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A last dance, then a big leap for Aspen dancer

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Jay SimonCassie Lewis will perform two solo pieces Saturday in the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet's Spring Recital. Lewis, a senior at Aspen High School, is set to attend the Ailey Fordham dance program in New York City.
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ASPEN – When Cassie Lewis, an Aspen High School senior who has been studying at the School of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet since she was 4, began working on an original dance with Craig Black, a member of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company, the two didn’t know what story they wanted the piece to tell. But since Lewis needed a narrative and emotions to associate with the movements, she let her imagination take over. So for that part of the dance that had Lewis thumping her chest, she thought of it as a queen with meteors bouncing off her.

But Lewis has a compelling story that she is living in at the moment and, almost inevitably, she began to relate the dance she was working on to her own tale. “We figured the story would come, and we finally saw it was the story of myself,” she said.

In a few months, the 17-year-old Lewis will leave Aspen for New York City, where she has been accepted into the prestigious Ailey Fordham BFA program, a partnership between Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Fordham University. She’ll be trading her small hometown for a big city she has visited just once, when she was visiting the program’s campus – which is basically some skyscrapers at midtown Manhattan’s Lincoln Center.



“It’s almost a coming-of-age story. It’s about becoming a different person,” Lewis said of “Wash,” a two-and-a-half-minute solo piece Black choreographed to a Bon Iver song. “I’m moving on from my Aspen self, where I’m comfortable, to something new.”

Along with the geographical relocation comes emotional movement.



Craig said, ‘This piece is you; it’s who you are.’ Which I didn’t like. I don’t like being the center of attention,” Lewis said. “It’s the story of me getting up the courage to be an adult, to confront life, to say, ‘This is me; this is what you’re going to get.'”

Parts of “Wash” have Lewis becoming disengaged with the audience; instead of looking into the crowd, she is searching for her own world onstage – a new, uncertain world. “There’s something I’m looking for: ‘What’s that? Does that look familiar? Do I know that person?'” she said. “It’s about being content wherever you are and that’s how I feel about the move – I’m going to make the best of it.”

Before heading off, Lewis has one last dance at home. She will be featured in the School of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s Spring Recital Saturday with shows at 1 and 6 p.m. at the Aspen District Theatre. The performances will feature more than 200 students from the school and from Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s Latino-oriented Folklorico program. Lewis will perform “Wash” as well as another solo piece, the Gamzatti Variation, a high-energy classical piece typically danced by a company’s principal ballerina.

From the time Lewis began dancing, the local stages and studios felt like a second home. It wasn’t simply a social activity – she liked to dance.

“I was always in my own zone, not connecting with the other girls,” she said of her early experience. “I just remember liking dancing and wanting to be like the other dancers onstage.”

For the past four years, dance has dominated Lewis’ schedule. She dances five or six days a week; her summertime activity has accelerated from the one-week intensives she used to do in Telluride to month-long sessions with Ballet West in Salt Lake City and, for the past two years, a month at the Harid Conservatory in South Florida.

Lewis has passed on a lot of the typical teenage experiences: boyfriends, Friday nights out and Saturday mornings sleeping in, family dinners. Last year, the prom fell on the same day as the spring recital; Lewis shuttled between the two. She is comfortable with her priorities.

“I never wanted to have friends. I didn’t strive to go out on Friday nights or have a boyfriend. Ballet was my boyfriend,” said Lewis, who has a 3.91 GPA while taking three International Baccalaureate courses. “And that’s something I don’t regret. Because ballet takes so much of your time. You have to know you want to do ballet. You have to know it.”

The first time Lewis questioned her commitment came two months ago. She had auditioned for a college program and was wait-listed.

“On the plane ride home, I thought, ‘I want to be a dancer – and I’m not in a program yet.’ I did not know what to do at all. I was disappointed,” she said. Arriving home, she found a letter on the counter – an acceptance from Ailey Fordham. “And that was the end of my doubts. It was, ‘This is what I’m supposed to do.’ I can’t believe I had those doubts.”

Still, she is keeping it something of an open question whether she will be a professional dancer. The Ailey Fordham program combines dance – a rigorous five days a week, six hours a day of dancing – with academic classes at top-tier Fordham University, and Lewis can envision a leap into another career.

“Right now, I just know dance makes me happy,” she said.

And she has an inkling that what might make her happiest is to finish her journey by returning to Aspen – as a professional dancer. Her dream gig at this point would be a position in the company of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.

“When people have asked, I’ve always said they’re my dream company. Or Hubbard Street, or Complexions,” she said. “They’re innovative; they’re for this day and age. They’re keeping up with the way the world is.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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