ASPEN - When Seth DelGrasso, the last remaining original member of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company, retired last year, Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty, the co-founders and directors of the company, noted that DelGrasso had left an imprint that would last for years to come. DelGrasso, they pointed out, had, over 16 years, instilled in the company a work ethic, a constancy and a sense of ownership that had taken deep root in the organization and spread to younger dancers.
Sam Chittenden, another longtime member of the company, is about to retire, and Chittenden, too, will leave a distinct mark on the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet: muscularity. While dancers are often seen as lithe, elegant and delicate, Chittenden is above all chiseled, and his muscles and athleticism have been a template for the company. Most every description of the company includes the word "athletic," a tradition which dates back to the arrival of Chittenden.
"He's one of the main reasons why. What Sam brought, this extreme physicality - he's become a role model for the other male dancers," Mossbrucker said. "His physical stature makes you really step up."
Chittenden will bow out with a round of performances - at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, at the Aspen District Theatre, with an encore show on March 16 - that spotlight his gifts. All three pieces on the program - Trey McIntyre's "Like a Samba," Jiri Kylian's "Return to a Strange Land," and "Last," by Alejandro Cerrudo, commissioned by the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and premiered last summer - all feature Chittenden.
Over his 15 years with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Chittenden has demonstrated that he's more than raw muscle. One of his favorite experiences came about a decade ago, when the company commissioned "Life Forms" by the Italian-born choreographer Jacopo Godani.
"That was outside what we had been doing prior," the 36-year-old Chittenden said. "The music was avant-garde, difficult. Jacopo was intense. It was a fun process and it made me a better dancer. That was a shift in how I approached things. I was finding out what different movements I enjoyed, what felt good to me."
The development as a dancer was noticed by others, too. Shortly before "Life Forms," Chittenden was cast in Thierry Malandain's solo piece, "Afternoon of a Faun," a work more sensual, provocative and artsy than physical. "It highlighted his physicality, but it also gave him a chance to express himself in a powerful, but quiet, inward way," Mossbrucker said. "To see him by himself, carrying this whole ballet, that's when people understood Sam - as a dancer, as a person, as an artist. He was a different dancer after that. He's physical - but in such an unassuming, good-natured, organic way. It's not ego, just power, the joy of how it feels to move."
Chittenden has also contributed to the company in ways that have nothing at all to do with his physique. Several years ago, Chittenden, who played hard-rock guitar in high school, created an original remix of Tchaikovsky's score for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet's version of "The Nutcracker"; he has also composed a piece for San Francisco's Diablo Ballet. And for the past six years, he has done the graphic design for the organization, a job he intends to keep even as he leaves the stage.
When Chittenden auditioned for the Aspen Ballet Company, late in 1998, he was a fairly raw talent. A student in the dance program at the University of Utah, Chittenden had only been dancing for three years at the time. A roommate of his was apprenticing with Aspen Ballet, and mentioned that the company was holding auditions in Utah. As a lark, Chittenden tried out; it was only after he was offered the position, he said, that he even began thinking about dance as a potential career.
Chittenden had attributes that made him stand out. "That raw physicality - very much like what you see in him now," Mossbrucker recalled. "That's what dance is about, that's the essence of dance. So even though he was untrained, he had what a dancer needs. A lot of dancers take years to develop that. He had it naturally."
Chittenden likely owes his physique to his passion for rock-climbing. He was raised in Stillwater, Minn., 30 miles west of the Twin Cities, an area lacking in tall, sheer rock faces. But his teenage years coincided with the rise of indoor climbing walls, and Chittenden, who was also a pole-vaulter and a skier, gravitated toward the sport. After graduating from high school, Chittenden spent a year traveling with a buddy from one climbing landmark in the American West to another.
"It was the best. Just dirt-bagging it, living off $50 a week, hanging out in the sun. And the dirt," he said. "There was a nice freedom about it. I'd love to do it again."
For his start in dance, Chittenden can also thank his dedication to climbing. In his freshman year of college, at Colorado State, Chittenden dropped chemistry and needed to pick up a class to keep his status as a full-time student. His friend Ethan White, a Glenwood Springs product who would also become an Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer, suggested an introductory level ballet class. The main selling point: learning dance would boost his climbing abilities. "Ethan told me it would help my balance and movement," Chittenden said.
He found much to like about the class - the physical challenge, the novelty, the abundance of women - and he showed promise. The teacher was also the director of the Canyon Concert Ballet, and invited Chittenden to be in a production of "The Nutcracker." Chittenden took more dance classes and appeared in more productions. "I was going to school full-time, and felt like I was dancing full-time outside of school, too," he said.
Chittenden transferred to the University of Utah, where he could combine school and dance, and take classes with Ballet West Conservatory, which took over the college's dance studios for the summer. With just three years of dance behind him, he joined the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. The company was still in its learning-to-stand years, just starting to establish a reputation outside Colorado, and Chittenden enjoyed getting in on the ground floor.
"Coming in early, you have a sense of ownership," he said. "I felt like a part of something growing. I was able to influence it, but have it influence me as well, which is great - it enhances your sense of place, your belonging, your comfort."
Over time, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet began attracting top-notch, internationally known choreographers to create new works for the company. Mossbrucker says Chittenden was a big part of the attraction. "All the choreographers want to use him. They're all inspired by him," he said. The Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo has used Chittenden in all of the pieces he has created for the Aspen company.
One of the qualities choreographers see in Chittenden is his prowess as a partner. "You might not notice how good a partner he is because he does it so effortlessly," Mossbrucker said. "But for a choreographer, what they envisioned only in their head, that wouldn't work on another dancer, he can do."
Chittenden - and his longtime girlfriend Katie Dehler, who joined the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet shortly after Chittenden and remains a company dancer - has thought occasionally about moving on, possibly to Europe.
"There's an arc: You're excited, then you get comfortable and think, What else is out there? Should I explore other options?" he said. "I came to the conclusion this was the best fit, and recommitted to the idea of staying here."
Chittenden has always tended to focus on the moment rather than plan his future. He said that when he joined Aspen Ballet, he was focused. "But not focused on a career path," he explained. "I tend to focus on what I'm passionate about, not think, 'I'd like to do this as a job so I'll focus on it.'"
So Chittenden - who says he made the decision to retire before the decision was made for him, by the company or by his body - hasn't made concrete plans for the post-dancing stage of his life. He want to do more graphic design, wants to climb more rocks, wants to fix up the house in Carbondale he and Dehler bought last year.
"There will be things I miss and things I won't miss," he said of dancing. "One of the great things, and one of the hard things, is the amount of focus and time and energy it takes. It's not a job you can leave at home. I'll miss the physicality, but not the intensity, where you have a hard time focusing on other parts of my life. Gradually I'll realize, I didn't know how much this became a part of me."
And perhaps he'll see how much of a stamp he has put on the company - not just the athleticism of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, but in the artistry as well.
"That's a great legacy as a dancer, to know you had work created on you that will be done by another company," Mossbrucker said. "And they'll all be saying, 'You have to do it as well as Sam did it.'"