DanceAspen aims to keep contemporary ballet alive
New company premieres at Wheeler Opera House on Friday
What: DanceAspen, ‘The Pieces Fall’
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Friday, Sept. 17, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $35-$55
More info: Learn more about the new ballet company at danceaspen.org
A group of passionate and committed Aspen-based dancers are hoping to keep the flame of locally based contemporary ballet burning with a new company.
Founded by a group of former company members from Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, which shuttered in March citing the pandemic’s devastating effect on performing arts, the new nonprofit DanceAspen will make its debut Friday at the Wheeler Opera House.
The seven-member company is making a bid to continue the tradition of world class contemporary dance in Aspen, aiming to keep Aspen Santa Fe’s loyal local audience and raise enough funding to support full-time dancers and a year-round public performance schedule.
“It was devastating and surprising news to us in March when we were told the company was not going to come back,” said DanceAspen executive director Laurel Jenny Winton, who joined Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in 2018, coming here from the touring company of Broadway’s “Dirty Dancing” and, before that, performing with the Joffrey Ballet.
At a rehearsal at the Wheeler this week, Winton said she and other dancers looked at the prospect of leaving Aspen, or of finding positions in the COVID-decimated professional dance world, or retiring from the artform, and instead decided to stay here, follow their passion and continue producing cutting-edge new works for their committed local audiences. She was joined by Aspen Santa Fe alums Katherine Bolanos, Sadie Brown, Anthony Tiedeman and Kaya Wolsey along with newcomer Sammy Altenau.
“A lot of us have planted roots here,” she said, noting company members are ingrained in the valley, have bought homes, and are starting families here. “It was not really easy for us to just pick up and leave. And we didn’t want to because we love this community.”
So this summer, Winton – who performed as Jenny Winton with Aspen Santa Fe – field the papers to incorporate DanceAspen as a 501c3 nonprofit, started fundraising and they kept dancing.
“We were all talking about it and decided, well, someone has to do it,” she recalled.
Working with San Francisco-based choreographer Ben Needham-Wood, they started work-shopping in June and started trying to raise seed money.
“We did a little fundraiser in July and raised enough money to cover our entire budget for the summer,” Winton said. “Based on that, I realized how important this was for the community and how people were just really so eager to have live performance back.”
They had hoped to raise $50,000 to support the company through summer, quickly hit that and have now topped $100,000. Winton believes they can support a 2022 DanceAspen schedule if they can raise $350,000.
Local suppporters started writing checks, big and small, and the wider dance community also showed support. Choreographer Danielle Rowe reached out and offered her work for public performance for free – it’s among the seven short pieces in Friday’s program – as did Penny Saunders.
“They knew us as dancers with Aspen, Santa Fe Ballet, and they knew how wonderful that company was and how world-renowned it was,” Winton said. “And they didn’t want to see that disappear.”
Winton and her cohort have raised enough to support DanceAspen through the end of year and are looking ahead to 2022, when they aim to produce six ballet works across three programs, including the premiere of a new work by Rowe. By 2023, Winton is hopeful that they can support eight full-time company dancers – “We want to pay the artists well enough that they don’t have to work other jobs – or they don’t have to work that many other jobs” – and hire an administrator to take that burden off the dancers and, perhaps, give Winton time to dance herself (she is sitting out “The Pieces Fall” as she’s been largely focused on behind-the-scenes work).
“We are looking long-term for this because it’s just so apparent that the community wants us to stay here and wants us to be a thing,” Winton said. “And there’s definitely enough support out there.”
To get the company going, the artists have had to do more than dance. Wolsey, for example, is also overseeing its marketing and serving as company manager. They’ve all helped with fundraising asks, and they’ve all helped put up DanceAspen posters around town.
“It’s a huge group effort,” Winton said.
The grassroots effort and wearing of multiple administrative hats is a new experience for the dancers, who were allowed a pure creative artist’s existence as dancers with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet – daily ballet class, rehearsals, world tours and the like. Coming down from that pedestal into this scrappier experience has been fulfilling, Winton said.
“I feel more connected to this community than ever because I’m out there passing out posters,” she said. “It’s a very intimate and personal experience to build a nonprofit here.”
Winton said they are open to collaborating with any other local groups on programming and they welcome the possibility of other new dance companies forming here. Bolanos and Tiedeman were also part of a group of performers, unaffiliated with DanceAspen, who debuted the new work “Phoenix Rising,” at the Aspen Fringe Festival in June. It also included Fringe Fest choreographer Adrianna Thompson and Aspen Santa Fe alum Seia Rassenti Watson.
DanceAspen’s premiere performance adheres mostly to the contemporary dance style that audience came to know through Aspen Santa Fe productions over 25 years. But Winton said the company will be open to performing some more neoclassical or slightly more traditional works.
Winton and her DanceAspen team did receive the blessing of longtime Aspen Santa Fe Ballet directors Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty, who have continued to run the company’s schools and have said they will support other dance companies through grants and guest presentations in Aspen.
“I actually am very thankful to them for creating this platform for us because I think it elevated the audience in their understanding of what dance is,” Winton said. “It’s really a tribute to them that people want us to stay here.”
The premiere program’s title, “The Pieces Fall,” might sum up the dancers’ life- and career-altering pandemic experiences and this hopeful moment of rebirth for them in DanceAspen.
“We all realized that the pieces are going to fall into place as we’ve been trying to figure out our lives,” Winton said. “The glue is now solidifying. That’s happening right now. It’s very exciting.”
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