Body Language: Inside the making of ‘Silent Ghost’ at Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Andrew Travers The Aspen Times
"Silent Ghost" premiered in July at Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.
Rosalie O’Connor/Courtesy photo |

If You Go …

What: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Where: Aspen District Theatre

When: Saturday, July 18, 28, Aug. 22, 8 p.m.

How much: $25-$74

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

More info:

Alejandro Cerrudo sat cross-legged atop a barstool against the floor-to-ceiling mirror in the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s basement studio. He was still. But not for long.

As he sprang from his perch to make adjustments on his dancers — a couple perfecting a pas de deux — the Saturday premiere of “Silent Ghost” in Aspen was three weeks away. Cerrudo, the resident choreographer at Hubbard Street Chicago, has been working with the local dance company since November on the new piece.

At 34, Cerrudo still moves with the alacrity of a dancer. And he communicates with his dancers mostly with his movements (and the occasional sound effect). On that afternoon in the studio, Cerrudo — clad in socks, gym shorts and an “Emergency Moustache” T-shirt — stepped in to demonstrate how he wanted details of the piece to go, letting out a groaning “whaaa” sound to communicate the slow motion of a head lift or offering a gasp to express the urgency of a sudden high-speed shift. Then he would step back, start the music, hop on his stool and look on impassively.

He and the 12 dancers of Aspen Santa Fe converse, quite literally, through body language.

“There’s a chemistry in the studio, so I don’t have to speak,” Cerrudo said later. “I play with different movements and different approaches to the movement. But they feel it. What I’m saying to you, I don’t have to explain to them.”

Cerrudo spent three weeks with the company in November, laying the groundwork for the new piece. He returned for another four weeks leading up to this weekend’s premiere. It’s Cerrudo’s second stint with the local company, which premiered his well-received “Last” in 2012.

“They’re open to anything,” he said of the local company and its administration. “You find that some places, but not everywhere. And that’s a valuable thing. It takes pressure off of the choreographer and encourages you to go for it, to try new things, to not play it safe.”

His process is likewise fairly fluid and open. Each day at Aspen Santa Fe begins with a morning ballet class. After that, Cerrudo might spend the hours exploring new ideas or perfecting portions of his ballet with dancers. Steadily, the piece takes shape as he homes in on his vision.

“I try to push myself to find new things always, so I try to change my process,” he said. “I think if I always do things the same way, it’s harder for me to grow or to find something new.”

The Spanish-born, Chicago-based Cerrudo first tried his hand at choreography when he was 21 and dancing with the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany. There, he began taking choreography workshops to help him grow as a dancer. His first commission came from Hubbard Street in 2006. His pieces are now performed by companies around the world.

As a dancer, he grew interested in how the creative process works from the other side, so that he could be a “better tool” in service of a choreographer’s vision. Now that he’s the one composing, he tries to remember what it was like to work in the company.

“The dancers are the ones that make it happen,” he said. “Without dancers, what is this?”

As a young choreographer, he’s humble about his expertise and still close enough to his performing days to approach the company with understanding and kindness.

“I hope I never forget what it’s like to be a dancer,” Cerrudo said. “Dancers, we are being corrected all day – a hundred times a day. ‘No, don’t do that, do this.’ So it can get very frustrating. You have to be a bit of a psychologist and respect and try to sense when a dancer needs their space and when you can push them.”

He compares the contemporary movement in his compositions to an abstract painting. The meaning is up to the viewer, and often changes with time. He has a concept behind “Silent Ghost,” but what an audience finds in it is up to them.

“The answer, if there need to be any answers — they’re found onstage,” Cerrudo said.

‘1st Flash,’ second take

Saturday’s premiere of “Silent Ghost” will be accompanied by two additional ballets: Cayetano Soto’s “Beautfiful Mistake,” an Aspen Santa Fe commission that premiered here in 2013, and Jorma Elo’s “1st Flash,” a 2003 piece that Elo set on the local dancers in 2007.

Elo returned to Aspen earlier this summer to fine-tune the piece with the company, which has seen a crop of dancers retire and a new group take the stage since the acclaimed Finnish choreographer’s time here seven years ago.

Elo enlisted Katie Dehler, a standout longtime company dancer who retired in 2013 and now teaches in the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet School, to assist with resetting “1st Flash.” She spent two weeks working in the studio with the company before Elo came and spent another week with the dancers.

Three dancers — Emily Proctor, Jenelle Figgins and Sadie Brown — are taking on Dehler’s old parts. They’ve all brought new ideas and perspectives to “1st Flash.”

“That’s what’s great about dance,” Dehler said. “You’re seeing the dancers’ interpretation of what the choreographer intended. So it’s like you’re the paint on the canvas, but you can move yourself around. You don’t want to see anybody trying to be someone else.”

Elo works by trading ideas with dancers, Dehler said, and gives them some colorful cues — asking dancers to imagine themselves walking through mud or drunk at Oktoberfest, for instance. He invites dancers to collaborate with him.

“Jorma’s work is so imaginative,” she said. “You can see his movement and learn his movement, but when he lets you into his mind with his ideas, that’s a gift that not a lot of dancers get.”

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