Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Seth DelGrasso leaps ahead | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly cover story: Seth DelGrasso leaps ahead

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

Lynn Goldsmith / Special to The Aspen Times WeeklyCover by Afton Groepper

ASPEN – Five years ago when she was about to retire from the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company, Brooke Klinger noted that dancers tend to put personal career aspirations before loyalty to any particular company.

“People don’t tend to invest themselves. It’s a clock-in, clock-out job,” she said.

Klinger was offering herself as an exception to that rule: In 2007, she was concluding an 11-year stretch – her entire professional life as a dancer – with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.

For an even stronger exception to that rule, Klinger can point to Seth DelGrasso – one of her fellow founding members of the Aspen Santa Ballet company, as well as her husband. When DelGrasso performs with the ASFB on Aug. 25 at the Aspen District Theatre, it will mark his final hometown appearance in a 16-year career that has been devoted entirely to the local company. During that time, DelGrasso hasn’t been asking where his experience with the ASFB might bring him; instead, it has been about where he might help take the company.

“Seth and other dancers have made the company what it is,” said ASFB artistic director Tom Mossbrucker, who founded the organization with executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty and Bebe Schweppe. “They’ve created the culture of the company, with a high work ethic, a huge ownership of the repertoire. In other companies, dancers do what they’re told, no more or less. Here they take ownership in the repertoire and the idea of an ensemble, that we’re in it together. It’s like Seth built the company with J.P. and me. He’s been there every day of the company.”

“If I didn’t do well, it would let down everybody else trying to do their best,” DelGrasso said of his take on his responsibility to the company. “I had to do my part – that was my makeup, and that’s been the values of the company. You look to your right, look to your left, you see Sam (Chittenden) and Katie (Dehler), Patrick (Thompson) and Brooke when they were here, and you know how things are done here.”

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DelGrasso exits the stage in appropriate fashion. He will dance in all three pieces on Aug. 25’s program of mixed repertoire: Cayetano Soto’s “Uneven,” Nicolo Fonte’s “In Hidden Seconds” and Jiri Kylian’s “Sechs Tanze.” Soto and Fonte have created multiple pieces for the ASFB – “Uneven” was commissioned by the company in 2010 – and the company has performed several of Kylian’s works. All three choreographers represent the high level of ambition that has kept DelGrasso artistically satisfied in Aspen.

DelGrasso, however, is not done making his contribution to the organization. After dancing with the ASFB through this season – his final appearance as a company member will be Oct. 21 in New York City – DelGrasso will become the ASFB’s executive assistant, helping Malaty handle day-to-day operations.

When DelGrasso first came to Aspen to dance in 1995, there did not exist a professional dance company here. DelGrasso had been invited by Malaty to perform in “The Nutcracker,” an annual production put on by the Aspen Ballet School, which trained young local dancers. When DelGrasso returned to Aspen the following year, there was a professional dance company, but just barely. Malaty, Mossbrucker and Schweppe had founded the Aspen Ballet Company with only the vague vision of what a small dance troupe in a little, remote resort town could become. The dancers – all eight of them, including two who had come out of the local school – were signed to contracts that covered half the year. The company presented its own performances, in places like Walsenburg and Salida, where the dancers themselves hung the posters.

DelGrasso, who was raised part of the time in Denver and part outside New York City, where his mother was a dance teacher, was attracted to Aspen as much for the natural environment as for the job opportunity.

“To arrive in this wintry mountain town, on this bumpy plane ride, seeing the contrast between the blue sky and white mountains, the warm sun and the cold – it was beautiful,” said DelGrasso, who had trained with his mother and at the David Howard Dance Center in New York City.

DelGrasso wasn’t sure how long he’d be able to enjoy the Aspen setting before feeling the tug of a genuine, big-city culture center.

“Not that I felt this was a flash in the pan. I knew Tom and J.P. and Bebe had a great vision, great direction. But as a dancer starting out, you’re going to do a gig here, a gig there, different projects, till you establish yourself,” said DelGrasso, who in the early years appeared some with the New York company Complexions and took on other small productions.

But a small startup company offered advantages, including the ability to dance a wide variety of roles. And quickly enough, DelGrasso saw markers that convinced him that staying in Aspen didn’t necessarily mean artistic or career compromise. The company brought in Dwight Rhoden, a rising choreographer, to create an original piece, “Ear Candy.” The repertoire grew more varied and interesting – Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” set to the music of Gershwin, and Paul Taylor’s “Aureole.”

“Both signature pieces by those choreographers,” DelGrasso noted.

The dancers’ contracts edged closer to full time and eventually became a 52-week gig – not commonplace in the dance world. Benefits were added, and pay increased. For DelGrasso, at least, a major perk was meeting Klinger, whom he married in 2006.

“And the choreographers came – Nicolo Fonte and Dwight Rhoden, Cayetano Soto. And the greats like Balanchine, Kylian, Taylor,” DelGrasso said. “These are the choreographers that everybody wants to do. And I was getting a chance to do all of them. The repertoire wasn’t old. It was exciting and innovative. It pushed me. That growth always kept me very happy.”

Certain descriptive words tend to recur in reviews of the ASFB’s performances (the company has been reviewed in The New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Chicago Tribune, all glowingly): “athletic,” “versatile,” “innovative.” DelGrasso, whose early dream was to be a tight end for the University of Colorado, has embodied all of that. His physique and desire to explore all forms of dance seem to have set a course.

“He’s really helped define the company,” Mossbrucker said. “Back then, we didn’t know who we were, and now we have a very strong voice, a unique identity. Everyone in the dance world knows who we are. Seth’s played a major role in that.”

Perhaps the most convincing indicator of where the ASFB was headed was the company’s New York premiere in 2003 at the Joyce Theater, a prestigious dance venue.

“In eight short years, we had done so much,” DelGrasso reflected. “It was expanding who we were on a national stage. For me, being from New York, that was amazing. A homecoming, showing people who would ask, ‘How are things in Aspen?’ I could show them, ‘This is what I’m doing.'”

In the company’s first New York date, DelGrasso danced Dwight Rhoden’s “Ave Maria,” a duet with Klinger.

“Definitely the highlight,” he said.

Even as the ASFB has established itself – with repeat appearances at the Joyce and the renowned Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts, appearances across Europe and from Israel to Hawaii, and a series of collaborations with the Aspen Music Festival that filled the 2,000-seat Benedict Music Tent – the organization has stayed fresh in DelGrasso’s eyes. The company continually commissions new works, with an emphasis on emerging choreographers.

“There’s no specific rut,” DelGrasso said. “We tour differently; the repertoire is always new – something we’ve never done before and that no one has seen before. The talent that comes in is always younger; we never bring in older dancers. The value of the company is always to look forward, to keep pushing.”

DelGrasso is 35 and is interested in moving into the next phase of his life. He doesn’t feel old, nor is his body breaking down.

“It’s not a physical thing. And not necessarily an age thing,” he said of his retirement. “Many people dance past 40 and do so phenomenally.”

But he also wants to go out on top, a desire that comes partly out of his loyalty to the ASFB.

“I want it to be where I’m still dancing at a certain quality rather than fade some,” DelGrasso said. “Other companies allow you to do that, take on smaller roles as you get older. With this company being so small, we don’t get to do that.”

DelGrasso is also thinking outside the theater. He and Klinger have two young boys, and DelGrasso is part of his way through a degree in business administration with an eye toward a master’s in finance (and possibly a career in handling the financial end for nonprofit organizations).

“I want to get that next part started – completing school, focusing on a different part of my life,” he said.

Making the transition infinitely easier was seeing his wife go through it. Klinger retired at 30 to start a career in nursing and, a few years later, have children. DelGrasso saw that leaving the stage could be as graceful as dancing on it.

“You could write a script off that retirement. Very direct, very focused,” DelGrasso said. “She danced as much as she wanted to, then right towards a job she wanted, with a family in between. To have her go first and have that road map is great. To go from something she’s so passionate about and transfer that passion into another area without losing the drive and zest – that’s great.”

An occasional dancing gig is not out of the question. But DelGrasso isn’t looking to hang on to past glory.

“It wouldn’t be the end of the world if I finished dancing now,” he said.

DelGrasso joined the ASFB at age 19, and early in his career he allowed his mind to flirt with the idea of leaving Aspen.

“I wanted to know where I stood in the dance world – like a skier from Aspen might go to a great ski town in Europe to see how he measured up,” he said. “Every smart dancer would investigate those options.”

In those moments, his thoughts tended to drift toward New York City and the American Ballet Theatre, which has been a beacon in the dance world for 75 years.

“But I realized I wasn’t that type of dancer. And the sooner I realized that, the happier I was,” DelGrasso said.

DelGrasso was referring to styles of dance: The American Ballet Theatre is oriented strongly toward classical ballet, while DelGrasso (like all the Aspen dancers) has classical training but an interest in a wider range of movement.

But as his dancing days come to a close, DelGrasso’s self-assessment takes on other meanings. DelGrasso didn’t just choose to stay his whole career with the ASFB, where he could be a guiding force in a small, new company and dance a variety of roles. He also chose to be an Aspenite, and the community aspect, of the company and the town, has been as important to him as dancing Balanchine and Taylor.

“I started out in dance loving the performance aspect – sharing this art form with others,” DelGrasso said. “As the years progressed, I think what I appreciate most is the camaraderie. Not having Brooke around, after 2006, that was a huge void. It made me realize how important these relationships are, the trust you have in the studio, on tour. These moments with others – these were the moments. That’s what I’ll miss most.”

DelGrasso considers himself fortunate that, as he leaves the dance stage, he isn’t leaving the people and the organization that have been his partners for 16 years.

“Maybe in a bigger community, you don’t get that support, that kind of backdrop to retire into,” he said. “We come for an experience, to try something, and we end up falling in love with everything – the community, the arts, the nature. I’m thankful I was able to find this at a young age. Some dancers can go their entire career and not find something that means as much to them as ASFB does to me.

“Dancers are a dime a dozen. But who has the qualities and characteristics that ASFB embodies? I’ll be gone, and that will be sad. But beyond me, beyond any dancer, beyond any one person, that the company does amazing work, travels great places, is a part of this community – that’s the most important thing.”

stewart@aspentimes.com