DanceAspen elevates: Emerging ballet company stages two nights of performance and premieres
DanceAspen's 'Elevated' at the Wheeler Opera House
What: “Elevated,” DanceAspen
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $35-$65
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
More info: danceaspen.org
When the new ballet company DanceAspen staged its first performances at the Wheeler Opera House in September, they were greeted by enthusiastic sold-out audiences. When they staged an open rehearsal on the rooftop of the Aspen Art Museum in January, it drew a standing-room-only crowd.
And seven months after the nonprofit company’s founding, as it prepares for its second program at the Wheeler, the company appears to have been fully embraced by Aspen’s ballet fans, whose appetite and appreciation for contemporary dance was fed by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet for 25 years before the company was dissolved amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s really brought the community together, I think,” DanceAspen founder and executive director Laurel Winton said this week between rehearsals. “The pandemic was really difficult for everyone and people realized that a local resident dance company was so vital to our identity, and what the locals here really want, and really appreciate.”
Still, the new company is facing the same economic and industry challenges that led Aspen Santa Fe — where Winton had been a company dancer since 2018 — to drop the year-round company and focus its efforts on dance education. But Winton and her scrappy, passionate and extremely talented group of six dancers and artists have faith that Aspen will support DanceAspen.
“When all of us took that big jump off the cliff, we didn’t know if there was going to be any net to catch us,” Winton said. “The fact that there were so many community members that embraced us with open arms was wonderful and inspiring for us to continue producing our art at the best level that we can.”
On Friday and Saturday at the Wheeler, the company will perform “Elevated,” an evening-long program of ballets including world premieres by choreographers Ana Maria Lucaciu and Danielle Rowe.
For all of its earnestness and the high artistic stakes of the DanceAspen project, Rowe’s new work, titled “Everyone’s in St. Bart’s” is a fun and full-throated announcement that this young company is not going to fall into the trap of taking itself too seriously.
The showstopping piece, which will close the “Elevated” program, is a theatrical, tongue-in-cheek send-up of social media’s superficiality. Opening with an over-the-top vaudeville-style introduction, it then brings each of the company dancers into a center-stage spotlight, wearing pajama-like costumes, to slouch as an announcer rattles off details about their online selves (using parody social media handles like @peace_love and caricaturing the cliches and stock characters we all find on our timelines).
From there, they break into unified steps and over-exaggerated enthusiasm that speak to the false selves and fake fun of online poses, eventually breaking off into solo pairings and trios. The tone shifts abruptly at one point, as dancers Kaya Wolsey and Anthony Tiedeman emerge in new costumes for an elegant pas de deux, a brief and transcendent interlude that suggests the moments of genuine connection that are still available if we can look up from our phones and out of our social profiles.
The new work from Rowe follows DanceAspen’s well-received fall performances of her “For Pixie” and “The Old Child.”
The company has been in rehearsal at the Wheeler with Rowe all week preparing for the premiere, capping more than two months of full-time rehearsals that began with the New Year.
In late January, after three weeks of work with Lucacio, the company shared segments of the work at an open rehearsal, offering the public a look, as Winton put it, at “how we put a show together mentally and physically and everything that goes on between the artists in developing a performance.”
Lucacio’s work is a sober-minded and intimate meditation on the concept of erosion, both the physical process and the emotional erosion that can eat away at relationships. She asked dancers to bring their experiences into the rehearsal studio.
“She actually had us each sit down and write down how erosion resonated with us,” Wolsey explained. “I talked about the Grand Canyon and how when erosion happens in the canyon, what’s exposed is sometimes not what you expect.”
The Romanian choreographer also used taped dancers improvising with these concepts in mind and created the work based on some of those impromptu discoveries.
The company is also performing the Aspen premiere of Caili Quan’s “Press Play” and will screen the debut of a short film shot on Aspen Mountain. Coinciding with International Women’s Month, the program features an all-female grouping of choreographers.
Winton said the company will never take for granted the opportunity to perform works like these for the public.
“Getting back into our bodies, getting back into our connections with each other as dancers and with our audience, that’s something that we’ve had to work really hard to get back to,” she said.
Though she still trains with the dancers, Winton herself has transitioned into an entirely administrative role running the nonprofit. The current lineup of dancers includes Aspen Santa Fe alumns Wolsey, Tiedman, Katherine Bolanos and Matthew Gilmore alongside Sammy Altenau and Madeleine Scott.
Their goal is to build DanceAspen into a year-round company that pays its artists to dance full-time. They’re not there yet, as the dancers are working other jobs and pitching in on every aspect of the nonprofit’s operation, taking on marketing and production and costume design and leading company ballet class and fundraising and such.
“We are all boot-strapping this together,” Winton said. “Previously, we were all just dancers — we showed up to work in the morning, we danced all day, we went home, we stretched, we ate, we went to bed. Now we go home and we get on the computer, and we put out emails. … We are learning new things every day.”
Community support has translated into adequate funding for DanceAspen. Last summer, Winton said she hoped to raise about $350,000 to support the company through 2022. This week she said they now have a budget to run through the year — including more performances this summer — and are now aiming to pay for 2023 and a sustainable future for Dance Aspen. They have also brought Peter Gilbert, the longtime Carbondale-based founder of Dance Initiative, to serve as its chief financial officer.
This weekend’s fundraising events, offering pre-show cocktails with choreographers and dinners with the dancers, sold out well in advance.
When “Elevated” was announced, Wheeler executive director Lisa Rigsby Peterson pledged support from the historic theater to give DanceAspen a stage to call home.
“The Wheeler team is thrilled to work with the creative talents of DanceAspen and support their vision of sustaining a year-round dance company in our community,” Rigsby Peterson said. “The Wheeler shares the same passion for bringing relevant and authentic performances to our stage and our community.”
Heading into this weekend’s much-anticipated performances, Winton said she feels DanceAspen is gaining momentum.
“There are mountains of challenges and feelings that things are hard,” she said. “And then we are turning the corner and finding the strength to build something fantastic.”
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