Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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Aspen Santa Fe Ballet: ‘Focusing on the Art of Tomorrow’

Being a sought-after freelance ballet choreographer has its pluses and minuses. Cayetano Soto, 35, is from Barcelona, lives in Munich, and recently worked in Stuttgart, Germany; Belgium; Brazil; the United States; Japan; Portugal; and Canada. He choreographed eight different dances on eight different dance companies. Last year, he spent a total of three weeks at home. “I feel uneven,” he said on a call from Aspen, where he was finishing a new piece for the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. “I cannot complain, but my life has been lived in hotel rooms, and out of luggage. Sometimes I wake up and don’t know where I am.”

“He was a little bit of a mess,” said Jean-Philippe Malaty, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s executive director, who, along with ASFB Artistic Director Tom Mossbrucker, had been watching out for Soto during the rehearsal process, as they do for all the visiting choreographers. It is the company’s support and interest in up-and-coming artists like Soto that has helped build their reputation internationally. “His life was out of balance, so he decided to play with that as the subject for a dance.” The result was “Uneven,” a 20-minute piece that premiered in August, 2010, with a score for cello and electronic instruments by David Lang.

The music, “World to Come,” composed by Lang specifically for the cellist Maya Beiser, was a response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Beiser, writing on her website, called the piece, “an emotional rollercoaster.” Lang writes that it is a “kind of prayer” about the “struggle to reunite in a post-apocalyptic spiritual world.”

“The dance is very intricate, and the dancers are pushed to their limits,” said Malaty. “Cayetano knew the dancers from working with us before, and so he was prepared to exploit their personal qualities.”

“I’d been thinking about this piece for a year,” said Soto. “Tom gave me five weeks to create it, but after three weeks it was basically done.” Soto spoke on a break from rehearsal, four days before the premiere in Aspen. “Everything in ‘Uneven’ is uneven. There are five men and three women, the floor is uneven on the stage, the music is uneven, even the costumes. Nothing has to make sense to make sense.”

“I like to work with opposites,” Soto continued. “I like unpredictability. When I’m starting to see a lot of white, I give black. I like to surprise even myself… the movement is for classically trained dancers who have a knowledge of modern dance. It is very personal. It relates to me and my background.”

Soto’s first experience with ASFB involved setting an existing dance,”Fugaz,” on the company’s dancers in 2006. That piece is a dark work about his father, using chant-like Armenian music by the composer G.I. Gurdjieff. “Cayetano uses emotion in his choreography, which is a rarity these days,” said Malaty. “A lot of what is being produced is movement-based work that is abstract and cold. With Cayetano there is always an emotional background.”

The directors of ASFB are intent on building a new -paradigm dance company. The mission, in part, is to break up what they see as a Balanchine monopoly in American ballet. The Russian-born choreographer was, indeed, a genius whose works for the New York City Ballet completely revolutionized the form. But he died in 1983. The fact that many of the large ballet companies in America are run by Balanchine dancers is a problem, Malaty believes: “San Francisco, Pacific Northwest, Pennsylvania, Boston—they all start to look the same.”

“Our mission is to have the best current choreographers, wherever they’re from,” said Malaty. The reason that many of them are from Europe, he explained, is because many of the leading choreographers came over to the U.S. to study modern dance, which was invented here, and then went home and began incorporating those ideas into ballet. In the United States, modern dance and ballet are still fairly separate. “Also,” he said, “because America doesn’t have a centuries-old connection to ballet history, Balanchine is history, and they want to hold onto that. In Europe, they’re not afraid to let go.”

The other factor is money. “In Europe,” Soto said, “the arts are state-supported. They are more willing to take a risk on an up-and-coming choreographer because they’re not so worried about selling tickets, and filling the theater. But if no one gives you a chance, how are you going to grow?”Soto calls the ASFB directors “pioneers.”

Pioneers or not, ticket sales and donations were down 20 percent in 2010, and the company was forced to spend much of the last year on the road, touring to 33 cities in order to bring in income and build their audience. “But in this economic environment, what is normal?” said Malaty. In June, 2010, the company was invited to make their Kennedy Center debut, where they were part of the Ballet Across America festival, one of nine regional companies invited to perform.

“In terms of repertoire, the greatest rewards came from the smallest companies, which appear to be doing the most creative work with the fewest resources,” wrote Sarah Kaufman, in the Washington Post, reviewing the festival (and ASFB) on June 21. “Friday, it was the tiny, 10-dancer Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in Jorma Elo’s ‘Red Sweet.’… Maybe, for him [Elo], the small troupe is the way forward.”

Next year is ASFB’s 15th anniversary, and although they will be on the road a lot of the time, making a two-week trip to Israel and a weeklong stay at New York’s Joyce Theatre, the directors have cut-back on overall touring in order to focus on four new pieces they will add to the repertoire as part of the celebration. “We want to pay tribute to those choreographers who have helped build our reputation around the world, “ said Malaty. Nicolo Fonte (whose 2009 piece for the company, “In Hidden Seconds,” is in the company’s repertory) and Elo will create new works; Jiří Kylián’s dance “Stamping Ground” (1982) will be set on the company for the first time; and Soto will set a piece he created for a Dutch ballet company on AFSB. “We have to be at home to create,” Malaty said.

While other companies are sticking close to safer repertory, repeating greatest hits and living off their “Nutcrackers,” ASFB is continuing to take risks, artistically and financially. “We’re choosing not to worry about money,” said Malaty. “The bigger challenge is focusing on the art of tomorrow. Finding those unique voices out there. We can’t afford to lose time. If we step back now, and don’t take chances, it could set us back ten years. It’s art we’re pushing for.”

Malaty does admit that sometimes it is hard to win die-hard classical ballet fans over to this new style of dance. “People in the lobby at intermission can be heard saying, ‘that’s not ballet,’” he said. He noted as well that “All of our dancers are classically trained, you can’t take that away from the body. It’s in there. But Balanchine took classical ballet to its extreme, and, perhaps, there’s nothing beyond that.”

In the new pieces, there is not a pointe shoe to be found. Many contemporary choreographers, according to Malaty, aren’t particularly interested in pointe. “They are pushing the body so much, to such an extreme, that pointe work gets in the way.” The pointe shoes are a restriction when it comes to stability, speed and fluidity, he said.

Which is not to say the directors of the company don’t appreciate Balanchine and the classical tradition. For the gala performance in August, Malaty and Mossbrucker decided to import Balanchine from the source. Megan Fairchild and Andrew Veyette, both principal dancers with New York City Ballet, performed Balanchine classics “Tarantella” (1964) and “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux(1960). “These are two of the top dancers in the world,” Malaty said, adding that their version of the works was nevertheless not “our interpretation of Balanchine.”

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