Aspen Santa Fe Ballet stages winter production of ‘Beautiful Decay’


What: ‘Beautiful Decay,’ presented by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Where: Aspen District Theatre

When: Friday, Feb. 28 & Saturday, Feb. 29, 7:30 p.m.

How much: $36-$94

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

“Beautiful Decay” was a creative breakthrough for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and a high-water mark of the year when it made its local debut last summer. Running for three performances in July and August, it marked the first evening-length contemporary ballet ever produced by the company.

A poignant meditation on mortality and a celebration of aged bodies rarely seen in ballet, the piece features a multi-generational cast and returns for a two nights on Friday and Saturday, marking the highlight of a relatively quiet local winter dance season (this weekend is the Aspen Santa Fe’s only run of performances here besides its “Nutcracker” run in December).

“Beautiful Decay” is the 10th ballet that choreographer Nicolo Fonte has staged with the company — including eight original creations — over the past 20 years. His aesthetic has helped define Aspen Santa Fe as it rose to international prominence, while the company also has pushed Fonte to make some of the definitive works of his globally acclaimed career.

“Beautiful Decay” debuted in 2013 at BalletX in Philadelphia. It is a two-act exploration of the cycle of life, the inevitability of aging and time’s whittling away of youth. Produced here with original set design by Tony Award winner Mimi Lien, it calls for two older dancers — in this production they are longtime Aspen dance instructor Hilary Cartwright and Oregon dancer Gregg Bielemier, both in their 70s — to perform alongside the younger company cast, providing contrast between the youthful vigor of professional dancers in their prime and a pair decades older.

Watching the ballet with audiences, Fonte has found that as soon as the older dancers enter, all eyes focus on them.

“There is something beautiful in experiencing 40 years of experience onstage, where physical prowess morphs into something else and becomes much more of an emotional, reflective way of moving,” Fonte said.

Fonte prepared his cast physically as well as emotionally for “Beautiful Decay,” pushing dancers to communicate the depths of the work.

“When I say, ‘Do it,’ I mean do it on a cellular level,” he told the cast at June rehearsal in the Aspen Santa Fe studio. “So that every cell in your body is committed to that one moment and the next moment, and the one after that. That’s a long, grueling process.”

He gave the dancers a rarely heard rehearsal prompt in the studio last week: It’s OK to cry.

“At the end, it has that impact, you’re going to want to bawl,” he told the dancers while they ran through the powerhouse finale. “In rehearsal, I need you to start to feel that.”

The result, for the audience, is a gut-level connection. Viewers can see themselves in the performers, young and old.

“You’re not going to see yourself in them hoisting their legs in the air and doing the incredible things they can do,” Fonte explained between rehearsals last summer. “But you might be able to transfer your emotions to them — you might be able to recognize you’ve felt that or experienced that. That’s super important. Otherwise it’s just some kind of aerobic exercise that might be impressive, but it’s an empty gesture.”

Fonte’s original inspiration for the concept was inspired by a 3-D photo exhibition in Portland, Oregon, which brought viewers inside of nearly dead flowers.

“It touched me in my core,” Fonte said. “Something about it was so powerful, and the element of 3-D you were inside the flower petals. These decaying flowers retained so much of their flower-ness. It was this undeniable identity screaming at me: ‘I was once a flower!’ My heart was racing. And that’s really where the idea came from.”

Working regularly with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet over the past two decades, Fonte describes artistic director Tom Mossbrucker as a collaborator whose ideas in the studio have helped shape Fonte’s work. He pointed to his 2003 Aspen Santa Fe creation, “Left Unsaid” — his fourth piece for Aspen — as a breakthrough in his creative life. It’s gone on to become one of his most successful works, performed by seven companies since its Aspen premiere. Fonte recalled how he knew he would set it to Bach violin music, but how he created the work without music in rehearsals.

“I created almost the entire piece in silence before I put the music on,” he said. “Of course it was running in my head the whole time, but not in the dancers’ heads. So we were creating true human interaction that wasn’t dictated by the music.”

That deeply felt humanity has become a driving force in his work since then. The supportive environment here and the bond between Fonte, the company leadership and its dancers let him take that creative leap.

“I think it had to do with the fact that I was here and I trusted them and they trusted me,” he said. “I was forced to figure something out in that creation process. It was kismet. It had to happen here, based on the repetition of creations that I was making for them.”

Back when he premiered “Beautiful Decay” in Philadelphia, Fonte sent a video to his frequent collaborators here at Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. When Aspen Santa Fe directors Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty decided they wanted to bring a full-length ballet to the local stage, Fonte’s work was an ideal fit.

“I feel honored and touched that they trust me and that they believe in the work,” Fonte said. “I think it has relevance everywhere, but I thought it would have real relevance here where there is a substantial segment of the community that is getting up there and we’re living in this ageist society.”


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