The modest basement studio of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, below Colorado Mountain College off of Highway 82, has grown into more than a practice space for the 10 dancers in the local company. It is an incubator for emerging choreographers and the birthplace of award-winning contemporary dance pieces. It is a hub of cultural exchange, the home base for a sought-after touring company, and an innovative arts organization — an organization that earlier this year made an ambitious move by taking over management of a promising, but floundering, New Mexico flamenco dance group.
The flamenco company, Juan Siddi Flamenco Santa Fe, performs at the Aspen District Theatre on July 22, days after Aspen Santa Fe’s dancers’ only local shows of the summer. Siddi’s company has been running for six seasons in Santa Fe, performing traditional Spanish dance in a small cabaret theater there for an eight-week summer season, and catching the attention of Aspen Santa Fe directors Jean-Philippe Malaty and Tom Mossbrucker in the process.
Despite Siddi and his 13 dancers’ on-stage success, the company was struggling financially off-stage, with its future in question. This spring, Aspen Santa Fe adopted Siddi’s group, taking over its day-to-day operations – allowing Siddi to focus on flamenco.
“It’s just a big relief from my shoulders,” says Siddi. “Now I can focus more on the production itself, rather than worrying about ticket sales and housing and everything else.”
Malaty says the burgeoning dance company is a lot like Aspen Santa Fe in the early years after its 1996 founding.
Aspen Santa Fe had donated their Santa Fe studio to Siddi’s company for rehearsals, and its directors had watched the company’s progress for years.
“It reminds us of ourselves when we were just beginning,” says Malaty. “Now we’re having success and we want to share that.”
Under the Aspen Santa Fe umbrella, Juan Siddi also expects to tour more often, to perform in larger venues than they have previously, and to stage more complex shows.
Siddi said the group’s Aspen performances this summer — a second local show is scheduled for Aug. 5 — will include large casts performing flamenco, including Siddi, three singers, six female dancers, with guitar, cello and violin accompaniment. The performances in Aspen will include a new seguiriya flamenco piece that the company has been developing this summer. Siddi said Aspen Santa Fe resources, like a lighting designer, have helped turn Siddi’s pieces into full-bodied productions.
Malaty estimates the partnership will require an annual investment of about $185,000 from Aspen Santa Fe, which operates with a $3.5 million annual budget.
“We have been financially struggling,” says Siddi. “This has been a blessing for all of us, and it’s very exciting.”
The move is characteristic of an organization, in Aspen Santa Fe, that has taken a creative approach to arts management, evidenced in its dual homes in Aspen and Santa Fe and its strategic additions of educational programs through the years.
“One of our strengths is to see opportunities and not to have a plan,” Malaty explains. “If we’d had a plan 18 years ago, it would have been very limited. We never would have seen us taking over management of a flamenco company.”
The national and international dance community has taken notice of Aspen Santa Fe, for its elegance and its ambitions, both on-stage and as an organization.
At the end of the summer, the local company goes on tour, with seven stops around the U.S. It has grown into an in-demand touring company, with stops in recent years at prestigious venues like the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the Berkshires, and the Joyce Theater in New York — along with international showcases, like a performance last year in Moscow.
Ella Baff, executive and artistic director of Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts, was an early Aspen Santa Fe supporter. Founded in 1931, Jacob’s Pillow is the oldest running dance festival in the U.S. and among its most prestigious. Baff had known Mossbrucker when he was a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, and first hosted the company at the festival in 2003. This summer will be Aspen Santa Fe’s sixth performance at Jacob’s Pillow.
“Tom was spectacular [as a dancer], but that doesn’t always translate into being a great artistic director,” she says.
Baff quickly realized, however, that Mossbrucker and Malaty were creating something special in Aspen and Santa Fe.
“They have great taste, they love supporting new work and new artists, they are incredibly well-organized and [they are] brilliant strategically in the way they’ve developed and grown the company,” says Baff. “They’re a great team.”
Aspen Santa Fe’s August program at Jacob’s Pillow includes three works commissioned by the company and created in its local studio: “Over Glow” by Jorma Elo, “Beautiful Mistake” by Cayetano Soto and “The Heart(s)pace” by Nicolo Fonte.
In October, the company will perform a week-long run at the Joyce, performing the Soto and Fonte pieces, along with another past commissioned work, Jiri Kylian’s “Return to a Strange Land.”
The Joyce, a dance destination in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan since 1982, has hosted Aspen Santa Fe seven times since 2002, in what its director of programing, Martin Wechsler, says are dependably well-sold and popular performances.
In 2010, the Joyce honored Malaty and Mossbrucker with the Joyce Theater Award, recognizing them for their innovative business model and performances.
Wechsler says Aspen Santa Fe has stood out by commissioning new work from established choreographers like Kylian and Twyla Tharp, along with new discoveries for the Joyce audience, like Soto. In 2012, Aspen Santa Fe commissioned and premiered a new piece by 23-year-old Norbert de la Cruz III — his first — titled “Square None,” which is included in the local shows this weekend. It won the 2012 Princess Grace Foundation Award for Choreography and, in touring performances over the last two years, has announced the young choreographer to the dance world. That sort of eye for talent, and development of emerging choreographers, has set Aspen Santa Fe apart, says Wechsler.
“The company is taking a leadership role in the field,” he says. “Other companies certainly are commissioning, and they are not unique in that regard, but commissioning new work is the future of the art form. … The creation of new works, and supporting young choreographers to create those works is essential and vital to the form. I think that’s really admirable, and they do it well.”
The simplicity of the company’s productions — with a minimalist approach to scenery and a focus on the physicality of dancers rather than props or sets — make them ideal for performances on the road. Their lack of technical demands limits the cost of hosting them, says Wechsler, and makes them adaptable to playing a variety of venue sizes.
The way Malaty and Mossbrucker run the company has also drawn notice from the dance world.
“One thing I’ve always admired about them is how wonderfully they treat their dancers,” says Wechsler. “They treat them like the precious and talented artists they are, and dancers don’t always get that treatment.”
Nationally, dance companies with budgets above $3 million in the U.S. averaged commissioning four new works in 2012 and 2013, according to Dance/USA, the national service organization for the professional dance field. Aspen Santa Fe usually commissions at least one for its summer season and for its winter season, though no new pieces are in the works for this summer.
The company’s local shows — July 17 and 19 — will include encore presentations of locally commissioned pieces: de la Cruz’s “Square None,” Kylian’s “Return to a Strange Land” and Fonte’s “The Heart(s)pace,” which debuted last winter.
In this week’s performances in Aspen, dancer Nolan McGahan takes over portions of “Square None” that were created for Seth Delgrasso, who had been with the company since its founding and retired two years ago, and Sam Chittenden, who danced with Aspen Santa Fe for 15 years. Delgrasso and Chittenden both now work on the administrative side of the company, and discussed the piece with McGahan.
“I sought out both of their individual input,” says McGahan, a member of the company since he graduated from the Juilliard School in 2007. “I hadn’t realized, until I became more comfortable in the piece, how much of the two of them [was] embedded in the part.”
The process of handing down parts within Aspen Santa Fe commissioned works, McGahan says, is part of a changing of the guard within the company in recent years.
“It helps give a connection through the transition of the company,” he says. “It’s a bridge between the older generations and the newer.”
“Over Glow,” Jorma Elo’s composition that the company commissioned in 2011, and which they are performing this summer at Jacob’s Pillow, is also undergoing a shift in players. Elo choreographed prominent parts of the piece on Chittenden and Katie Dehler, both of whom retired in 2013. Dancers Craig Black and Emily Proctor stepped into the roles originated by Chittenden and Dehler, with assistance from Elo. The Finnish choreographer visited the company’s Aspen studio in June to work on the piece with the new dancers.
“It’s important to maintain the integrity of the piece,” Malaty says of the tune-up with the choreographer.
The company’s Folklorico program has also garnered attention well beyond the Roaring Fork Valley. Begun in 1998, Folklorico teaches Mexican dance to more than 300 youngsters in the valley and in Santa Fe, ranging from kindergarten through high school. Last month, the program was featured at the National Association of Folkloric Groups annual conference in Albuquerque. And the local program this year expanded from Basalt and Carbondale to Glenwood Springs and Rifle.
Last summer, Aspen Santa Fe brought the Harlem-based Bototo Yetu — a long-running group, founded by Julio Leitao, that teaches African dance to young people — to Aspen for a cultural exchange and collaborative workshop with the Folklorico kids. The Harlem group returns this month, with a joint performance scheduled for July 26.
Baff, of Jacob’s Pillow, says Aspen Santa Fe has set itself apart by creating an audience and an excitement for dance in Aspen and Santa Fe, not only though its own performances, but by hosting other companies in their home bases, by investing in new works and by developing meaningful education programs like Folklorico.
“They’ve set a standard that all companies aspire to,” says Baff.
“They have great taste, they
love supporting new work
and new artists, they are
and [they are] brilliant
strategically in the way
they’ve developed and
grown the company...
They’re a great team.”
– ELLA BAFF