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A decade of dance

Kimberly Nicoletti
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly
ALL |

When Brooke Klinger and Seth DelGrasso move as if they are one body, it’s not by accident.

The duo has created an intimate dance, onstage and off. They met 10 years ago at an Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company dinner; DelGrasso told his roommate to move over so he could sit next to Klinger. They began dating a month later. Now they spend nearly every hour together.

“Living in each other’s skin, knowing what happens next, knowing her personality inside and out of the studio lets you bypass the technical and move onto the artistic,” said DelGrasso said, who will marry Klinger in September.

The couple has been with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet since it formed a decade ago ” something executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty and artistic director Tom Mossbrucker never imagined. But then again, they didn’t foresee half of what the company has attained. They were dancers, without any kind of business plan.

“We came with no expectations,” Malaty said. “I think if we would have stuck to a plan, we wouldn’t have been as successful because the plan would have been much more humble.”

They might not have stretched to perform in such venues as New York’s Joyce Theater or Jacob’s Pillow, for example.

“We’re just as surprised as anyone else,” Mossbrucker said.

The duo, who met at the Joffrey Ballet, started the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet when Bebe Schweppe, founder of the Aspen Ballet School and the Aspen Ballet Company, invited them to help realize her vision. As dancers, the pair fashioned the kind of company they would have liked to work in “one that offered things like health insurance and involved dancers in the process rather than treating them like children.

“It’s not ego-driven,” Malaty said. “It’s really about the dancers.”

In the beginning, the company said yes to any performance opportunity ” whether it involved a fashion show, a parade or a performance in a big tent. “The secret was we didn’t say no to anything,” Mossbrucker said.

The small-town shows helped the company develop an identity, which is rather chameleonlike. Since it didn’t have the built-in dance audience of a larger city, the dancers had to find unique ways of appealing to people who weren’t necessarily committed to dance. So the performances began to reflect the Aspen community, incorporating athleticism with a progressive and classy style. The company even went so far as to perform a piece on skis.

“Our mission is to educate audiences so they feel they understand [dance] and feel inspired and moved, not, ‘Why am I so stupid I didn’t understand it?'” Mossbrucker said.

In simple terms, the company wants to turn people on with the movement, Malaty said. And it has worked.

The eccentric yet accessible style the company embodies allows it to employ dancers 40 weeks a year, longer than the national average, according to Malaty. Plus, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet draws world-renowned choreographers, which is one of the main reasons dancers remain with the company for so long.

“It’s hard to find a company with dancers who have been with them for 10 years,” Malaty said. “They usually leave for bigger companies, but our company grew, so it was always rewarding.”

In 2000, the company partnered with Santa Fe, because the New Mexico town couldn’t support its own company. Now Aspen Santa Fe Ballet spends about two weeks in Santa Fe, four times a year. The collaboration extends the dancers’ contracts and increases the financial stability of the company; there is also a school in Santa Fe. Plus, the company tours nation- and worldwide.

“For a company of 10 dancers, it’s almost too much,” Malaty said.

It also takes a financial toll. Though the nonprofit’s annual budget has grown from $75,000 to $3.2 million, it’s still as financially fragile as it was when it started.

“It’s an everyday challenge because it is a small town, and we don’t have any big corporation here, so thank God we have loyal small businesses and individuals,” Malaty said. “But if something happened, we have no endowment. As we go into our teens, we want stability.”

In fact, the organization’s board of directors hopes to create an endowment in order to maintain its first-class repertoire.

And the dancers plan on retaining the “mom-and-pop feel” that Klinger fondly describes. Though sometimes the dancers “get in people’s face because you’re sitting next to them for a six-hour bus ride,” DelGrasso said the company still has a close-knit, family atmosphere, which translates onto the stage.

“We often hear comments that it looks like we enjoy dancing ” and we do,” Klinger said. “When the relationship is real, it certainly reads across to the audience. It’s not just acting. It gives it a deeper level.”

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet has always bucked the trend, and it’s not about to stop now.

Most ballet companies present highlights from the past when they plan an anniversary performance. But not Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.

“We thought about doing that for a few minutes, then went into another direction, because that’s how this company was born,” said Jean-Philippe Malaty, the company’s executive director and co-founder. “We never took a very orthodox approach from day one. A look back wouldn’t reflect the spirit of the company.”

Instead, he and artistic director Tom Mossbrucker are looking forward by commissioning four new ballets this season” the most they’ve ever created in one season. The achievement speaks to the reputation the company has built; without it, top choreographers wouldn’t release their work to the company. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet will present two premieres this month and two this summer.

This winter’s 10th anniversary celebration includes three pieces. The first is titled “Pointeoff,” by Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo. It is set to music by Bach-Bussoni and features complex, athletic choreography. Elo adds a European flair to the movement, blending classical ballet with a contemporary and earthy modern-dance style. Elo challenges the dancers by harmonizing their maneuvers to the brisk pace of piano playing.

“This Bach piece has micro-worlds inside the structure that I’m fascinated about,” Elo said.

In exploring the worlds the music dramatizes, he conveys relationships between duos, trios, groups and oneself.

Taiwanese choreographer Edwaard Liang presents the second world premiere: “Whispers in the Dark,” set to music by Philip Glass. The dark, internal piece is the most intense of the three dances.

One of the industry’s most famous female choreographers, Twyla Tharp, rounds out the evening of dance with “Sweet Fields.” The entire ensemble, dressed in white, flows with traditional Shaker hymns, conveying a spiritual sense of community.

And, for the first time, students of the School of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and the children from the Folklorico Mexicano program will give a 10-minute demonstration of their skills before the company dances.

Kimberly Nicoletti’s e-mail address is knicoletti@aspentimes.com


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