Aspen Santa Fe Ballet at the Lensic Performing Arts Centre, June 7 , 2007

by Janet Eigner

An Aspen Santa Fe Ballet concert has become an occasion to anticipate with excitement: especially as Edwaard Liang’s “Whispers in the Dark,” was again on the program, with music by Phillip Glass, commissioned by this company and premiered January, 2006, in Aspen. “Whispers” initiated both last year’s June concert at the Lensic, and this June seventh, with the same cast – Lauren Alzamora, Eric Chase, Sam Chittenden, Katie Dehler, Seth DelGrasso, and Brooke Klinger.

This work doesn’t age, so good a match is Liang’s unique and contemporary ballet choreography with this company’s vibrant, supple elegance. Liang’s work swirls, literally, with fog, and mystery: the dancer’s beginning entrances and final exits appear as though through a seamless black scrim. Glass’s music evokes sensual rainforests and aspects of water. The work offered fine cameo solos and duets for this technically beautiful and soulfully present company.

The ensemble’s quiet diagonal lines shifted and swirled, changing to fast, frenetic forest -invoked sounds in golden light. The movement combined jazz and balletic gesture. Bare-chested men wore black dance slacks and skin-colored ballet slippers. Women wore toe shoes and austere, short black dance dresses.

When the music became sinewy, the dancers alternated swift, low lifts and swirls with open-palm moves, slow descents, rounded arms and undulating bodies. Del Grasso and Klinger ‘s duet combined a series of soul-stirring undulations initiated by a hand on the other’s heart, and eggbeater arms with a fascinating series of three tiny lifts, ending in a gaze with heads and shoulders hunched.

A section of rapid solos and duets included plucked strings and Central American influenced score, with Diehl’s rapid and powerful runs, her duet with Chase, which included an arms-thrust-back lift, then Alzamora and Chase’s snappy, jazz-influenced solo that ended fast, with hands flexed that functioned like car brakes. The three couples meshed a series of constantly shifting directions, one woman pointed to the audience, her partner turned her around, and all six slowly walked into the dimming light and through the scrim.

Ms. Alzamora and Mr. Chittenden danced an excerpt from Karole Armitage’s hour-long, 2004 work, “Time is the Echo of an Axe Within a Wood,” to music by Bela Bartok. The choreographer in her program notes describes how the dance explores “… the tension between grace and a world out of joint.” The unusually linear and transparent, beaded scrim helped create a mood of clinical, yet beautiful fragility. The couple’s strong and undulating moves well-supported the work’s lyrical sections, punctuated with surprising “…out of joint…” choreography: spastic flexed wrists and crimped fingers plucked the air to the sound of a harp’s pizacatto in the Bartok score, and Chittenden suddenly appearing behind his partner to support a series of tiny lifts.

Knowing that one of ASFB’s six splendid members, Brooke Klinger, will retire after her company’s August 31, September 1st concert here, added poignance to the quiet, silky duet she and her husband, DelGrasso, performed to Twyla Tharp’s “Sinatra.Suite.” Klinger, with the company since its founding, has always reminded me of a leggy, prancing thoroughbred, dynamic, precise and winning in her work.

In the last couple of years, I’ve noticed a new addition to the contemporary dance vocabulary, quirky arm and hand movements done rapidly, across the face or in the air. The moves show up in the dances of major ballet, jazz, contemporary, and modern choreographers, movements that twenty years ago would have been described as psychotic or schizophrenic or autistic. Do these gestures show frustration with the frenzied drift of contemporary life toward rapid, fragmented and constant movement, too swift to fully integrate? Are the dancers like souls trying to brush away what’s coming at them as though it were a swarm of mayflies? Jorma Elo added to this language with pointing fingers, wiggly fingers and forearms.

Mr. Elo’s “1st Flash,” from 2003, to Jean Sibelius’s “Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in d-minor, Movement 2,” felt and looked like race-car-trained drivers powering a fleet of high performance vehicles, on a flat-out holiday race: fresh, dangerous, and stimulating. And what a difference to hear the deep resonance of classical chamber music – the few stringed instruments which backed these contemporary moves, to my ear, enriching the aesthetics of this work.

Dancers fully up to this challenge included Eric Chase, Sam Chittenden, Katie Dehler, Seth DelGrasso, Katherine Eberle and Samantha Klanac. Jordan Tuinman’s bold and Modigliani-like geometric lighting added to the structure and excitement of Elo’s novel choregraphy.

The dancers shifted weight speedily, on the ground, Katie Dehler using the asymmetry of akimbo hips, the balletic high-in-the-chest center of gravity and balletic grace, especially in plies with one leg extended forward.

Bartok’s familiar music initiated the ensemble’s dramatic, syncopated and simultaneous moves. Dehler’s lifted upper arms, and elbows as high as her shoulders, looked geometric, like she hung by her shoulders. Her lunges and undulations with outstretched arms looked ferocious; swift declensions from her sinuous torso were mesmerizing. Klanac’s lyrical stretches and undulated arabesques, were equally energetic as Dehler’s, yet provided contrast. DelGrasso looked like a crane in a marsh, mobilizing his neck, legs and knees with hieroglyphic moves. As the music got faster and louder, the entire ensemble sprinted off, leaving Chase and Dehler to exit with the same ferocious, passionate windmill arms and (somehow), legs, as began the work.

Because the Armitage work had a similar, introspective mood to the first work, by Liang, I would have preferred the lively, extroverted Tharp work to follow the Liang work, and the Armitage work to begin the second half of the program, followed by the dynamite Elo work. In all their performances, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet artists pour their entire presence into their every step, the magic ingredient that keeps their audience engaged as well.

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