Fringe Fest reunites Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancers
Ballet, theater, music, film and photography on the bill at two-night festival
When Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dissolved its dance company in March — after a year without performance due to the novel coronavirus pandemic — it was a blow to audiences, to Aspen’s arts and culture sector and to the contemporary dance world. But no one felt the loss as acutely and personally as the company’s dancers.
These artists still needed to express themselves, of course. So a trio of Aspen Santa Fe veterans teamed with choreographer Adrianna Thompson to do just that this spring. The result is “Phoenix Rising,” which will have its premiere Friday at the Aspen Fringe Festival — a two-night event that will bring audiences back into the historic Wheeler Opera Hosue for the first time since March 2020.
The “Phoneix Rising” collaboration was born out of a pure desire to create, dancers said during an April rehearsal in Carbondale.
“It came about because I felt I wanted to dance and Adrianna was here and she wanted to create,” explained Seia Rassenti Watson, who danced for 11 seasons with Aspen Santa Fe. “I was like, ‘OK, let’s go play in the studio together.’”
She had worked with Thompson throughout her dance career — healing from injuries with Thompson’s gyrotonic practice. Once Thompson and Rassenti Watson decided to dance, it didn’t take much to get her more former company mates on board. Katherine Bolaños, a fixture of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet for 16 seasons, and Anthony Tiedeman – a company member for five years – quickly joined her for the informal sessions with Thompson.
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“It all came together for me in the blink of an eye,” Tiedeman recalled with a laugh. “Seia texted me one day and was like, ‘Hey, do you want to dance? Cool, see you Monday.’ I was like, all right, let’s do this thing.’”
Thompson’s main choreographic project in recent years has been her San Francisco-based company Soulskin Dance, which has performed frequently at Fringe, founded and directed by Thompson’s husband David Ledingham. A former member of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet School faculty, Thompson was excited to finally work with Rassenti Watson, Tiedeman and Bolaños.
“The three of them are such beauties inside and out and they’re professional and they’re hard workers and they’re problem solvers,” Thompson said.
After years as full-time dancers devoted to daily work in the studio, regular performance here and in Santa Fe and on world tours, they found themselves furloughed last summer were homebound like everyone else. The novelty of dancing at home alone or on Zoom soon wore out.
“I found out quickly that dancing around my house wasn’t fulfilling in the same way that a studio and the potential for a stage was,” Tiedeman said. “You can’t physically push yourself in the same way on your kitchen floor as you can when you dance with your friends in this big open space bouncing ideas around and collaborating.”
When the opportunity finally arose after a year apart, it was emotionally overwhelming to return to the studio together.
“We were just so excited to be six feet away, wearing masks and dancing in the same room,” Rassenti Watson recalled.
On the first day in the studio together, Thompson had them each start on a wall at far ends of the studio — as far apart as the dance space in the Launchpad would allow — practicing basic ballet gestures and gradually coming together. It broke open a dam of emotions for the trio.
“It was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is what it means to have a voice as a dancer,’” Rassenti Watson recalled. “We don’t use our voices. We use our bodies to tell you how we’re feeling about what’s happening in us and around us. So it felt really good to speak that language again.”
Once the dancers were vaccinated this spring, they began doing closer, partnered work and touching. Thompson encouraged the trio to embrace the raw emotions of their pandemic experience and infuse it into the work.
“I said, ‘I want you to be as vulnerable as possible with me,’ which was not easy,” Thompson recalled. “The world of dance has been completely devastated by this [pandemic] more than any artform. So I used that as a palette to create their story. ‘Phoenix Rising’ is all about coming up from the ashes knowing that the three of them still have this divine beauty — that it’s not over.”
In collaboration, the dancers and Thompson found ways to tell their COVID stories in movement, building from their personal experiences — from losing loved ones to caring for a toddler in quarantine to grieving the end of their dance company.
“I used their personal stories,” Thompson explained. “We were using each other for support and using the relationship we have to lift each other up after such an exhausting year.”
“Phoenix Rising” attempts to capture the frustration and anger, the lack of and longing for connection of the pandemic, as well as the resilience discovered in the crisis. Thompson has set the piece to Nine Inch Nails’ new instrumental “Ghosts” compositions, recorded and released by Trent Reznor early in the pandemic.
Thompson’s choreography makes powerful use of a hug, the gesture of love that the pandemic so long denied most people and is fueled by the dancers’ deep-in-the-soul need to create and connect.
“What’s special about this for me is the fact that it all came out from a need,” Tiedeman explained. “Rather than, ‘I have to put a show on this summer,’ it was that we all collectively were bubbling over and we were like, ‘We need to do this.’ ‘I need to let this out.’ ‘I need to say this.’”
The audience they’ll face this weekend was an afterthought. For Thompson and these dancers, this creation was personal.
“It was about working with the people in this room,” Rassenti Watson said. “These three people are very special to me. I have no words.”
While the future for professional dance in Aspen remains unclear, this group is committed to continue creating together one way or another.
“What came out of all this is that we love it,” Rassenti Watson said. “We want to do it again and we’re trying to figure out how to make that happen.”
“Phoenix Rising” is the centerpiece of an ambitious Fringe Fest lineup that spans media and form. Themed as “A Journey of Hope and Renewal through the Voices of Artists,” the two-night festival is filled with works shaped by the pandemic.
It also includes the dance piece “On the Horizon,” choreographed by Mark Caserta and performed by Samantha Altenau, who made her local debut at Fringe’s 2020 FallFest for small and distanced audiences in Snowmass and Aspen.
Playwright Sharr White has contributed a new pandemic-themed play, “Hour Twenty,” and Tony Award winner Simon Stephens has also contributed an original experimental work titled “I Want to Wake Up” along with an excerpt of his play “Heisenberg” (set for a 2022 Fringe Fest production). Both White and Stephens are former Fringe Fest resident playwrights.
“I am heartbroken I won’t get to see your take on (‘Heisenberg’) this summer,” Stephens said in a video message posted on the Fringe Fest website. “I hope more than many things that I get to be with you in Aspen in 2022.”
The short film “She Left Home For a While,” also written and narrated by Stevens and directed by Aspen native William Khan, is also in the lineup.
The casts for the theatrical productions include locally based performers, among them Ledingham, his and Thompson’s son Aidan — who recently completed his freshman year as a theater student at Pace University — along with Sonya Meyer, Mike Monroney and Nikki Boxer.
Boxer, also a Fringe Fest producer and mezzo-soprano singer, will premiere a newly composed piece of music titled “The Lighthouse Fantasie,” written by de Sabinas for Boxer and inspired by Virginia Woolf’s novel “To the Lighthouse” and Franz Schubert’s piano work Fantasy in F minor.
And longtime Aspen photographer Jim Paussa’s “Safely Serving,” a series of images commissioned by restaurateur Tiziano Gortan, will also have its premiere.
The program will run in full on both night if the festival. Ledingham and Boxer said they’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of creativity from local artists and global writers like White and Stephens and de Sabinas to contribute to the festival.
“When there’s a huge challenge like this, it inspires the most creativity,” Boxer said. “It prompted us to look at things in a different way, integrating multimedia and integrating as many different arts as possible.”
Improbably, Fringe Fest grew in scope during the pandemic as the creative team explored multimedia options and reached beyond its well-established theater and dance productions of the past 13 years.
“When we started Fringe Festival way back when, my gal was to make it an arts festival that covered all kinds of arts,” Ledingham said. “Finally we’re there. We’ve never had this spread before.”
What: Aspen Fringe Festival
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: June 11 & 12, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $35
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com; 970-920-5770
More info: aspenfringefestival.org
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The Aspen Filmfest program, which opens Tuesday night with the Jessica Chastain-led drama “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” is a tribute to the founder, Ellen Kohner Hunt. The festival will also recognize the memory of Hunt with “Ellenfest” on Thursday.