Aspen Santa Fe Ballet still breaking ground | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet still breaking ground

Stewart Oksenhorn

Nicolo Fonte's "It's Not About the Numbers," inspired by a sculpture by local artist James Surls, has its world premiere this weekend when the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Company opens the Aspen Dance Festival. (Rosalie O'Connor)

Ten years into their improbably successful existence, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is not only into celebrating. They are still innovating, perhaps more than ever.

When the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet opens its Aspen Dance Festival this weekend, with performances by the ASFB resident company, the program will feature two new pieces: Dwight Rhoden’s “Miss Blue,” and Nicolo Fonte’s “It’s Not About the Numbers.”

Rhoden’s piece is not exactly ground-breaking. Commissioned for the 80th birthday of local artist and arts patron Betty Weiss, “Miss Blue” is a light, celebratory piece set to music by traditional jazz singer-guitarist John Pizzarelli. The piece was performed a few months ago for Weiss’ birthday party at the Hotel Jerome, and was deemed to fit the mood of the ASFB’s anniversary season.

Those looking for more from Rhoden are directed to the ASFB’s second appearance in the Aspen Dance Festival, Aug. 12-13, when the program includes the world premiere of another of the choreographer’s pieces.

“It’s Not About the Numbers,” on the other hand, represents new terrain for the ASFB. It is the fifth work the ASFB has commissioned from the Brooklyn-born, European-based Fonte, and over the course of that relationship, Fonte has been accustomed to getting little direction from the ASFB directors, Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty.

“Artistically, Tom and I have very little input,” said Malaty, who co-founded the ASFB with Mossbrucker a decade ago, and has steered the company to performances on the most prestigious dance stages in the United States, and several international appearances. “We hire the choreographers and we put no strings attached when we commission a work. That’s why we attract a lot of choreographers ” they get a lot of freedom.”

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For Fonte’s most recent work, however, Malaty had a suggestion, and not an especially ordinary one. “I told Nicky, I love this artist, will you check out his work?” said Malaty.

The artist was not a choreographer, or even the type ” musician, set designer, lighting designer ” ordinarily connected to the dance stage. It was Missouri Heights artist James Surls, known internationally for his sculpture and other visual art work. But Malaty thought a collaboration between Fonte, Surls and the ASFB might be fruitful, and he took Fonte to Surls’ studio.

“Against all odds, Nicky and James clicked and connected,” said Malaty. “Nicky loved the work. Then I dropped the bomb: ‘Would you be interested in collaborating, and having James’ piece onstage?’ And he agreed.”

After more than a year of consideration, Fonte selected “It’s Not About the Numbers,” a 16-foot abstract sculpture that includes Surls’ signature touches: wood, diamond shapes and designs that mimic nature. Fonte was inspired enough to come up with what Malaty says is a new way of mixing choreography and visual art. Visual art pieces, Malaty noted, have been used in the past in dance; he mentioned Picasso paintings as an example.

“But what’s different is, it’s not used as a set piece, not to hide behind or climb on,” he said. “It inspired the movement. It almost looks like the dancers are falling off the sculpture. That, to me, is the big achievement of the piece.”

Fonte’s piece, also called “It’s Not About the Numbers,” features lighting by Michael Mazzola, who has collaborated often in the past with the ASFB; costumes by Christine Jolly; and music by Steve Reich.

The program also features reprises of Thierry Malandain’s “L’apres-midi d’un Faun,” and “Whispers in the Dark” by Edwaard Liang.

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Not all of the ASFB’s innovative work can be seen in Aspen. The company, based in Aspen but with a second home in Santa Fe, will appear in this summer’s production of Jules Massenet’s “Cinderella” by the famed Santa Fe Opera. The production, which has nine performances and runs through Aug. 24, features new choreography by Laura Scozzi, and is directed by Laurent Pelly.

As with “It’s Not About the Numbers,” “Cinderella” represents a different way of collaborating. Ordinarily, an opera production will hire individual freelance dancers; in this case, the entire company has been hired.

The ASFB stand to gain much from the collaboration. It will give the organization a higher profile in Santa Fe, especially among the opera patrons, who come from all over the world. At last Saturday’s opening performance, the ASFB dancers played to a crowd of 2,000, one of their biggest audiences. And the experience of working outside their usual realm ” collaborating with musicians and conductors, dancing in an open-air theater ” has expanded their thinking.

The opera company, too, is getting something out of the exchange. “The opera gained a lot,” said Malaty. “They got a group that is used to working together, and that has a look. You don’t get that from freelance artists.

“It’s just another example of the entrepreneurial side of the organization.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com