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By Leaps and Bounds

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

As the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet looks ahead to the merry months of June and July – when the company makes back-to-back debuts at New York City’s Joyce Theatre and the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival in Massachusetts – its humble beginnings are fresh in mind.

In the early days, the ASFB operated out of the home of Bebe Schweppe, who founded the company out of her involvement with the Aspen Ballet School. There was no staff to speak of, apart from Schweppe and the co-artistic directors, Jean-Philippe Malaty and Tom Mossbrucker. So Malaty and Mossbrucker took on tasks like loading trucks in addition to selecting company dancers and creating a repertoire, while Schweppe made the costumes.

For its first performances, board of directors president Barbara Gold put up posters all over town and drummed up interest by pitching the company to local concierges. Back then the company was known simply as Aspen Ballet; the organization hadn’t yet expanded into its second hometown of Santa Fe. The annual budget was $75,000.

It is an enormous leap to where the company now stands, with a $2 million budget, a staff of nine and sparkling offices, dressing rooms and three studios in the still-new Colorado Mountain College building near the Airport Business Center. The ASFB has moved from being a startup with zero name recognition to enjoying a reputation that stretches from Florida to Hawaii.

Vivid as the contrast in circumstances is, though, the main reason the company hasn’t forgotten its past is that the past isn’t such a long time ago. The ASFB has achieved all it has in just seven years, a span that seems remarkably brief to Malaty and Mossbrucker. The pair, who still lead the ASFB, are not surprised by what they have accomplished. But they are awed at how quickly it has all come, especially the upcoming debuts at two of the most important dance venues in the country.

“I never thought it would happen in our seventh year,” said Mossbrucker, a native of Tacoma, Wash., who came to Aspen after a 15-year stretch as a principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet. “And for these two to happen together, that’s practically a miracle.”

Malaty and Mossbrucker never set the Joyce Theatre and Jacob’s Pillow as goals for their company. In fact, the two have hardly specified any targets or timetables, focusing instead on more ephemeral purposes like creating an identity and establishing ASFB’s reputation as a high-quality company.

“We knew these things existed, but there weren’t really goals,” said Malaty, a native of the Basque region of southwest France who had dual careers as a New York dancer and dance instructor before moving to Aspen with Mossbrucker.

The ASFB isn’t fazed by the two debuts that lie ahead. For one thing, there are things to focus on before the big summer. Most immediate of these is the company’s performances Thursday through Saturday, March 20-22, at the Aspen District Theatre. In the last Aspen performances before the appearances in New York and Massachusetts, the company will present a program of mixed repertory, headed by the Aspen premiere of “Untitled,” a work choreographed by a group associated with the New York dance company Pilobolus. Also to be danced are Dominique Dumais’ “sans detour,” set to the music of Philip Glass, and “Transtangos,” choreographed by Jimmy Gamonet De Los Heros and set to music by Astor Piazzolla. (The ASFB also has performances scheduled for Santa Fe, Cheyenne, and Simsbury, Conn., before it makes its New York debut.)

Growing status

The ASFB has become accustomed to making great leaps forward. “We’ve had such huge growth spurts,” said Mossbrucker. Among the most significant have been the adoption of a second hometown in Santa Fe in 2000; the inauguration four years ago of the Aspen Dance Festival, which presents top companies over a month-plus during the summer; and the new digs in the CMC building as of early 2001. The move gave the ASFB a better sense of its own identity, after having spent its few years in cramped quarters at the Red Brick Center for the Arts.

“That was a real turning point for the dancers,” said Mossbrucker. “They felt legitimate. It wasn’t somebody’s bedroom or office.”

On the artistic side, the ASFB has measured its growth, in part, by the choreographers it has worked with. The first work created specifically for the company was “Ear Candy,” a 1997 piece by New York choreographer Dwight Rhoden. Since then, Rhoden has created another piece for the company, and Nicolo Fonte has choreographed three dances for the ASFB dancers, with a fourth in the works. Last summer the company danced the world premiere of “Noir Blanc,” choreographed by Pilobolus founder Moses Pendleton.

The ASFB is also hopeful that their Jacob’s Pillow debut will include the world premiere of a piece by Italian choreographer Jacopo Godani. Godani had been scheduled to work with the ASFB dancers in January and have the piece performed this week. But he was denied a visa to work in the United States. The company now hopes to have Godani in Aspen in time to create the dance for the July performances in Massachusetts.

The choreographers choosing to work with the ASFB are indicative of the company’s status in the dance world. They also reflect the forward thinking of Malaty and Mossbrucker: Fonte, a Brooklyn-born choreographer who had worked exclusively in Europe, did his first American work with the ASFB. “He’s everywhere now,” said Mossbrucker. “We were the first in the States to have him, and now he’s calling us from the Royal Ballet.”

And assuming the company dances Godani’s piece at Jacob’s Pillow, it will mark the first time the Italian has worked in the States.

With last year’s performance of “Noir Blanc,” the ASFB believes it reached a new creative high. “That was a major name, and a major creation for us,” said Mossbrucker. “And it’s such a hit. People go berserk when we perform it.”

Roots still in place

A fortunate aspect of the company’s fast rise is that many of the people who were responsible for building the foundation are still associated with it. Schweppe is still involved, with the official title of founder. Three dancers – Patrick Thompson, Brooke Klinger and Seth DelGrasso – remain from the original seven-member company (which has since expanded to 11 dancers). Barbara Gold is still president of the board, though presumably she has relinquished her poster-hanging duties.

“It’s such a celebration,” said Mossbrucker. “Everybody’s hard work has paid off, and they’re all here to enjoy it. When a company finally gets to the Joyce, usually the first board president isn’t there anymore to see it.”

And that familiar personnel also means that the company’s early years won’t be easily forgotten. “It keeps us grounded,” said Malaty. “We still have that feeling of, we don’t forget the roots.”

Even with the high-profile dates coming up, the ASFB is keeping its goals humble. Malaty and Mossbrucker say that the company’s most immediate goal is to have its own space in Basalt, for its downvalley programs. And it would love to be on more solid financial footing. The rest of the vision remains the same as always: Dance in the best way possible, and let the work speak for itself.

“We’ve never had expectations,” said Mossbrucker. “Most of the plans up to now have not been up to us. It’s been out of our control. We didn’t have goals when we got to the Joyce, and we don’t want to jinx it. All along, we’ve been astounded by what’s happened.”

The lack of specific goals, of course, doesn’t mean that the ASFB is close to achieving all it can. In fact, the company directors see the appearances at the Joyce and Jacob’s Pillow as a door. Through that door they see opportunity, in whatever form it may take.

“A lot of people see the Joyce and Jacob’s Pillow as an accomplishment,” said Malaty. “We see it as a beginning. The Joyce is seen as the dance authority. Nobody in Detroit will book a company until they play New York.”

“It’s our coming out,” said Mossbrucker.


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