Aspen Santa Fe Ballet takes a fresh look at Shakespeare |

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet takes a fresh look at Shakespeare

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Patrick Ghidossi/The Aspen TimesThe Aspen Santa Fe Ballet performs "Romeo and Juliet" Monday at the Benedict Music Tent, co-presented with the Aspen Music Festival.

ASPEN – Aspen Santa Fe Ballet has developed a reputation, over its 15 years, for locating fresh choreographers on their way up, and then maintaining those relationships as the choreographers establish themselves in the dance world. So for the company’s big dance, on the big stage of the Aspen Music Festival’s Benedict Music Tent, in front of a big audience, it would presumably have its choice of big-time choreographers to showcase.

Instead, the ballet organization is going with a choreographic team that is not known as choreographers at all. The centerpiece of the program on Monday, Aug. 8 (showtime is 8 p.m.) is a “Romeo and Juliet” created by Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty – known well as the founders and co-directors of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Company, visionaries who created a small, small-town company that has become internationally celebrated, but not known as choreographers.

In fact, the “Romeo and Juliet,” set to the familiar Prokofiev score, is the only piece, apart from the ASFB’s version of “The Nutcracker,” that Mossbrucker and Malaty have created, either as a team or individually. It dates back to 1996, the second year of the ASFB company, when it was presented at the Wheeler Opera House. Mossbrucker said the piece has been remembered fondly.

“People still talk about it, still remember ‘Romeo and Juliet,'” he said.

There are several reasons to bring back the piece – actually, a 30-minute excerpt of the piece, from the ballroom scene through the balcony pas de deux – aside from the audience’s memories. The performance – which also includes “Where We Left Off,” by Nicolo Fonte, one of those top-name choreographers who the ASFB has close ties with – is co-presented with the Aspen Music Festival, whose theme this summer is Art Inspires Art, an examination of how other creative forms have inspired music. “Romeo and Juliet” fits perfectly with the Music Festival’s current Shakespeare mini-fest.

It also gives the company dancers a way to operate that is different from their usual approach. “Romeo and Juliet” features 11 guest dancers, more than doubling the size of its typical performances. (Among the guests are three former ASFB company members: Lauren Alzamora, Elizabeth Johansen Martinez and David Barbour.) “The rehearsal room is packed,” Mossbrucker noted. Instead of abstract dance, which makes up the vast majority of the ASFB repertoire, the company gets into storytelling mode. They also shift from contemporary movement into a more classical style of ballet.

“It’s very different than what we do on a day-to-day basis,” Mossbrucker said. “They don’t get an opportunity to do something like this, a story ballet, with acting, pantomime, body language, expressing emotions through their bodies.

“And it’s wonderful to get in touch with our roots, our classical side. People forget we’re based in classical, that all our dancers are classically trained. So it’s nice to return to that, see Juliet on pointe.”

Mossbrucker said he didn’t find feel as if he and Malaty were sticking their necks out by staging their own choreography. For one thing, the approach they take to “Romeo and Juliet” is drastically different than how their usual choreographers work with the company. The dancers playing the title characters – Nolan DeMarco McGahan and Seia Rassenti – have latitude to give their input into the performance. (The male dancer for whom Mossbrucker and Malaty originally made their “Romeo and Juliet,” Seth DelGrasso, remains in the company, and now dances the role of Lord Capulet.)

“Rather than impose things on them, I’ve encouraged them to explore. Because from the beginning, I saw that all their natural instincts were right,” Mossbrucker said. “And this is more like a vehicle, a vehicle we created for the artists to tell the story. That’s a little different than being a choreographer.”

And Mossbrucker doesn’t see himself in competition with the award-winning choreographers with whom the ASFB regularly works. Instead, he sees himself and Malaty as former dancers who understand dance well, and as company directors with a solid track record of knowing what works, and what connects with an audience.

“There’s the craft of choreography, and we know that well,” Mossbrucker said. “Then there’s a choreographer who has to choreograph, driven to do work and express themselves. There’s a big difference. That’s why we don’t choreograph on a regular basis.

“But this piece is special for us. It doesn’t feel risky. It feels nostalgic and wonderful.”

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