Heaven at home
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet may be the finest modern dance company in America. In Europe, where the distinction between modern dance and ballet disappeared with the advent of choreographers like William Forsythe, Jiríˇ Kylián, Nacho Duato, and others, dancers are trained in the ballet tradition, but the dances being created and presented, for the most part, look a lot more like modern dance — that is, no rules apply, no holds are barred, and there are no tutus and no Tchaikovsky. The same could easily be said of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet (if it weren’t for the company’s annual Nutcracker concert).
What a fantastic group of dancers, and what intelligent, risk-taking, and fresh choreography they present. It’s a shame that Santa Feans will pay good money to see a threadbare touring production by a third-rate Russian company doing familiar fare poorly and leave empty seats in the house for a regional company presenting top-notch dancing and vibrant, interesting, original works by some of today’s best young choreographers. ASFB’s March 12 performance was a cultural highlight for anyone truly interested in dance.
Nicolo Fonte, a New Yorker who spent many years with Duato and his Compañia Nacional de Danza in Madrid, has created half a dozen works for the Aspen Santa Fe dancers and for many of the finest ballet companies in the world. This time, however, ASFB went back to a piece he created for Duato’s company in 1999, In Hidden Seconds (originally En los Segundos Ocultos). It is a stunning work.
Set to austere, haunting music from John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, a work for cello and strings that explores Greek Orthodox ritual, the dance, for the entire company, has its own sense of meditative grounding, from which ecstatic movement repeatedly erupts, and the stage suddenly fills with 10 bodies hurtling, in fantastic unison, through the hallowed space.
Using an upstage curtain divided into elastic sections, the choreographer defies the spatial pattern of traditional dances, which travel horizontally, from wing to wing. Fonte’s dancers simply step forward, into the space, travel through the light, and then disappear quickly, backing into blackness. This pattern shift offers disorientation with benefits, a kind of spatial hypnotherapy. Although this was never expressed through tacky mimed gestures or steps, in its much subtler way, the reconfigured motion suggested a different dimension, something beyond.
Women in gray, robey outfits and shirtless men in loincloth-like pants suggested biblical imagery, although the additional effect of the costuming (by Fonte and Ismael Aznar) along with the shadowy lighting (by Nicholas Fischtel) was the best advertisement for abdominals this side of an infomercial. And yet, there was not a whiff of the gratuitous to the piece, because the movement invention was continually surprising, wonderfully executed by the committed dancers of the company, and expertly combined with the Tavener music to reach a cathartic momentum. This is a work that deserves to be seen again and again.
An AFSB-commissioned world premiere, Trace by Helen Pickett, was more problematic. Her music (unidentified Rachmaninoff and Ligeti piano pieces) and lighting (by Seah Johnson) were also of the moody, shadow-filled variety, but the movement, while quirky and full of interesting partnering, seemed to be almost in a choreographic battle with any tendency toward ease, release, or stillness. Pickett is interested in isolating body parts, creating disjointed, asymmetrical movement — there is never the sense of mass unison that Fonte is so successful at. Hers is a highly caffeinated style of choreography that, while incongruous with the angularities of the 20th-century piano selections presented, is not particularly dark and moody. Stark lighting and black leotards might work better.
The dancers, nevertheless, were completely adept at all the articulations and furious footwork put forth by Pickett. A quintet for Emily Proctor and four men — William Cannon, Sam Chittenden, Seth DelGrasso, and Joseph Watson — was particularly pleasing. The costuming, in rich purples, by Austin Scarlett, and the use of toe shoes by the women — Katherine Bolaños, Katie Dehler, Samantha Klanac, and Proctor — seemed to suggest, for a moment, something more traditionally “balletic,” but Pickett wasn’t buying or selling that — not at all.
The athletic, European aesthetic the choreographer was exposed to as a leading Forsythe ballerina is something that looks a bit forced here. If she is still searching for her own voice as a choreographer, perhaps a few more moments of stillness and bodies that occasionally move with integration instead of isolation might offer balance to dancing that is successful as a twitchy wrestling match in space but rarely creates resonating imagery.
Six Dances by Kylián completed the program. Powdered wigs, bubbles, hoop skirts on rollers, and Mozart all combine into a frothy entertainment that never ceases to cause dance audiences to laugh out loud. The ASFB dancers were careful comics, never letting their faces do the work their bodies were designed to do by the choreographer, not just a master of comedy but also of stagecraft. Nolan DeMarco McGahan, Seia Rassenti, and all the performers mentioned earlier warrant kudos for their fullthrottle performances in all three works of the evening.
Wigged out: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in Jiˇrí Kylián’s