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Dancing the Dream

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Jean-Philippe Malaty should be dancing on air at the moment. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, the local company that Malaty co-founded and co-directs with his partner Tom Mossbrucker, recently returned from its debut at Jacob’s Pillow, the renowned, 70-year-old dance festival in Becket, Mass. At the festival, the ASFB performed six sold-out shows – and not in the smaller Doris Duke Studio Theatre, where most up-and-comers are relegated, but on the main Ted Shawn Theatre stage, where they were presented alongside the likes of Twyla Tharp Dance and the Mark Morris Dance Company.

The Massachusetts engagement was such a hit in good part because of its earlier East Coast trip in mid-June. That trip marked the ASFB’s New York debut, at the Joyce Theater, perhaps the premier dance stage in the country. As in Massachusetts, the company sold out its six shows in Manhattan, performing for the likes of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and received excellent reviews in East Coast newspapers.

But now, back home in Aspen, Malaty is back in the routine of running a good-sized, nonprofit arts organization. And the glow has faded some in the face of faulty office equipment and selling tickets.

“Reality keeps you grounded very quickly,” said Malaty. “You go from seeing your name on the marquee of the Joyce, and you come back and you still have to pay the bills and do the fund-raising and sell tickets and do the gala and worry about needing a new printer in the office. There’s a big discrepancy between that moment of fame and the realities of running a company.”

But if life is not all roses at the moment for the ASFB, there are still plenty of flowers to make a good-sized bouquet. Six weeks ago, the ASFB was a young company with a regional reputation; now they have the air of a sensation. The reviews for their New York appearance ranged from very good to absolutely raving. “If there’s a classically trained company of the future, it’s Aspen Santa Fe Ballet” is how the Boston Herald’s review opened. The New York Times was more reserved, calling the company “a breath of fresh air.” But just being reviewed in The New York Times – on the front page of the arts section, and with a large photo to boot – was a shock and a pleasure for Malaty.

“The New York Times usually covers more uptown, traditional dance. The Joyce does more modern stuff,” said Malaty. “I want believe it was because of the hype about the company. And because they went to see the choreographers we worked with. Or maybe it was because we just had a good publicist. I didn’t ask why. I was just happy they showed up.”

Growing a dance company

Malaty’s approach, to accept the success and good fortune without too many questions, may be best for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. Every leap they have taken has landed them on solid ground. They have worked with some of the most acclaimed choreographers, including Moses Pendleton, Nicolo Fonte, Septime Webre and Dwight Rhoden. They have gone from a six-member startup, housed in founder Bebe Schweppe’s home with no staff and a $75,000 annual budget, to a 12-dancer company with comfortable quarters, a $2 million budget and a staff of nine. And, now, with an emerging, glowing national reputation.

When the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet makes its appearance this week at the Aspen Dance Festival, with performances Thursday through Saturday, July 31-Aug. 2, at the Aspen District Theatre, the company will likely be welcomed as local heroes. The fact that the ASFB has attained such status in just seven years of existence – a blink of the eye in such matters – makes it all the more impressive.

“What they’ve done in seven years, it’s really, really amazing. It’s a huge accomplishment,” said Nicolo Fonte, the Brooklyn-born, Swedish-based choreographer who has created four pieces in four years for the ASFB.

Fonte’s latest work, “Left Unsaid,” will have its world premiere in Santa Fe this week. The piece will be featured in Aspen when the ASFB appears in the Aspen Dance Festival. The program also includes “Noir Blanc,” a piece by MOMIX founder and artistic director Moses Pendleton created for the ASFB last year, and “Fluctuating Hemlines,” a company favorite choreographed by Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre.

Basking in the moment

While Jean-Philippe Malaty may be focusing on the more mundane details of presenting a festival and keeping his office running, the thrill of recent achievements is not gone, not entirely. Taking a small, young company to two of the country’s top dance venues in the space of four weeks, and having it turn out so magnificently, is not the sort of experience that fades immediately.

Ask Malaty about the Jacob’s Pillow appearance, and he says with a smile, “It couldn’t have been better.” And the engagement at the Joyce Theater? “Couldn’t have gone better,” Malaty says, now beaming.

Jacob’s Pillow “was a humbling experience,” said Malaty, who met Bebe Schweppe, founder of the Aspen Ballet School, at a 1994 dance teachers seminar in Vail, and was persuaded by Schweppe to turn the Aspen school into a professional company. “Seeing the pictures on the walls, reading who had been there before. Many times, it was hard to believe we were there, dancing on the main stage.”

The New York trip, he said, was equally satisfying, with a large group of Aspen supporters coming to see the performances and join in a week of parties.

As he deals with the present and fondly savors the past, Malaty is also musing about the future. “It made us dream of what comes next,” he said about the recent twin successes. “What doors will it open? We are at the end of our seventh year and maybe running out of steam a little bit. That pushed us forward.”

The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company performs as part of the Aspen Dance Festival Thursday through Saturday, July 31-Aug. 2.

The festival, presented by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, continues with Ballet Folklorico “Quetzali” de Veracruz on Aug. 3; Paul Taylor Dance Company Aug. 7-9; and Pilobolus Dance Theatre Aug. 14-16. All performances are at the Aspen District Theatre.

For tickets, call 925-6098. For further information, call 925-7175, ext. 11.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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