Dancing together: Collaborations expand horizons for Aspen arts groups
August 1, 2008
ASPEN ” Alan Fletcher, who has been president of the Aspen Music Festival and School for two years, acknowledges that there are other great music festivals around the country and the world. What makes the Aspen festival special, he says, is what surrounds the organization ” namely, other prominent arts groups devoted to film, dance, visual arts, popular music and theater.
“I told our board last week, what makes Aspen great and what makes the Aspen Music Festival great is this Aspen Idea,” said Fletcher. “It goes to the very heart of why we are great. It’s the whole cultural, humanistic climate, and not just being a great music festival. That’s what makes the community of Aspen.”
Aspen can often seem like a place at war with itself. But the local arts organizations ” including Jazz Aspen Snowmass (JAS), Aspen Santa Fe Ballet (ASFB), the Aspen Art Museum (AAM), the Anderson Ranch Arts Center (ARAC), Aspen Film, the Aspen Music Festival (AMF), the Aspen Writers’ Foundation (AWF) and more ” have been setting an admirable example of bridge-building. Though some of the organizations have a history of tussling, they have made a conscientious effort in the art of collaboration recently. The result not only has been friendlier relations among organizations, but also some memorable events.
Three of the premiere arts events of last summer took place at the Aspen Music Festival’s spaces, but the Music Festival can’t claim total credit for any of them. Two concerts were co-presented by JAS: Wynton Marsalis’ jazz suite “Congo Square,” performed by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the African ensemble Odadaa!; and a recital pairing bassists Edgar Meyer, a faculty member at the AMF, and Christian McBride, artistic director of Jazz Aspen’s JAS Academy. (The former earned a nomination for the year’s Best Show in The Aspen Times.) The third event, an evening of ballet, danced to the accompaniment of live music, was presented in partnership with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.
Admittedly, it can’t be said for certain that the collaborative aspect of those performances is what made them notable. One might hesitate to suggest that “Congo Square” would have been any less sensational if Jazz Aspen has presented it on its own.
But in each case, there seemed to be bonus factors at work: co-mingled audiences, the novelty of dance or jazz in a space usually reserved for classical music. A case in point came when the AMF and the Wheeler Opera House hooked up on short notice for a benefit concert for the victims of the Castle Ridge fire in June. The concert opened with a brass ensemble featuring students from the Music Festival and the crowd seemed blown away by the unanticipated and uncommon sound in the Wheeler.
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And there was the simple feel-good vibe that comes from two sides playing nice ” like a parent coming to tears at seeing her children share their toys, without the threat of quiet time. “Audiences love the fact that two great organizations are collaborating,” said Tom Mossbrucker, artistic director of the ASFB.
Those efforts and others have warranted a continuation of collaboration. The Aspen Music Festival and Jazz Aspen co-presented two concerts this summer, by jazz singer Patti Austin and the Count Basie Orchestra, and by Cuban-born singer Isaac Delgado. Aspen Film and Anderson Ranch got together to present film workshops for teenagers a few weeks ago.
This week, the spirit of partnership is in the spotlight as the AMF and ASFB not only renew their pas de deux, but expand the collaboration. On Wednesday, Aug. 6, the ASFB company will perform two pieces at the Benedict Music Tent: David Parsons’ “Wolfgang,” a piece commissioned by the ASFB in 2005 and set to a Mozart symphony and piano concerto; and Jorma Elo’s “1st Flash,” set to a Sibelius violin concerto. Live music will again be provided by the AMF, but this time, instead of chamber music, it will be the sound of a full, 40-piece orchestra, conducted by Ryan McAdams.
Further ahead, Anderson Ranch and the AAM will collaborate to present ARAC@AAM, an autumn exhibition at the museum focused exclusively on artists with a history at Anderson Ranch.
One obvious benefit of such collaborations is the bigger audience pool. Last year’s ballet event drew a huge midweek crowd; it was the largest local audience the ASFB had ever performed in front of. Fletcher said that the upcoming evening of dance is shaping up to be among the biggest draws of the season for the AMF. No doubt, the prospect of seeing Anderson Ranch artists in the AAM will spark big interest among local art viewers.
More significantly, collaboration requires various forms of stretching: listening to the input of other organizations; finding middle ground artistically and logistically; adapting to new venues; exposing oneself to different audiences.
“It’s easy for us to stay in our own territory, in our own places,” said Hunter O’Hanian, the president of Anderson Ranch, who worked with AAM director Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson to select a team of jurors for the ARAC@AAM exhibit. Collaborating “allows us to move beyond our usual safe zones.”
For the dancers of the ASFB, performing at the Music Tent, rather than their usual home at the Aspen District Theatre, presented a range of challenges, not the least of which was a harder floor surface to land on.
“We were taking dance out of a proscenium stage, into a more open venue. There’s no lighting, no curtains,” said Jean-Philippe Malaty, executive director of the ASFB, adding that choreographer David Parsons is coming to Aspen this week to work out issues related to the switch in venue. “It kind of reduces the performance to the basics, of dancing to the music. To us, it’s a very raw performance, with little cover-up, right there.”
The biggest benefit is the heightened sense of artistic collaboration: Instead of dancing to recorded music, the dancers respond to the live musicians they are sharing the stage with.
“The music is being created right there, the dancers are responding to the creation, not to a tape,” said Malaty, noting that the ASFB has worked with live musicians before, at the Santa Fe Opera, and in Breckenridge, where they were accompanied by the National Repertory Orchestra. “For the dancer, it’s a higher level of sensitivity. You can’t go on intuition alone; you don’t know exactly where the next note is going to be. You feel that something is being created right there.”
Collaboration also works to extend an organization’s scope. For the AMF, co-presenting a jazz orchestra or dance troupe ” not to mention a Latin group, or an African ensemble ” reminds its core audience that there are forms out there beyond the symphony.
“How Wynton stretched the definition of classical music ” that’s the most important thing in all this for me,” said Fletcher, adding that he’d like to expand on past, smaller collaborations with the AAM and Anderson Ranch, and engage with the AWF, Theatre Aspen and Theater Masters in cooperative events. “I’m not doing this because, ‘We’d better do this or else!’ But because it’s the right thing ” not seeing classical music as a museum-like endeavor, but something that is alive and vivid and incorporates a lot of things, African and jazz, and can still be in the classical genre.
“Someone asked me if we’d do classical northern Indian music in the tent. And I said, Why not? I would definitely consider it.”
Another thing to consider is that, while collaborations tend to be a good-vibes story, they need to aim for something more than that. When it was suggested to Malaty that merely having local arts organizations in touch and working with one another was a nice thing, he didn’t offer immediate agreement, but reflected for a moment. Malaty offered that there were various reasons for collaborating, but that only one of them really appealed to him.
“It’s got to make sense for us artistically,” he said. “If the reason for the collaboration is greater artistic work, it’s worthwhile. The motivation should not be anything other than artistic value.”
“Look at Merce Cunningham and John Cage,” chimed in Mossbrucker, referring to the choreographer and the composer whose creative friendship endured for virtually the entire second half of the 20th century. “They didn’t collaborate because someone thought it was a good idea that they work together. They did it because they liked each other’s work, and knew something good would come of it.”