Dance dance revelation
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is the un-Swan Lake
Forget about nutcrackers and tutus for a minute. Contemporary ballet is whatever it wants to be, and Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, which has headquarters in both its namesake cities, incorporates influences from the real world into its dance performances. Think shaker hymns or hip-hop, video projections lighting dancers’ bodies, and muscle-revealing spandex gym shorts.
“People have the misperception that ballet is still Swan Lake,” says executive director Jean-Phillippe Malaty. “We want to reflect that we are living in our generation. We are not interested in being a museum dance company and presenting what was written 100 years ago.
“We’re not telling stories of sleeping beauties,” says Malaty. He’s more into updated gender roles and kinetic celebrations of athletic potential, spiced with optical illusion and multimedia.
If it sounds like Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s style is all over the map, that’s because there’s no resident choreographer. The company commissions original work from choreographers such as Moses Pendleton, who is artistic director of Momix and co-founder of Pilobolus; the Finnish Jorma Elo, who’s perhaps the hottest ticket in choreography today, and Twyla Tharp.
“She really defined contemporary dance in the early ’80s,” says Malaty of Tharp.
Typically, dance companies have an in-house choreographer at the helm and a consistent stylistic approach.
“We act more as a curator,” says Malaty. “We try to scout up talent.”
This leaves the company free to experiment and showcase what’s new. Aspen Santa Fe directors are among the minority who don’t complain that their repertoire is limited by audience conservatism or weighed down by history.
The risk the company faces is in trying to balance avant-garde sophistication with popular appeal. It’s hard to find the right language to speak to everyone.
Upon the company’s New York debut in 2002, New York Magazine dance critic Laura Shapiro lamented that the dances prized technique and athleticism over personality and emotion. “Meaningless flourishes” and “silly mannerisms” irked her.
Disco moves punctuating the flow of a sequence of graceful twirls, for example, seem more like a hiccup in the flow of the piece than an artful act of collage. (See it on Youtube.)
But some juxtapositions that sound like they could crash and burn in a gimmicky fire of embarrassment actually come off as beautiful, thoughtful and focused. When hip-hop moves transition into postures from traditional ballet, what could’ve been gratuitously incongruous is instead a sound comparison, a testament to the power, precision and grace the two forms have in common.
The company also uses assemblages of minimalist staging and crafty backlighting to allude to video, film and shadow puppets writ life-sized, allowing the immediacy of dance and theater to mingle with influences from two-dimensional design.
Nichelle Strzepek, a dance writer and teacher from Houston, reviewed a May 2009 performance. She wrote, “Though some write off this type of work as being little more than spectacle, it’s clear to me that not everyone can make work that thrills without being completely vacuous or pandering.”
While New York Magazine’s Shapiro found the technical dazzle and lighting illusions in Moses Pendleton’s piece “Noir Blanc” tiresome, most critics, including Strzepek, were dazzled by it. And all critics, even Shapiro, reported that audiences were delighted.
For those who find comfort in tradition, come Christmastime, the company goes back to basics and performs an annual Nutcracker in Aspen, Colo. With tutus.