ASPEN - Peter Franc, the newest dancer with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company, has yet to make his first leap in front of an Aspen audience. That will come Saturday, when the ballet begins a weekend of its annual performances of "The Nutcracker," with Franc in the role of the Cavalier. But already, ballet directors Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty are thrilled with Franc.
Franc spent eight years as a demi-soloist with the top-notch Houston Ballet. Not long ago, the Houston Ballet crossed paths with the ballet at an event at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. Attracted by the small scale of the company, the adventurous repertoire and the chance to live in the mountains Franc gave his notice in Houston and headed to Aspen.
"We'd never had that before - someone of that stature, an accomplished dancer, who's worked with all the great choreographers - someone like that wants to work with us," said Mossbrucker, the ballet's artistic director, who co-founded the company 16 years ago. "That's exciting for J.P. and me that someone like that is attracted to our company."
That's a far different experience than the early years. Back then, the ballet would announce auditions for spots in the company, in New York or Chicago, with the lowest of expectations.
"It was us just hoping people would show up," Mossbrucker said. "We were seeking out the dancers as opposed to the dancers seeking us."
The first crop of ballet dancers came with less prestigious resumes than Franc's. Two of the original members, Sarah Evans and Dawn Kopf, were locals who came right out of the Aspen Ballet School. Brooke Klinger came from the dance department of the University of Utah. Seth DelGrasso, who retired this year after 16 years with the ballet, "was green, energetic. He certainly wasn't what he developed into," Mossbrucker said. Several other original dancers were friends of Mossbrucker's and Malaty's from New York.
Despite the lack of experience and credentials, there was a spirit and even a distinct identity to that first group of dancers. Mossbucker and Malaty were looking for something specific in their company, and that was present from the beginning.
"The dancers always had something that connected with audiences," Mossbrucker said. "We always put that first - they had to have that something special, a charisma that touched the audience, an openness, an honesty that you don't see all the time. Some companies, the dancers are inwardly focused; some are more rah-rah. With us, it's always been about letting the audience in.
"Go back to the beginning, Dawn Kopf - you couldn't stop talking about her; she was so dynamic when she got on stage. Seth was the same way. And people say that about the dancers today, every new dancer that comes in."
For several years, the ballet relied largely on dancers who had that charisma, who had energy and potential but were short on experience. That could be a handicap: When choreographers came in to create pieces on the company, they would often bypass the newest dancers.
"It would take the dancers a few years in the company to grow and develop," Mossbrucker said. "It used to be, my greatest desire was for a dancer to get cast in a dance when a choreographer would come in. That wasn't always easy."
Four years ago, Mossbrucker had his eye on a Juilliard student named Joseph Watson. Mossbrucker was crushed when Watson chose to join the North Carolina Dance Theatre.
"I remember thinking, 'Oh, why didn't he contact us?' It showed us we didn't have that notoriety."
But just as the ballet has gained the attention of presenters, critics and choreographers, with performances around the world, multiple appearances at prestigious venues like the Jacob's Pillow Festival in Massachusetts and the Joyce Theater in New York City, a pile of refrigerator-worthy reviews and long-term relationships with A-list choreographers, dancers, too, have validated the accomplishments of the company. Three years ago, Watson jumped from North Carolina to Aspen. Watson is one of five dancers on the current 12-member ballet roster to train at Juilliard, an elite training ground where students encounter the same level of choreographers that they work with in Aspen.
While getting a dancer from an established company is flattering, Mossbrucker believes that will be the exception.
"When you have someone right out of college, with no experience, there's a purity there," he said. "You get them right into your style of choreography. The dancer trains their whole life to be a blank slate for a choreographer. Things you learn are hard to unlearn."
But it is nice to have the choice from a deep pool of dancers. The ballet now gets flooded with applications, approximately 100 a year, from dancers eager to join the company.
"We hear that the company has a mystique in the dance world for being a great atmosphere, for treating the dancers well," Mossbrucker said. "It's one of the very few U.S. companies at the top of dancers' radars."