For Emily Proctor, one of the youngest, newest company members at Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, just being in the room with Twyla Tharp was enough. The company had contracted with the choreographer’s foundation to perform her loosey-goosey ballet Sue’s Leg, with music performed and in some cases written by Fats Waller. When Tharp learned that ASFB would be in New York for an engagement at the Joyce Theater, she expressed an interest in working with the dancers.
Tom Mossbrucker, ASFB’s artistic director, recalls the Tharp saga well. “It is very unusual that Twyla would get involved in a reconstruction of one of her dances— usually she just sends someone out. But in this case, knowing that we would be in New York, she decided that she would rehearse us. She started off by changing all the casting.”
Proctor said that “Twyla had originally choreographed a part for herself in this ballet, but I was learning a different part, and I was third cast. I didn’t ever expect to go on. At rehearsal the first day, after she had worked with the first and second cast, she just asked the rest of us to dance around while she watched, and so I did and that was that.
“In New York, we were rehearsing during the day with Twyla and performing at night, and I came down with a horrible flu. I called Tom and said I thought I should skip the Sue’s Leg rehearsal, stay in bed, and rest, so I would be able to perform that night. He agreed but called back later and said Twyla wanted me there.”
Mossbrucker continued: “Twyla told us that Emily was the right one to dance her own part. We rolled our eyes, because she was messing with our own decisions. But later, when Emily recovered from her flu, and we were back in rehearsal, we realized that Twyla had been exactly right.”
Proctor, now in her third season with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, joined the company almost straight out of Juilliard, after a summer touring with Mikhail Baryshnikov. This year, Proctor was included in Dance Magazine’s “25 to Watch,” an annual list of the brightest up-andcomers in the dance world. When she was looking for a job after graduation, she contacted Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, and Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty, the company’s executive director, met Proctor in New York. Mossbrucker said that “when we look for new dancers, we look for people first. This company is about the people in it. Then what they convey on stage. Honesty in a performance is probably the most important quality a dancer can have.
“I got to see Emily perform at her Juilliard senior project,” he continued. “Even in a large group of dancers, the eye went to her. It was a large group piece, and she was in the back, but the eye went to her. There’s something really special about her. I can’t describe what it is.”
The ballet company that Mossbrucker and Malaty have built continues to grow and change with the addition of dancers like Proctor, trained in a particular way— with a solid classical technique but with the versatility to handle everything from modern-dance floor work to the hip movements of the samba. Aspen’s dancers are also comfortable working in the company’s egalitarian setup. It is a small, starless group, currently with 10 dancers. Everyone dances in everything, and they tour constantly.
Proctor made the decision to go to college to study dance instead of joining the corps of a regional ballet company out of high school, and her instincts have served her well. “I’ve been very, very lucky to have new choreography built on me,” she said. “If I hadn’t gone to Juilliard and then come to Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, I never would have had the opportunity to work with choreographers in this way. I love dancing new works, because you have to have the technique of classical ballet, but there is a different mind-set. I like the athleticism of the dances, and you get to move with more freedom.”
The directors not only have a knack for finding dancers like Proctor, they are brilliant at building relationships with up-and-coming choreographers. Their tendency to bring back the same dance makers for several commissions means that the choreographers have an idea of who the dancers are and how best to use their talents, Mossbrucker said. That creates more interesting art.
The company’s repertory list reads like an honor roll of 20th-and 21st-century choreographic genius. Those who have set new work on the dancers include David Parsons, Edwaard Liang, Nicolo Fonte, Dwight Rhoden, Jorma Elo, Helen Pickett, Moses Pendleton, and Trey McIntyre. The company has also performed established works by George Balanchine, Lar Lubovitch, Paul Taylor, and Gerald Arpino.
Proctor has thrived in such an environment. “Jorma Elo is such a pleasure to work with. He has a very unique style. His dances are really fun to do— the robotic quality he uses is like an escape. Twyla was assertive and confident in a fascinating way. It was interesting to see how she took her own, intense personality and channeled it into movement. Helen Pickett is very focused on footwork; her choreography is very energetic, with crisp lines. It pushed me. Cayetano Soto, from Barcelona, created a fantastic piece, Fugaz, using samba music. Dancing that piece makes me realize how much I love my job.”
When the company performs at the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Friday and Saturday, March 12 and 13, Proctor will be dancing in all the pieces, including one commission. Pickett, an American dancer and actor who worked with William Forsythe’s cutting-edge (and now defunct) Ballet Frankfurt for more than 10 years, created Trace using piano music by Rachmaninoff. “Beautiful” is a word Mossbrucker uses carefully. “Most contemporary ballet can be called striking, intense, haunting,” he said. “But Helen has created a beautiful piece.” The dance is based on duets with four couples. The women are on point, and the combination of movement, music, and rich colors, he said, creates “a romantic, lush piece of choreography.”
Fonte has created six pieces for Aspen Santa Fe. In Hidden Seconds is new to the company, but it was the first choreography Mossbrucker and Malaty saw by Fonte, on videotape, in 1999. “At the time, we loved the piece,” Mossbrucker said, “but thought there was no way our dancers could handle the choreography. He created it for dancers from Nacho Duato’s company in Spain. These were some of the finest dancers in the world. We contacted Nicolo and asked him to create a dance for us, then another, then another. We have really enjoyed not only his choreography but the way that he works with the dancers, individually and as a group. He brings a European vocabulary and aesthetic. Now, we feel the company has risen to a level required for that first piece.
“Nicolo choreographed this dance piece when he was getting heavily into yoga,” Mossbrucker said, “so there is this highly physical choreography combined with the deep breathing and relaxation of yoga. Plus, the music, by John Tavener, has a Zen-like quality. It’s very personal.”
Also on the program is Six Dances by Jiríˇ Kylián, a humorous piece to Mozart that the company presented for the first time last season. “Kylián is a genius in every way,” said Mossbrucker. “We like the sense of fun in this piece— everyone has been so down because of the economy.”
“Kylián’s work just flows,” said Proctor. “All the best dancers in the world have danced this piece. It’s a famous crowd pleaser.”
Filling Twyla’s Capezios: Emily Proctor in Sue’s Leg