Aspen Santa Fe Ballet soars into the dance world
July 26, 2005
For all their triumphs – international appearances, a warm embrace from two communities they call home, a glowing review in The New York Times – Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dances on tenuous financial ground. Assuming all goes well, and that means no economic downturns, that the company stays in favor with audiences, that there are no disasters at the annual gala events, then the nonprofit organization breaks even at year’s end.”We don’t really have the resources to weather the storm,” said Jean-Philippe Malaty, ASFB’s executive director, who co-founded the company with artistic director Tom Mossbrucker out of the Aspen Ballet School in 1996. “And God knows, in 10 years, there have been storms – low ticket sales, dancers hurt.”
If there were one asset that might cushion the ASFB’s financial condition, it could be their business model. Presumably a startup dance company, or any young arts organization, would be interested in replicating ASFB’s business plan and following a similar arc of success: The company landed on America’s most prestigious dance stages within six years of its founding. It works with some of the most prominent and most promising choreographers in the United States and Europe. Within the dance world, it has earned a reputation as a frisky, diverse and, above all, youthful company that, having no history to fall back on, keeps moving forward.But these achievements didn’t arise from a plan. ASFB’s success wasn’t at all choreographed. Malaty and Mossbrucker, partners out of the office as well as in it, jumped off the dance stage and directly into the directorship of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. Coming from the Joffrey Ballet, where they met in 1991 as dancers, they landed in Aspen with little idea of how to create a company.”We were more receptive to outside factors than just the plans we had,” said Malaty, a native of Spain’s Basque region whose slightly fractured English hasn’t prevented him from becoming the more verbal half of ASFB’s leadership. “We didn’t know what worked, what had failed. We saw where the community wanted to be. We were very open; we could have gone in many directions.”Virtually every achievement – including having its own new studio and office complex, presenting the Aspen Dance Festival and establishing a second home in Santa Fe – has come as a surprise to the organization. The original vision was, in fact, so loosely shaped that Malaty and Mossbrucker didn’t even know what kind of company would be formed. The first-year troupe included a pair of local dancers who had been trained in the Aspen Ballet School and a few young dancers from New York, and it was unclear just what sort of ensemble this was.”We didn’t know – maybe we’d be a training company, like a Joffrey II or an Ailey II,” said Mossbrucker, referring to the secondary troupes associated with well-established companies. “Or maybe a student company, like an extension of the school.” “Like a stop for dancers,” continued Malaty, “who would then move on. And every year or two we’d have young dancers who we’d have to train.”
But Malaty and Mossbrucker underestimated their dancers. Or perhaps it was their own leadership and instruction that got sold short. Maybe they overlooked the appeal of living in Aspen and dancing for an upstart. Whatever the reason, dancers didn’t rotate through ASFB. Founding members Brooke Klinger and Seth DelGrasso, another offstage couple, are in their 10th year with the company. Patrick Thompson retired last year after a nine-year tenure. Aspenite Dawn Kopf, a product of the Aspen Ballet School, was an icon of the company in her six-year stint. That unexpected stability allowed the ASFB to become something Malaty and Mossbrucker hadn’t envisioned – an experienced professional company.”The company stayed very intact. We had very mature dancers,” said Malaty. “As the dancers stayed and got better, the touring picked up and we became a major company.”At first, the touring was small-time. But performing in backwaters like Walsenburg, Salida and Montrose allowed the company to develop its artistry in front of smaller and less discriminating audiences. It forced the company to think about what programs and styles would connect with crowds that were not raised on classical ballet – or any kind of dance, for that matter. And it seemed to instill a company mind-set that focused on taking risks.”Basically, we didn’t say no to anything,” said Malaty. “At the beginning, we just said yes to everything.”
That spirit seems to have survived the handicap of success. When Luke Willis graduated from the top-notch Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet last year, he had a choice of jobs. But, after watching the ASFB company at Jacob’s Pillow, the prominent Massachusetts dance festival, the 23-year-old Florida native passed on offers from the larger Washington Ballet and Richmond Ballet to come to Aspen.”They had gotten good reviews in New York,” said Willis, who joined ASFB in October. “I drove up to Jacob’s Pillow to see if they would inspire me. And they inspired me.”Willis was particularly taken with the company’s bold thinking, reflected in their programming and stage personality. “The choreography was so progressive,” he said. “It incorporated classical lines, classical esthetics, the beauty of classical ballet, and takes it to a new level. It’s a young, energetic company.” Willis’ opinion hasn’t been changed by his nine months with ASFB: “They’re pushing us to be progressive dancers, edgy artists, to explore art and expression. I feel blessed to have directors who are still looking forward.”Young and versatileMany dance companies, and most small companies, are directed by artists who act as resident choreographers. The repertoire of those companies largely comprises the work of their director.
Malaty and Mossbrucker, however, were dancers. Meaning that, along with no business scheme, they came without a particular stylistic vision. In this, too, their openness has been parlayed into a strength. The company’s programs are wildly eclectic.Last week in the Aspen Dance Festival (which they have run since 1999), ASFB’s performances included a neo-traditional pas de deux by rising choreographer Edwaard Liang; the spiritually themed “Sweet Fields” by the renowned Twyla Tharp; and “Noir/Blanc,” a work of optical illusion commissioned by ASFB from Moses Pendleton, a pioneer in dance theater. The company returns to the festival Friday and Saturday, Aug. 5-6, with a completely different program. The performances include “The Same Wall,” a work created for ASFB by Nicolo Fonte that spotlights the company’s signature athleticism and riffs on rock-climbing, a sport of local interest. (The company also does a children’s performance on Saturday at 4 p.m.)ASFB’s repertoire features dances by dozens of choreographers, spanning genres from classical toe-style to the most conceptual. But their identity is being forged more and more by the ongoing relationships they have built with various outside choreographers. Of the 15 pieces the company has commissioned, four have been created by New Yorker Dwight Rhoden and another four by the New York-born, Swedish-based Fonte. The entwined sense of variety and continuity has given ASFB an interesting identity: a company that can do almost anything.”We wanted a look and identity. To go to Jacob’s Pillow, or the Joyce, we had to differentiate ourselves from the companies that owned the market,” said Malaty, who has, indeed, taken the company to New York’s Joyce Theater twice – both appearances prompting favorable reviews in The New York Times – and to Jacob’s Pillow, where ASFB will return later this month. “You’re not going to see any other company that dances on skis, on point and on flat in the same program.”As much as they have stretched in their programming, ASFB has also earned a reputation as crowd-pleasers. Malaty and Mossbrucker have an uncanny knack for divining local tastes, and their acceptance from coast to coast seems to confirm that those tastes translate well.”Accessibility has been a key from the beginning” said Mossbrucker. “We’ve never had the luxury of doing anything experimental.”
Malaty and Mossbrucker give much credit to the community that supports the ASFB. Actually, two communities: In 2000 the Aspen Ballet Company became Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, with homes and staffs in two cities (though the base of operations remains in Aspen). “I don’t think it would have been possible anywhere else,” said Mossbrucker. “It’s a special community, to take this interest in dance. People got enthralled by the company and wanted to take part in it. We could have done the same achievements in another community and no one would have paid attention.”ASFB has a personality that makes it easy to warm to. It starts with Malaty and Mossbrucker, who station themselves in the Aspen District Theatre lobby before every performance, greeting their attendees like guests. It extends to programs like Folklorico Mexicano Outreach, which provides free instruction in Mexican folk dancing to valley youths, especially Latinos. (The Folklorico Mexicano performances have been staged, and won awards, around Colorado.) The co-directors say that the affability of the company is a reflection of their own cohesive relationship and unified vision.”Tom and I have the same vision,” said Malaty. “There’s great symbiosis between the business and strategic sides. Most times there would be a lot of friction and a lot of energy wasted. We’ve had none of that.” The two point out that they spend virtually no time on conflicts with their board, negotiating with the dancers, or handling staff problems. “We waste very little time deciding which direction we are going. We’ve created a happy place to work in.”
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That image of a happy dance family is realized in such actions as the sendoff to Thompson, the nine-year veteran of the company. When he retired last year, the company waved goodbye not just with drinks and hors d’ouevres, but with a benefit event, which raised nearly $15,000 for Thompson.”I’ve never heard of that anywhere,” said Mossbrucker.That spirit finds its way into the work. “The energy is very different than in a company of 80 dancers,” said Fonte, the choreographer who has been in Aspen reworking his 2002 piece, “The Same Wall.” “They ask questions of each other. There’s a sense they’re all in it together.”
When ASFB began touring, they took the unorthodox route of self-presenting. The organization booked the theaters, handled the publicity and kept whatever revenue came in. For four years touring was a money pit.”No other ballet company spends thousands of dollars to tour in Alamosa,” said Malaty.But Malaty didn’t see ASFB as the typical nonprofit. Instead he thought in business-world terms, aggressively bringing the product to market.”We didn’t wait for people to call and invite us,” he said. “We called theaters in Durango and Denver and rented the theater and performed – sometimes to 50 people. We took the risk away by losing our own money for a few years. It gave them confidence that people would enjoy it.”Those days of self-presenting are past. When the company plays Denver now, Denver University foots the bill, and the ASFB rewards them by selling out the college’s 900-seat theater. It’s a similar scenario in Durango, Pueblo and Fort Collins. When it came time to break into New York, ASFB went back to the old model, conducting a capital campaign to raise funds to dance at the Joyce.”It was one of the best investments we made,” said Malaty, noting that the company’s bookings are now handled by Columbia Artists Management in New York. “It opened so many doors. We went international, to Canada and France. It would have been easier not to go to New York, to stay here.”
While some aspects of the ASFB success can be credited to its boldness, others can only be chalked up to plain good fortune. Their offices and studio in the Colorado Mountain College building was a matter of good timing. They had outgrown their old digs in the Red Brick Center for the Arts just as CMC was building its new home and was interested in having a partner. The move into Santa Fe, which has expanded their season and base of support, was instigated by a group of New Mexico patrons. ASFB never imagined presenting outside companies – until the city of Aspen asked them to take over the Aspen Dance Festival in 1999.ASFB finds itself in a far different place than it was 10 years ago. Back then, the budget was $75,000; now it is $2.7 million. A big tour in 1995 meant a bus trip around Colorado; their performance schedule is now laid out two years ahead. Artistically, the expectations are infinitely higher.And that means that, unlike a decade ago, ASFB has been forced to formulate a plan.”Today we’re doing great. If everything goes as planned,” said Malaty. “If no dancers get hurt, everything sells out, nobody pulls back their donations – we break even.”This is where we are starting to plan. Building an endowment is central to our future.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.