A year and a half ago, Norbert De La Cruz III was nervous. He was 23, trying to find his way into the dance world, and was given his first real opportunity as a choreographer. With a grant from the Jerome Robbins Foundation that fosters emerging choreographers, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet commissioned a piece from De La Cruz, his first professional work. In February of 2012, the dance, “Square None,” premiered in Aspen. It was a major hit, instantly giving De La Cruz a profile in dance circles, the kind of reception that might have calmed his anxieties.
But De La Cruz doesn’t do calm very well. “I’m still anxious and nervous all the time,” he said one morning in Aspen this week. “I’m naturally a nervous person.”
Now, though, the anxiety has a different flavor. After a whirlwind year of prominent awards, significant choreographic opportunities, and even gaining membership as a dancer in the New York-based contemporary troupe Complexions, De La Cruz is returning to Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. The local company will perform “Fold by Fold” on Saturday as part of a program of mixed repertoire that also features another premiere — “Beautiful Mistake,” by Cayetano Soto, who has a long association with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet — plus the return of Trey McIntyre’s popular “Like a Samba.” (The program will be repeated in Aspen in performances on July 18 and 20.)
Comparing last year’s bout of nerves to his current angst, De La Cruz says that this year’s is more palpable. With “Square None,” expectations were low, and De La Cruz was working with a perfectly clean slate. In fact, “Square None,” as the title indicates, was about beginnings — “Where you start off with nothing, nothing but yourself,” as De La Cruz put it earlier this year. With “Fold by Fold,” there are not only expectations from the audience about the quality of the work, but also internal pressure to create something that pushes De La Cruz’s artistry and choreographic language forward.
“There’s more risk,” De La Cruz said. “But I’ve accepted that alongside the nervousness, which I’ll have forever, the risk is important. You’re asked to do more and that’s important. You don’t want to do less — I don’t want to be a stagnant choreographer, where it’s safe. That’s not what the audience came to the theater for. People come to the theater to be shocked and surprised. To be changed.”
“Fold by Fold,” which features eight dancers, four men and four women, represents a variety of changes for De La Cruz. With “Square None,” he came in with 10 months’ worth of specific movements in mind; he likened the process of creating that dance to “a checklist to mark off.” “Fold by Fold” has been far more of an in-the-studio collaboration with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancers.
“Instead of being a dictator, wanting them to convey my dreams, I’m allowing the dancers to find their possibilities in the piece,” he said. “It’s not about the choreographer; it’s how the choreographer relates to the dancers. That’s the beauty of creation.”
De La Cruz credits that particular change to two factors: that he has gotten to know the local dancers better, and that he spent much of the last year as a dancer himself. (De La Cruz left Complexions last week, saying that membership in the company was interfering with his choreographic pursuits.)
And where “Square None” was a technically complicated production, with nearly 100 lighting cues, the new piece is relatively stripped down. Still, “Fold by Fold” has its own commissioned music, a purely classical score by Michael Gilbertson, a Juilliard classmate of De La Cruz’s and a former student at the Aspen Music Festival and School. The costume design is by another former Juilliard student, Marion Talan.
De La Cruz wants to balance the change with some stability. “I think it’s important for the audience to recognize me from the movement, not just a photo,” he said. “I want them to be able to say, ‘That’s such a Norbert piece.’ But I took risks in exploring velocity, changing from velocity to stillness, how that can affect the dancers.”
To demonstrate the piece’s themes, De La Cruz starts with a piece of paper. “It’s flat. It’s meaningless,” he said. “But how one puts one’s information on it, puts ink on it, folds it, creates something — it’s like an origami. You take this piece of paper and it becomes something structural, mathematical, by folding it.”
De La Cruz moved recently, from one side of an Upper West Side Manhattan street to the other. The rest of the changes in his life over the past 18 months have been more drastic.
De La Cruz’s first contact with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet was when he auditioned to be a company dancer. He didn’t get the job, mostly because of his height; De La Cruz is 5-feet, 4-inches. But after seeing a piece he had created for a Juilliard showcase, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet directors Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty offered De La Cruz a choreography commission. (De La Cruz did eventually get an onstage role in Aspen, dancing the part of the Jester in the annual performances of “The Nutcracker” the past two years.)
Last August, De La Cruz became a dancer with Complexions. The job had its upside. “One of the reasons I became a dancer was to see the world, and they gave me that opportunity. I went to Russia, Detroit, places in Texas and upstate New York that I’d never been to,” De La Cruz, a native Filipino who was raised in Los Angeles’ Koreatown neighborhood, said. “Being with a group of dancers that I could call a family — that was cool. And just being able to work with dancers.”
But the doors as a choreographer kept opening. Among the biggest achievements was winning a Princess Grace Award for Choreography Fellowship, which partially funded the latest Aspen Santa Fe Ballet commission. De La Cruz was one of four people accepted into the Alvin Ailey New Directions Choreography Lab, which includes a seven-week stretch next fall working with Alvin Ailey artistic director Robert Battle. He also has a mentorship with Israeli-born choreographer Igal Perry. So De La Cruz decided to leave Complexions, but he took with him some valuable lessons.
“I can put myself in a dancer’s position, see how the dance can be done efficiently, professionally, profoundly,” he said. And make every movement necessary, make every solo, duet not overdone, but necessary for the dance to engulf the space.”
De La Cruz could have been even busier. Several companies have expressed interest in performing “Square None.” But De La Cruz is in no hurry to give the work a life outside of Aspen.
“I want to keep that first piece in a sentimental place. I’m attached to it,” he said. “And it holds a special place in Aspen — it won’t mean as much anywhere else.”
And Aspen, of course, has a lot of meaning for De La Cruz. It might, in fact, be the one place that dissolves his nervous energy.
“With the warmness of the summer, there’s a calmness,” he said. “Aspen is a choreographer’s dream. It allows you to seep into your own thoughts without the public’s constant criticism, which New York constantly carries.”
“It’s not about the choreographer; it’s how the choreographer relates to the dancers. That’s the beauty of creation.”