Aspen Santa Fe Ballet debuts Nicolo Fonte’s ‘Where We Left Off’
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – When Jean-Philip Malaty and Tom Mossbrucker had their first encounter with the work of choreographer Nicolo Fonte, the experience had them looking at their watches. They weren’t bored; quite the opposite. Malaty and Mossbrucker, co-directors of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, were in Aspen, engrossed in a video of Fonte’s “In Hidden Seconds,” while the choreographer was in Madrid, his home at the time. The clock-watching confirmed that it was morning in Spain, and safe to make an introductory call. Before the video had even finished – it was 1999, still the VHS era – the Aspenites dialed the phone and offered a commission to Fonte.
The following year, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet debuted “Everyday Incarnation,” set to music by Vivaldi. Thus began an especially fruitful partnership. The ASFB has premiered six commissioned works by Fonte, and last year they performed the Aspen debut of “In Hidden Seconds” – considered among Fonte’s signature pieces, even though it was one of his first works, and was created while he was still primarily a dancer, for Spain’s Compania Nacional de Danza. Several of the pieces Fonte has made for the ASFB have become company staples, while one, 2003’s “Left Unsaid,” featuring music by Bach and performed on chairs, has worked its way into the repertoire of several prominent companies.
The ASFB debuts yet another of Fonte’s dances in its program of mixed repertory, Friday and Saturday, Feb. 12, at the Aspen District Theatre. This time out, the choreographer has been reflecting on his relationship with the company. The piece is “Where We Left Off,” a title that Fonte said is an unveiled reference to the decade-long dance between company and guest choreographer. (The program also features the Aspen debut of Jiri Kylian’s “Stamping Ground” and Cayetano Soto’s “Uneven,” which was commissioned by the ASFB and had its world premiere in Aspen last year.) The dance is, in a way, a product of Fonte’s experiences – his anxieties, and ultimately, his trust – with the ASFB.
When Fonte came to Aspen this past fall, to spend a week and a half with the company dancers, he arrived with few solid ideas, other than the music he wanted to use: solo piano music by Philip Glass. As he choreographed, he was taken over by the need to do something new – not just a new dance, but something that was overtly novel.
“My fear was I couldn’t be new enough for them,” Fonte, a dark-skinned, dark-haired 45-year-old, who, after nearly two decades living in Europe, returned to his native Brooklyn in 2007. “It’s very difficult to come up with something new. That’s a challenge always, and especially hard when you’ve worked with a company eight times. It was me imposing it on myself, and that’s not a good criteria for anyone. It wouldn’t be a creative flow; it would be enormous pressure.”
A few months ago, Fonte had a rare extended period off. It was a time not only to chill personally, but also to relax about the piece for Aspen. Instead of letting the long, close history with the ASFB become a source of anxiety, he realized he could take comfort in the familiarity.
“I said, ‘You know them really well; they’re going to have complete confidence in you. Enjoy the process; engage with the dancers,'” Fonte said of his thought process. “In the end, I thought it would be wrong of me, and detrimental to my artistic process, to impose that rule – to be as new as possible.
“I was confident enough to relax. This is not my first time at bat. That was a real sign of maturity on my part – to have faith, to realize I don’t have anything to prove.”
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“Where We Left Off,” then, doesn’t really try to prove anything. Where some of Fonte’s earlier works addressed specific topics – “Re: Tchaikovsky,” created for Sweden’s “Götheborg Ballet, was specifically about the life of the composer; “Made Man,” premiered last year by Belgium’s Royal Ballet of Flanders, expressed thoughts about Davinci’s “The Last Supper” – the new piece, choreographed for all 10 company dancers, is purely about movement.
“There’s no narrative, no plot, nothing to interpret,” Fonte said. “It’s about the dancing and the dancers. I wanted to develop a particular language. I really tried to make it just about the dancing – and what it means to dance alone, together, to dance as part of a group.”
Malaty said that, when the latest commission was being discussed, Fonte mentioned that he intended to make a “pretty ballet.” To Malaty, this was another indication of the choreographer’s maturity.
“That’s taboo these days,” Malaty said of the desire to make pretty dances (or “beautiful,” the term Fonte prefers). “It has to be a political statement or a big artistic expression or they want to shock. And Nicolo’s still inspired by essential beauty, to make a work that is visually pleasing. Sometimes, choreographers go too deep that no one understands it. Nicolo doesn’t need the extra justification – he’s got the great movement quality.”
Fonte’s history with the ASFB gave Malaty a measure of comfort in letting the choreographer go ahead with his plan. “He doesn’t have to prove himself. So he is free to take risks, experiment,” Malaty said. With other choreographers the company has worked with, Malaty said there can be much more hand-holding: “We ask, What’s the length of the piece, what’s the music, how many dancers? With Nicolo, the first few days, Tom [Mossbrucker] doesn’t even go in the studio.
“Working with another organization, Nicolo might have assistants, artistic staff from the company. Here, we just leave him with the dancers, close the door.”
Fonte was raised in Bensonhurst, a heavily Italian-American neighborhood, at the time, that was the setting of “Saturday Night Fever.” (He laughs at the idea that the disco-oriented movie influenced him to get into dance.) He started dancing at the age of 14, and studied at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York, and the San Francisco Ballet and New York City Ballet schools. After some time dancing in Canada, he joined Nacho Duato’s Campania Nacional Danza, where he spent seven years.
In Madrid, Fonte began moving into choreography. His first piece was a disaster: “Duato didn’t like it. It wasn’t successful,” Fonte recalls. “I was stunned when he asked me to do another ballet.”
Given a second chance, and perhaps feeling there was nothing to lose, Fonte determined that his next piece would aim to please no one but himself. “I said, I’m not going to give a shit what anyone else says,” he said.
What others ended up saying about “In Hidden Seconds” was that Fonte had created a masterpiece. One reviewer called it “a nearly perfect scenographic and choreographic gem that is challengingly abstract and at the same time immensely fascinating.” It has, so far, stood the test of time; its Aspen premiere, last year, was a sensation. (For his part, Fonte says the ASFB danced it “beautifully.”)
In the decade since, Fonte has created dances for numerous companies. He has also worked repeatedly with several companies, including Sweden’s Götheborg Ballet, for whom he created some nine pieces in a relationship that lasted from 2002-’06; and the Royal Ballet of Flanders, for whom he made four dances.
He has a similarly tight bond with the ASFB, and it has allowed him to develop as a choreographer. “It’s like coming home,” he said of working in Aspen. “I know the dancers extremely well, I know the organization extremely well, and I know how it works. Way before I’m in the studio with them I’m envisioning particular dancers in particular roles.”
Working with the local company has stretched Fonte in a variety of ways. His 2002 piece, “The Same Wall,” was inspired by the interest in rock climbing that some of the Aspen dancers had. In 2006, he created for the ASFB “It’s Not About the Numbers,” which featured a sculpture by Roaring Fork Valley artist James Surls.
Not all the experiments have worked. “Quartet,” a 2008 ASFB commission featuring all male dancers and set to the music of Nine Inch Nails, “sort of fizzled,” Fonte said. “It didn’t have a life of its own.”
As the ASFB has allowed Fonte to develop, so has Fonte shaped the ASFB. “He helped define the aesthetic of the company, by doing one or two works a year,” Malaty said. “That had an impression on the dancers.”
Of the company’s progress, Fonte said, “It’s quite simple: they’re great. They’ve become expert at contemporary ballet. There’s a total faith and belief in them. There’s a confidence.”
That faith was crucial in creating “Where We Left Off.” After his moment of crisis, when he wondered how he would create something new enough, Fonte looked to the bond that had been built over 10 years and seven dances. New is nice, he concluded, but familiarity has its benefits.
“I realized there’s something beautiful in what we’ve done together, and I should allow it to take me along,” he said. “This was perhaps the only place, at the moment, where this could happen successfully.”