders of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet place highest value on innovation, putting the creation of new art at the forefront, risking the possibility of failed experimentation… with one key difference: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet works its modernist magic with email!
Debra Levine is a Los Angeles-based dance critic contributing to the Los Angeles Times and The Huffington Post. In the summer of 2010, she served as a Scholar in Residence at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. A graduate of NEA arts criticism institutes in dance and classical music and opera, Debra blogs about dance, film, music and urban culture on arts meme. This essay originally appeared in slightly different form as a PillowNote for Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, and as an article for The Huffington Post and is reprinted with permission.
by Zachary Whittenburg
Seth DelGrasso is on the phone with me in a breakroom upstairs from where his colleagues—the other nine members of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet—are trickling into one of the company's studios toward the end of their lunch break. He's just shy of 7,900 feet above sea level. I'm put on hold for a moment as a fellow dancer calls to inform him that rehearsal is about to resume. That our time is almost up is no surprise—we've been talking for almost an hour. Once back on the line, DelGrasso finishes telling me about a moment he remembers from his fourth season with the company.
"We hit a groove. We were doing great work, traveling a bit more frequently, and it just occurred to me suddenly," he says. "Wow, this is really happening. I'm paying my bills and living comfortably. I live in a beautiful place and can grow some roots." And so he has. DelGrasso and his wife, Brooke Klinger, both founding members of ASFB, have a two-year-old son, Roman. Klinger, who retired from ballet in 2007, will finish nursing school in May and become an RN. She also teaches ballet technique at ASFB's school.
DelGrasso and I plan to meet face-to-face when the company visits Chicago, also in May, and say our goodbyes. He descends, a dozen feet or so, to join choreographer Nicolo Fonte and the other dancers in the studio. Their work continues.
Just over 1,700 feet above sea level, and some 5,300 miles away, Spanish-born choreographer Cayetano Soto answers my call from the Glockenbach neighborhood of Munich, a short walk south of the city's historic Marienplatz. Soto's about to eat dinner at home, a relief, he says softly, in thickly accented English, given that he's been in Munich a total of about four weeks during the past year. A few months earlier, he was in the States with DelGrasso and the rest of the ASFB team. The occasion was Uneven, an original work to follow Fugaz, the first piece of Soto's that artistic director Tom Mossbrucker and executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty licensed, early in 2009. But despite the fact it'll take him away from home yet again, Soto looks forward to his next trip to Colorado.
"When I'm with those dancers," he tells me, "it's like I'm going on holiday. I really miss them, actually."
He'll return in better shape than he was in when he left. As his five-week residency was drawing to a close, Soto tore his Achilles' tendon during a rehearsal. Two days later, he was recovering from surgery in Malaty and Mossbrucker's home. Due to his injury, Soto was forced to complete Uneven's few remaining moments from a chair, with his injured foot propped up.
Malaty and the immobilized-but-upbeat artist were talking after dinner and Malaty, says Soto, was half-jokingly complaining because "I never showed them more of my work. So I said, 'Fine, I have something with me, do you want to watch it?'" It was video of Kiss Me Goodnight, made earlier that year for a Dutch company, Introdans. "Ten seconds in," Soto remembers, "Jean-Philippe said, 'Tom is going to love this.' He wanted to go get him right then but, I told him, 'Let's show him tomorrow.' It was one o' clock in the morning!" Kiss Me Goodnight, is the latest addition to ASFB's Soto portfolio.
"The way Tom and Jean-Philippe run this company, if there's an opportunity, we can jump on it rather quickly," DelGrasso confirms. "We can't spread ourselves too thin, either—we're a smaller company—but I think they see that as an opportunity, too, their ability to pick and choose." DelGrasso describes their leadership strategy and its ongoing refinement with a measure of awe.
"Jean-Philippe has put together a masterful model of how to run a dance company," DelGrasso says in admiration, "or any non-profit, for that matter."
What he's seen from his front-row seat will surely help DelGrasso as he lays plans for a second career. While performing (and parenting), the thirty-three-year-old has chipped away at a business degree by taking courses online; when his stage time is done, he plans to attend graduate school, earn an MBA and create an umbrella organization to help Roaring Fork Valley non-profits manage their assets and growth. He hasn't set a date for the transition, although "the horizon is not that far," he says with a laugh. "It's been a great ride."
That ride, and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet's, began in the last weeks of 1995. Bebe Schweppe was laying the foundation for a professional dance company in the Valley and, eighteen and just out of high school, DelGrasso was in town to dance The Nutcracker with local ballet students. Schweppe, Malaty and Mossbrucker asked if he would be available to stick around after the holidays. "They were discussing becoming a non-profit. I wasn't in the room, but I was right next door, you could say." DelGrasso became one of eight dancers who launched ASFB's 1996–97 inaugural season. "I could see it was just the beginning," he recalls, "and felt like it could really take off. I could see how [Bebe, Tom and Jean-Philippe] were continually aspiring to do better and, I thought, 'If they're going to work that hard, I'm going to work that hard.' That's really what spurred me to stay. Not that every single thing has been gravy and beautiful—life has its moments—but their reasoning and instincts were never in doubt."
There are approximately seven thousand aircraft over the continental United States at any given moment. At cruising altitude, each can streak through the air at 550 miles per hour in its own layer of vertical space. Planes on intersecting paths race closely by, but safely above or below.
Just 650 feet of elevation separate Aspen and Santa Fe. This is ASFB's own layer of vertical space, where it flies forward, unimpeded, at the speed of light and sound. With ten dancers, it's no jumbo jet but, as Soto tells me near the end of our conversation, "It doesn't matter if the company has ten dancers, twenty dancers or fifty dancers. It's the vision that you have."
He pauses momentarily, then continues. "I think [Tom and Jean-Philippe] are pioneers in the States, because [ASFB is] one of only a few companies that's willing to try new things, and they've done a lot of that already."
ASFB's size and components are indeed optimized for responsiveness, paying off in the studio and, as a result, visible later onstage. After we trade hellos, DelGrasso mentions how he spent the morning with Fonte, fine-tuning the New York–based choreographer's 1999 signature work, In Hidden Seconds. DelGrasso explains to me how Fonte's movement fits him now, like a favorite pair of jeans, with seven pieces by the renowned dancemaker in the company's catalog. "We've both evolved," says DelGrasso, "myself with my dancing, and he with his choreography. We're more comfortable pushing one another beyond what we've done in previous pieces. It's not just me knowing a choreographer's ins and outs. He knows me, too, and how to guide me in different directions."
Extraordinary dancers, says Soto, aren't fully aware of the demands they place on artists, and names ASFB's among his most daunting challengers. "The greater they are [while I'm making] the dance, the more possibilities come to me. I start with 'Plan A,' but I may finish with Plan N, or Plan P because I push them, and they push me back." Soto, who works with comparable organizations in Canada and Europe, won't name names, but he does tell me that, oftentimes, his process during a commission is "very clear, and I'm being respected, but [it doesn't have any] surprises. In Aspen,"—he laughs—"it was one surprise after another. Two weeks before the premiere, we had almost the whole piece done. It was a very productive time. It was fantastic."
Soto uses the word "fantastic" to describe DelGrasso as well. "I could see in his eyes he knew exactly where I was going," Soto remembers of the first few hours he spent working with the dancer. "In his vocabulary, perfect or brilliant is not enough. This is impressive to me."
Mossbrucker pays frequent visits to the studio, which at first concerned the choreographer. Soto describes himself as an extremely sensitive person, someone who, if 'Hello' to a stranger goes unreturned in the morning, may worry until evening about what he did wrong. "When I'm creating, I can get upset if the wind is not blowing in the right direction!" he says, laughing at himself. "But [Tom] just wanted to see how I interact with the dancers. He never asked me why I made a choice [for Uneven]. Maybe later he would ask for an explanation, of course, but he believed whatever I decided would be best for the piece. With Tom and Jean-Philippe, I never had a sign that there was doubt about my work."
"We're typically a transient group, us dancers," DelGrasso says, "going from company to company, or gig to gig." He's moonlighted himself, over the years, with troupes including Complexions Contemporary Ballet in one of his two hometowns, New York City. (Denver is the other.) "You weigh pros and cons throughout your career. ASFB always came out above other scenarios, head and shoulders. A lot of things I've gained I wouldn't have, had I left ASFB, even to return later. The continuity itself has been important to me."
"In an industry where turnaround can be quite frequent," he summarizes, "we're on the other end."
DelGrasso doesn't pause when I ask him to list high points since the winter of '95. The company's accelerated touring schedule, with stops like Hawaii and Italy, is one quick answer. Its New York City debut, during the 2003–04 season, is another. "Working with great choreographers, and learning work by the legendaries: Twyla Tharp, Paul Taylor, Jiří Kylián, Balanchine." He tells me he knows he's leaving out some names. "I can look back at the rep sheet and go, 'Wow, that's a great personal accomplishment, and a great organizational accomplishment as well.'"
"And dancing Romeo & Juliet with my wife. Meeting her that first year. Our wonderful son. Obviously, that's the pinnacle of everything."
So flies Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, forward through its 650-foot-thick mantle of clean Rocky Mountain air. Ongoing relationships with artists and presenters worldwide, built on trust and rich experiences, are the company's guidance systems. In addition, though modestly sized, ASFB has two "secret weapons," according to DelGrasso. "The vision [Tom and Jean-Philippe] have, and fifteen years of momentum. They don't stop watching DVDs, looking for innovative choreographers, putting themselves out there to find new things, and I can see that they're not just looking at next year, but at the next ten years, at moving the company forward."
"When I retire," adds DelGrasso, "I want to be able to say, 'Look at that wonderful company that I was a part of. Look at what it's done beyond what I could even have fathomed.' The way it's evolved, I don't wonder whether that will happen."
Boulder, Colorado native Zachary Whittenburg is the Dance Editor in Chicago for Time Out, a weekly culture magazine published in 43 cities worldwide. He has been covering art and performance since 2005 for print and online publications in Chicago, London and New York. Zachary entered the dance scene as a performer in 1998, with Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet, and went on to dance with North Carolina Dance Theater, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and BJM Danse Montréal.
More Than Modern: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in the Early 21st Century
By Theodore Bale
I had the pleasure of seeing Aspen Santa Fe Ballet for the first time five years ago, when the company made its successful New York debut at The Joyce Theater. After watching new dances by such divergent (and living) choreographers as Dwight Rhoden, Dominique Dumais, Nicolo Fonte and Moses Pendleton, that same evening I sent a review to my editor at the Boston Herald, writing, in part, "if there's a classically trained company of the future, it's Aspen Santa Fe Ballet." I'll admit now that the phrase didn't quite originate with me. It was a simpler way of expressing what I thought I'd heard some French-speaking audience members, sitting just a few rows behind me, say during intermission: that perhaps the program was "plus que moderne," or rather "more than modern."
At first the comment seemed amusing, like something a ragged, suffering intellectual in a Woody Allen movie might be forced to overhear while waiting in line to buy his ballet tickets. Nonetheless, it was entirely apt. And while it was evident that night that Aspen Santa Fe Ballet had easily transcended the traditions of modernity with its cutting-edge and inter-continental repertory, the program could not be simply placed, in my mind, with the post-modernists.
Only a few years into this new century, it seemed to me that the other arts had moved already past both those categories. By 2003 artistic work, from my perspective, had become more experiential, less coyly ironic and naively political, and once again concerned with virtuosity and technique. I felt that classical dance was mostly lagging behind other arts. At The Joyce, though, I had seen choreography that was as up-to-date as what I could find in New York's galleries, concert halls, and cinemas. It was densely phrased, without narrative and without dramatic situations, and, most satisfyingly, highly technical. It allowed for pointe, but the men and women were equal players on stage. Metaphor seemed to have been replaced with more direct episodes: of phrasing, of consequence, of all kinds of emotional experience, including sensuality. These ballets didn't comment, from a distance, on classicism. Rather, they seemed to re-inhabit classical forms with new idioms, and the relationship between music and movement was often more mysterious within the period of modernity. All of this said the dances didn't seem to have the obvious disregard for music that so much post-modern dance had demonstrated. How ironic that the company offering these ballets was from Colorado and New Mexico, I perceived, not recognizing my own obvious bias. And then on second thought: isn't that where one expects to find American pioneers?
From the time the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet was founded in 1990 by Bebe Schweppe, up to the 2003 appearance at The Joyce, I wasn't aware of just how despondent I'd begun feeling about American dance. It appeared to be falling further and further into a situation of public neglect. Less and less on the cultural radar, it seemed that detailed coverage was fading, audience attendance was down, and the etiology of the whole situation was nothing if not perplexing. Perhaps it could be blamed on a continually worsening economy, or the precarious real-estate market, or trends in dance education, or maybe the increasing dominance of "reality" television as the primary form of entertainment in America? Whenever the subject came up among members of the dance community, however, I noticed that nobody ever seemed to acknowledge that maybe the dance repertory itself was more than just a little old-fashioned.
There were a few American critics who described the ballet world as undergoing an identity crisis, myself included. That sentiment was often expressed by many of my colleagues, however, within the context of hopeful dreams about the "next" George Balanchine, a savior who might restore the ideals of modernity to the ballet stage. It's one of the grave conundrums of the present state of ballet in America. Few artistic directors understand that modernity and post-modernity, and the choreographic methods and ideals associated with those periods, have passed. As critical theorist and philosopher Terry Eagleton recognized easily, "Cultural ideas change with the world they reflect upon." That night at The Joyce, I realized that Aspen Santa Fe Ballet was one of the few American companies not stuck in the past, and I wanted to discern just how its repertory might reveal our changing, present world.
In my discussions with the company's executive director Jean-Phillippe Malaty and artistic director Tom Mossbrucker it seems obvious, if not obligatory, that ASFB should venture into this uncertain territory. "The work we are attracted to is poetic," said Malaty. The ASFB dancers seem to readily understand and accept the mission and focus of the growing repertory. It has developed with increasing sophistication over the past years with a constant stream of new dances from choreographers largely unknown to mainstream American audiences: Helen Pickett (formerly of William Forsythe's Ballett Franckfurt), Jorma Elo (a former dancer at Netherlands Dance Theatre, under the direction of master choreographer Jiří Kylián), Nicolo Fonte (ASFB has already performed seven of his ballets, more than any other dance company in America), as well as other international innovators such as Itzik Galili, Thierry Malandain, and Edwaard Liang, to mention only a few choreographers who have worked with the company. True, ASFB has certain modern classics in its repertoire as well, by the dance legends of modernity, such as Balanchine, Antony Tudor, Paul Taylor, Kylián, Lar Lubovitch, and others. The difference is that the company does not sustain itself thus; new work for its classically trained dancers is truly the impetus. By way of example, at the time of this writing Malaty and Mossbrucker were planning the U.S. premiere of Spanish choreographer Cayetano Soto's Fugaz (literally, "fleeting"). Soto is already recognized in Europe for his many ballets created for Ballett Theater München and other ensembles.
The Pop artist Richard Hamilton gave one of his famous 1956 collages an unforgettable title: "Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?" I thought immediately of this collage, which I'd first seen as a teenager and which uses a wide range of seemingly contradictory imagery to achieve its means, when I began writing this essay. The same question could be asked of this company, which is without doubt both different and appealing.
One must examine the term "ballet" as used by Malaty and Mossbrucker. For them it does not mean a hierarchy, with the ensemble organized as principals, soloists, and a "lesser" corps de ballet. "Everyone in our company is a principal dancer," Malaty explained in a recent interview. Perhaps this seems like an obvious approach in an ensemble of eleven such glamorous artists: Lauren Alzamora, William Cannon, Eric Chase, Sam Chittenden, Katie Dehler, Seth DelGrasso, Katherine Eberle, Samantha Klanac, Nolan DeMarco McGahan, Emily Proctor, and Stephen Straub. I think, though, that the approach has vital political implications as well. The Imperial Ballet of the late 19th century, for example, in its organization was a clear reflection of tsarist Russia. While a similar organization lingers on in most of the larger American companies of classical dancers, it is at odds with contemporary American audiences. Viewers understand this, if only on a subconscious level.
Some would say that ASFB is not a "ballet" company at all. I don't quite agree, since much of its repertory is performed on pointe, and Mossbrucker and Malaty continue to offer an annual performance of The Nutcracker. Classical training is one aspect of the company, but not its complete identity. It is not a classical ballet company.
The company's differences continue to reveal themselves in myriad ways. As always happens when I contemplate a dance company that keeps on mutating in surprising ways, I run into certain contradictions. When I saw ASFB last season at the American Dance Festival based at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, it looked nothing at all like a ballet company in its performance of Twyla Tharp's 1996 Sweet Fields, which is set to an a cappella score by 18th-century American composer William Billings. Jennifer Dunning, writing in the New York Times a year earlier, has said the dancers looked rather like "…angels as they move across the stage in formal, shifting patterns, sinking, rising and scuffing the ground with their feet in choreography that matches the music's endearing awkwardness and simplicity, though with far more sophistication." This season the company is taking on Tharp's 1975 classic Sue's Leg, set to songs by Fats Waller, and it's a challenging work quite distant from the turned-out splendors of classical technique. Dance critic Marcia Siegel says it "…may be the last important piece in what's still considered, and lamented- as the definitive Twyla Tharp style." So I must revise my conception of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet as a strictly forward-looking ensemble. The company seems to want to look back as well, in particular at the things that were once forward-looking. That's a good thing for them as artists and for us as viewers. It's also an optimistic and urbane stance from a group of artists who have never grown static in their perception of themselves.
Outside Eyes - Impressions of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet
by Zachary Whittenburg
There are many ways to draw a portrait of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. A conversation with Artistic Director Tom Mossbrucker and Executive Director Jean-Philippe Malaty would tell you much about its history and even more about its future. Company founder Bebe Schweppe, having hand-picked Mossbrucker and Malaty in 1995 to create a professional dance company for Aspen, certainly has a handle on what ASFB does, is, and will become. Board members, performers and technicians all know the organization from the inside out. One could exit-poll audiences as they leave the theater.
Glance at a spec sheet for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, though, and what will catch your eye is a list longer and more luminous than would seem possible to generate in a decade and change: choreographers who have come from around the world to create original work on the company's dancers. It is these artists who can -- and do -- paint pictures of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet as an incubator for inventive, au courant movement. Nearly forty dancemakers are represented in Aspen Santa Fe Ballet's repertoire, over a third of them by multiple pieces. Their careers began the story of contemporary dance -- George Balanchine, Paul Taylor, Antony Tudor, Jiří Kylián, William Forsythe, Twyla Tharp -- which continues today in the creations that Aspen Santa Fe Ballet commissions.
Prescience and confidence, along with the international dance community's tendency toward serendipity, led Malaty and Mossbrucker to order one, then two, and now six ballets from Nicolo Fonte, who has in the same span of time gone from storied performer to choreographer of international renown and astounding prolificacy. Fonte recalls embarking on his creative career in the late 1990s, "testing the waters by sending out videos of my work. Glenn Edgerton [then at Nederlands Dans Theater, now Artistic Director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago] informed me that Tom and Jean-Philippe were looking for choreographers and that I should send a sample. I've been told the video was still in the machine, playing, when they called me to work out the details for a new piece." On the tape was his first major work, In Hidden Seconds, which he is restaging for ASFB this season.
The liquid, intricate choreography of Jorma Elo has initiated a fruitful dialogue from Santa Fe to Oslo about contemporary dance vocabulary. In ballets represented by as many as ten companies per season, invisible threads connect wrists to backs of knees and ears to heels. In watching, one gets the sense that the web described by his movement has no boundaries; it includes not only the dancers onstage but the viewers in their seats. Elo's constructions, poetically avoiding lecture and overt symbolism, campaign for a sensitivity to the world's interconnectedness on a purely aesthetic plane- but when asked what keeps him coming back to ASFB he kids, "The skiing." Elo says it's difficult to describe. "I visit companies all over the world, and this is by far the most unique atmosphere in which to work. JP and Tom can give me the entire company all day long for weeks at a time." It's the arrangement a choreographer lives for. Momentum can carry on uninterrupted, creating a nest for fragile aesthetic experiments. Once sections of movement become set, time can be taken to run them through manipulations in search of a best fit in tempi and texture. From the dancers, some of whom have been in process with Elo on all three of his ASFB premieres, "a sense of humor, combined with respect and care for detail, comes so naturally. They really, truly love to dance, and they're able to be wonderfully different from one another as characters without compromising a feeling of unity. The creative process can be slow and vague at times, and yet their patience with, and understanding of it, is endless."
Aligning the stars for productive studio time, though, is only half the battle. Curating a successful catalogue of new and old work dictated by the shifting requirements of artists' availability, budget, licensing agreements, and duplication of repertoire is a puzzle whose solution requires incredible flexibility and resourcefulness. Nevertheless, ASFB has avoided many pitfalls common to young dance companies and made swift work of building a collection that speaks both to the individual spirit of the Rocky Mountain region and the transnational narrative of concert dance. New choreography can both define and upend this balance -- the troupe that can maintain it year after year becomes a hot commodity.
Venue-booking presenters who wade through hundreds of companies' fluctuating schedules in search of cohesive annual exhibits have found in Aspen Santa Fe Ballet a company that fits anywhere, the chic shoes that work with every ensemble. White Bird Dance, an Oregon-based presenting organization co-founded by Walter Jaffe and Paul King, assembles a calendar that brings blue-chip contemporary dance from around the world to the Pacific Northwest. Jaffe and King found kindred spirits in Malaty and Mossbrucker at a dinner occasioned by Margaret Selby, a longtime producer for PBS of the Dance in America series and president of Columbia Artists Management's Spectrum division. At the end of White Bird's ninth season, in May of 2007, White Bird gave Portland the opportunity to fall in love with ASFB.
"We immediately became close with Tom and Jean-Philippe not only because they are genuinely decent people," Jaffe says, "but because their thinking aligns with ours. They've achieved amazing results running a very tight organization, working with some of the best choreographers in the world." King is quick to add a nod to ASFB's efficiency: "They're the model touring dance company. They travel literally -- and figuratively -- with a minimum of baggage. There's a purity to their goals and mission. They simply want to bring high quality dance, performed by outstanding dancers, to audiences with very little fuss. And they deliver."
The choreographers with whom I spoke all described a freedom from logistical pressure in the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet studios that put their creative needs first and sent distractions packing. Helen Pickett, a choreographer with interests in deconstructionist ballet (via a career as principal dancer with Ballett Frankfurt during William Forsythe's directorship) and avant-garde multidisciplinary theater (seven years with New York's The Wooster Group), added PETAL to ASFB's list of world premieres last year and is making a second new work for the company this season.
"Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is a special place that nurtures today's choreographers," Pickett states. "Upon walking into the studio to choreograph", Pickett says, "I feel a readiness. I feel the air lights up with our first steps and we roll with the flow." The Aspen Santa Fe dancers "exude warmth -- they're excited to figure out new ideas and give their all. We work hard and play hard." Their availability to the process of creation is something Pickett finds invaluable. "Because they work with so many living choreographers," she says, "they have a different mindset from dancers who wait to be told what to do. They're immediately able to make brand-new movement their own, which allows us to bounce off one another, creatively, which then feeds the process and helps surprising things appear. Allowing space in the studio for surprise and chaos is of the utmost importance -- that's how a style is developed." It's a characteristic of ASFB's performers that's evident even over the course of a short visit. Notes Jaffe, "The dancers have a no-nonsense approach to dancing that we find hugely appealing."
The creation of Left Unsaid in 2003, (which has gone on to revivals at Sweden's Göteborg Ballet, Ballet Austin, and Oregon Ballet Theatre), is one Fonte describes as a truly collaborative effort with the Aspen Santa Fe team. "That ballet was one of the fastest-moving studio experiences I've ever had, and I can only attribute it to being completely in sync -- we reached a point of total creative complicity. I was able to explore, with the dancers, methods of making a dance that were completely new to all of us. Choreographing in that environment, and knowing through prior collaborations each of their strengths, is what made Left Unsaid the success it's become. Together, we cultivated a world we believed in."
It's something Elo feels as well. "The dancers and I know each other. We dive into the experience immediately and it flows from there." The fact that Mossbrucker and Malaty were both dancers assists enormously. Shared vocabulary and an understanding of the process makes cooperation logical. "I respect their point of view as artists. When we're near the premiere and I no longer trust my objective eye to the best solution, I can ask Tom to help with small but critical final decisions." In addition to receiving a blank slate on which to experiment freely as a choreographer, Elo says working with ASFB has often been a learning experience.
Whether transitory through live performance or carved into marble, affecting gestures expand the notion of what the senses can encounter. Dancemakers are driven to the studio, and audiences to the theater, in search of these affirming glimpses. Concert dance can be approached as a predictable ritual, but Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and its collaborators share an appreciation of art as hard work in good faith. Refined technique and nuanced musicality show high standards and dedication, but it's the calibration of everyone's skills to indelible scenes that walks the walk.
Boulder, Colorado native Zachary Whittenburg is the Dance Editor in Chicago for Time Out, a weekly culture magazine published in 43 cities worldwide. He has been covering art and performance since 2005 for print and online publications in Chicago and New York. Zachary entered the dance scene as a performer, joining Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet in 1998. His dancing career later brought him to North Carolina Dance Theater, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and BJM Danse Montréal. He is a teacher of ballet for professional dancers and has presented choreography around Chicago and in Canada.
ASFB AT NYC's JOYCE THEATER
ASFB returned to NewYork City's Joyce Theater in February, below is Claudia La Rocco's review from The New York Times.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Evening of Adventuresome Premieres
By Claudia La Rocco
February 19, 2009
Given all the hand wringing about the dire state of contemporary ballet, it is good to be reminded that new work is being made all the time and that much of it is of at least some interest. Genius choreographers might not come around very often; choreographers with potential do.
Helen Pickett is one, judging by “Petal,” which had its New York premiere on Wednesday at the Joyce Theater courtesy of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. The small company (just 12 dancers) has adventuresome tastes, sampling from a range of choreographic languages. Though sometimes ragged, in both style and endurance, the performers gamely threw themselves into the disparate works with admirable verve.
“Petal” combines a sophisticated sense of spacing with a resonant exploration of emotional discovery. Eddies of social groupings swirl within a stage bounded by large white screens and suffused by Todd Elmer’s gorgeously lush lighting design of Easter-egg yellows, pinks and oranges. A sense of restless female desire pervades the choreography, which sets intimate duets and solos within more formal group patterns, much as pockets of tenderness bloom within the relentless music by Philip Glass and Thomas Montgomery Newman.
There are many styles in play here, including Twyla Tharp’s tough, sexy female athleticism and, most strongly, the aggressively buckling, rippling movement language of William Forsythe, in whose company Ms. Pickett danced for many years. But Ms. Pickett looks to be finding a voice of her own.
This is a good thing, as Mr. Forsythe has far too many pale imitators, and none who manage the pacing and intelligence of such works as his pas de deux from “Slingerland,” performed handsomely on Wednesday by Sam Chittenden and Katherine Eberle. Here the push-and-pull drama of two dancers, isolated in a darkly illuminated world, serves as both a rich metaphor for relationships and a deconstruction of ballet’s reliance on that metaphor. Combining the theatrical and the theoretical, it’s a neat Forsythian trick.
Tricks too abound in Jorma Elo’s dances. But they too often seem cheap. “1st Flash,” another New York premiere, had many of his hallmarks: the manic, slapdash phrasing; the busy, gesture-laden choreography, full of set pieces designed to momentarily wow; the haphazard connection to music. (Here Sibelius’s romantic, windswept vision is spliced, to little effect, with passages danced in silence.) There is lots going on, but little to hold onto (though Jordan Tuinman’s varied lighting design deserves a nod). While the eye scrambles to keep up, the imagination yawns.
A more intriguing world is suggested in Itzik Galili’s “Chameleon,” a third New York premiere. In between preening and posing, five women present a smorgasbord of tics and twitches, accompanied by the meditative, moody John Cage work “In a Landscape.” They do so seated in a row of bright green chairs at the front of a mostly darkened stage, as if waiting for an audition or for someone to notice them.
There is something terribly sad about these creatures, dressed in slinky black outfits and offering their brittle, pin-up smiles. (On Wednesday, Lauren Alzamora was particularly poignant in navigating a public-private tension.) The longer they remain on display, the more you see the cracks in the facade.
ASFB'S 2008 SUMMER PERFORMANCES
Young ballet company impresses at ADF
July 4, 2008
DURHAM - At this weekend's American Dance Festival, audiences may come for the ever-popular Paul Taylor Dance Company but will leave more impressed with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.
This young company, just into its second decade, brings exciting vibrancy and striking precision to its ADF debut. True, its two selections are from choreographer Twyla Tharp's top drawer, but the dancers go beyond mere replication, their joy and verve making the pieces their own. "Sinatra Suite," is Tharp's 1984 showpiece about a ballroom dance couple's brief attraction, interaction and disconnection over the course of five songs from "Ol' Blue Eyes." Katie Dehler in an elegant Oscar de la Renta dress and Seth DelGrasso in standard tux, move seamlessly together, first in sharp tango steps, then in sensuous lifts and close-contact turns.
Dehler rivets with spectacular control, balancing in near-impossible positions. DelGrasso gets his due in a poignant solo of regret soothed over with alcohol.
Before that jewel-like performance, the full company energizes the stage with "Sweet Fields," Tharp's 1996 piece to Shaker hymns. The dancers are seductive in their lingerie-like white costumes, countered by their uplifting, reverent responses to the mesmerizing singing.
Their movements are sometimes ritualistically solemn, sometimes exuberantly blissful. The piece has a wonderful dichotomy of old/new, light/dark, simple/complex. The dancers' geometric exactness and palpable warmth give the performance thrilling impact.
This is in stark contrast to Taylor's "Changes," made for the San Francisco Ballet earlier this year. The piece uses 1960's music from John Phillips, John Hartford and Lennon/McCartney, with dancers in bell-bottoms, headbands, and tie-dye. The choreographer's notes equate that earlier period to today's, with the same need to question political decisions.
Given Taylor's darkly intriguing pieces about the U.S. (think "Big Bertha" or "Company B"), "Changes" disappoints. Expectation of something provocative or enigmatic is unfulfilled in what seems a mere recreation of period dance moves layered with references to drug use and free love.
Only the incongruous "Dancing Bear," in which Francisco Graciano in footed pajamas is comforted in a dream by bearskin-clad James Sampson, gives off some emotion and character. Otherwise, the dancers seem imprecise and underspirited. Taylor's 1956 "3 Epitaphs" still amuses with its hooded, mirrored creatures struggling towards some higher purpose but failing in their bumbling listlessness. And his 2002 "Promethean Fire" is Taylor at near best, the swirling patterns and architectural groupings beautifully matched to orchestrated Bach, with a gratifying underpinning of triumph against adversity.
This program is definitely a crowd-pleaser, if not the most satisfying to dance mavens looking for meatier fare. Kudos to Taylor for longevity and to Aspen Santa Fe for joining the ADF elite.
In varied program, troupe gets its kicks
August 15, 2008
By Janine Parker, Globe Correspondent
BECKET - The annual summer-long festival of dance that Jacob's Pillow delivers is bound to invite comparison to the Olympic Games. All of those international companies, all of those fabulous dancer/athletes. So be it: This week it's the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, a terrific troupe of 11 dancers who are doing us proud in an excellent program of four dances that show off the company's versatility.
Artistic director Tom Mossbrucker and executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty are committed to presenting contemporary classical dance with an emphasis on commissioning new works. Helen Pickett's "Petal," which premiered in February, solidly affirms the importance of such sponsorship.
The title is apt for such a sunny piece, though fortunately there are hints of mystery and tension among the four couples. For instance, in the partnering, the women are never prettily presented like fragile dolls in need of assistance. When offered, they manage to convey both wariness and a shrugging acceptance, willing to investigate how an extra hand can exploit and heighten their movements. The women frequently kick at their partners (gently, but even so), mostly at their shins as if to trip them, but once, memorably, at head level.
The movement is drawn largely from ballet vocabulary, and Pickett chooses well. Indeed, "Petal" and the pas de deux from William Forsythe's 2000 "Slingerland" are the most overtly balletic - the women wear pointe shoes in both pieces. Ironically, given the "Ballet" in the company's name, it's in these pieces that the company's few technical issues emerge.
The men exhibit a weakness in their extremities: pirouettes executed with arms extended suffer because there's no reach through the forearms to the fingertips; more complex jumps like cabrioles lack sharpness both in the spring from the ground and the shape of the feet. Although the women have plenty of dynamic attack, their pointe work is gummy, possibly from the soft, beaten shoes that the company apparently prefers.
The five women in Israeli choreographer Itzik Galili's "Chameleon" are barefoot and, at times, bare-souled. This funny, strange "dance" - the dancers remain mostly rooted to their green folding chairs - is a keen commentary on the exhausting expectations that can be placed on women. Affecting various poses and exaggerated facial expressions, they conjure lascivious vamps, innocent little girls, or back-slapping best buds. At one point the women raise their legs up, splay them, turned in and feet flexed; then, with perfect comic timing, cover their crotches demurely with their hands.
Jorma Elo's 2003 "1st Flash" is a reminder that the young Finnish choreographer has already developed an unmistakable style. The stage is eerily lit, partially by the large rectangle that hangs upstage right (stark industrial lighting is another trademark). Elo's quirky movement - awkwardly yet appealingly vulnerable, like an adolescent who hasn't grown into his limbs yet - is often agitated. At times the dancers rush onto the stage as if late to work, and then hurl themselves into a phrase as if to overtake the clock. But suddenly a dancer will sweep languorously through a turn and it seems, comparatively, that time has slowed . . . for just a moment, and then the twitching resumes.
It's fairly manic, and it could be too much, but as for me, I wish it would never end.