Aspen Santa Fe Ballet (ASFB) at the Lensic Performing Arts Center August 9, 2008

by Janet Eigner

A sweet, brief and surprising folkloric concert opened the evening: youngsters enrolled in Aspen Santa Fe’s youth program performed the dances that preserve their cultures, both Latino and Native American. Danced with dignity and skill, the Pueblo children’s turtle and deer dances began as delighted audience members filtered into the Lensic. The folkloric swirls of girls ruffled skirts and the stomp of the boy’s boots followed the native dances. All of the costumes were almost as lovely as the glowing faces of the vibrant students. The cities of Aspen and Santa Fe, along with their School of Aspen Santa Fe ballet classes, include Mexican folkloric arts in their outreach programs in Aspen public schools and free after-school classes (K-12) in both cities, and directed by Francisco Nevarez..

The strong and well-balanced company of ten ASFB artists make art of the given choreography in consistently dynamic performances that leave the audience breathless. Each dancer invests an intensity that can only come after accomplishing the highest level of skill and mastery. Movers and shakers in the dance world have long since taken notice: the company has appeared three times at Jacob’s Pillow, made its debut in 2008 at the Kennedy Center in the nation’s capital, and at the prestigious New York City Fall Dance Festival.

This concert began with Twyla Tharp’s “Sweet Fields,” (1996), a celebration of the Shaker spiritual tradition. The full company danced delicate, sprightly and soulful moods as though on air, following hymns from William Billings’ work, “The Shaker Tradition” and “THE SACRED HARP.”

The women’s flowing white chiffon coats over clean white singlets and shorts, the men’s bare chests under sheer, open white shirts and white slacks added to the mood of focused otherworldliness. All the dancers wore soft, flesh-colored ballet sandals or danced barefooted.

In one remarkable sequence, men lifted, carried, rolled and lowered one stiff fellow soul, then re-lifted and supported him again, all accomplished with an elastic, supple strength. Other sequences underscored a sublime happiness described with light and rapid skipping, scooping arm gestures, and pivots. They used the clean, classic Martha Graham figure eight, done with leg and arm, propelled from the hip, during a shape note vocable sequence. Toward the work’s conclusion, they spun with arms at shoulder level, bent up at the elbow, to the sung phrase, “adorned with shining grace” words that also described the company’s transcendent spirit conveyed through Tharp’s inspired choreography.

“Wolfgang ,” (2005) a David Parson’s work commissioned for ASFB, to a Mozart piano concerto, was danced by three couples dressed in casual 21st century street clothing (Lauren Alzamora, Nolan DeMarco McGahan, Seth Del Grasso, Emily Proctor, Samantha Klanac and Stephen Straub.) The dancers looked delighted as they leapt and spun, whipping forward and backward, filling the dance with intense, happy drama, streaking across the stage with elbows-bent and back-leg-bent-up leaps.

The next, slower-paced section, danced to the popularly termed “Theme from Elvira Madigan,” had the men holding their partners up, while their women simultaneously and gently peddled their feet through the air, arms tender around their man’s neck. The work looked both active and romantic, DelGrasso’s duet with his partner, swift and joyous, particularly ravishing.

“Petal,” the final work, by Helen Pickett, premiered in Santa Fe on February 1, 2008 was also commissioned by ASFB, with music by Philip Glass from “Les Enfants Terribles” and Thomas Montgomery Newman’s “Little Children.”

The music began with intense, smashing, crashing sound featuring swift, balletic encounters among four couples (Lauren Alzamora, Eric Chase, Katie Dehler, Seth DelGrasso, Samantha Klanac, Nolan DeMarco McGahan, Emily Proctor and Stephen Straub.)

The choreographer, Pickett, likes to signal moves: sometimes the head rotates, initiating a duet,

for instance; or, an ensemble prepared for its next movement with an undulating, elongated torso, and continued the work with outstretched arms and legs and soft torso moves throughout. The dancers’ were both undulant and urgent to the piano score.

“Petal,” along wi th the other two works on the program, became quickly hypnotic and potent under the influence of these superb artists. The ASFB’s miracle is that without the exaggerated drama of 19th century, classical ballet, and without the intense facial and body expression of modern dance of the early and mid-20th century, these artists of contemporary, abstract ballet have found a way to channel their passionate engagement with the choreography purely through their bodies. In spades. Bravo to the cast, and to Executive Director, Jean-Phillipe Malaty, and Artistic Director, Tom Mossbrucker, for bringing these artists so far in little more than a decade.

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