Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Ascends

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Adancer can usually recognize another dancer from across a crowded room.  Such was the case after Kahilu Theater’s presentation of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet when across a crowded foyer, I spotted a dancer sporting crutches, a lei matching his onstage cohorts, and a forlorn expression. Having once been a broken footed dancer myself, I identified with the trauma that a foot injury causes in the lives of dance pros. In this case, it was a lava rock that cut into a dancer’s foot, thus cutting the 10-member cast to 9.  Not only is the injured dancer thrown a loop, but in a cast this small, there must have been some unscheduled rehearsal time required. “It was a long night,” he said.   

If the sublime performances of the rest of ASFB company were any indication, the unfortunately indisposed dancer suffered the most. I cannot think of a single negative critique to make of the fine ASFB dancers. They are beautiful. They are, as their polished website notes, “a new breed of exceptional dancer…”  Each unique dancer packed an Elizabeth Streb worthy punch laced with a Natalia Makarova like grace with their every move.

“Where We Left Off” opened the show with a Philip Glass piano composition.  Fortunately, the signature mechanized monotony of Glass’s music took the backseat so the dancers could command. Nicolo Fonte’s choreography fits the dancers as well as their costumes: boy short style bottoms for the girls, long pants for boys, and somewhat blowy sleeveless T-shirts, all in all white.  There were surprise appearances of pas de deux’s amid the partial chaos – we in the audience had to make choices about which group to watch as our eyes flitted about the stage as frequently as the dancers. My favorite moment, involving three couples in dead sync, popped up unexpectedly.  This piece would have dazzled if Glass’s music hadn’t dragged it down. Yet these two artistic expressions were not as incongruent here as they were in the third and last piece, 1st Flash by Jorma Elo. 

Both Elo and Fonte have been commissioned and performed by ASFB more than any other choreographers, with Fonte, fortunately, leading the sum. Elo’s work has been described as ‘hyperkinetic.’  Given the quite lovely score of Jean Sibelius’ Concerto for Violin and Orchestra… I would add to that description ‘jerky and quirky.’ Streb said once that she is annoyed that people choreograph to music… she would probably find 1st Flash acceptable, and perhaps that is Elo’s point.  

The second piece on the program, “Silent Ghost,” had 5 composers, one of whom composed voices that annoyingly spoke through the otherwise instrumental music.  Choreographed by Alejandro Cerrudo, the lighting was so dark and moody that at times the dancers are barely visible. “Silent Ghost” seemed a mere rehash of “Where We Left Off.”  But nothing was more annoying than the embarrassing number of audience members fidgeting with their brightly lit phones DURING the performance.  

Sunday’s performance pieces so strongly resembled each other that without the program, one might assume that one choreographer had done all three. This sameness among these pieces is I think a drawback of touring companies whose selected pieces require no scenery or props. The diversity between the pieces was nonetheless well achieved, owing to the considerable artistry of the cast members.

There were many crossovers from each number a la mode of what is now termed contemporary-classical dance: holding up a leg with the arm whether one’s own or the partner’s, a sort of ice skating and impressive slide move across the floor, and costumes that could pass as swimwear. Another similarity among these pieces was that they were by male choreographers. “Of the 35 ballets created since 1996, many are by world-leading choreographers…

The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet features mostly men which is how the rest of that statement regarding ASFB’s repertoire could end. I counted only 8 women choreographers (vs 35 men) in ASFB’s repertoire and of the 8, only two had pieces that weren’t created in the last century and only 2 women have been commissioned by ASFB. ASFB’s website Active Repertoire page lists none. “In smaller companies, in newer companies, in companies that have an experimental dimension – you’ll find women choreographers there. But once ballet is institutionalized, it becomes a man’s world,” said dance historian Lynn Garafola. My hope is that this compelling and innovative dance company will reach out to more women choreographers.  

All and all, ASFB really is “a jewel of a dance company in the American West” and the best dancers I have seen in some time.  Ho’omau!  


Leslie Larch studied dance with the San Francisco Ballet, danced the can-can at the Moulin Rouge, and now teaches Pilates on the Hamakua Coast.

Photos: Steve Roby

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