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Mighty dancer, mighty athlete

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times
ALL |

ASPEN ” No insightful description of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet company skips over the word “athletic.” There are dance troupes that specialize in elegance, beauty, theatricality or agility ” and the ASFB dancers have, over the 10-year-history of the company, demonstrated a capacity for all of those qualities. But if there is a distinguishing characteristic of the company, it is probably its muscularity. The bodies of the ASFB have tended toward solid rather than lithe.

A good portion of this perception must be credited to Sam Chittenden. The 30-year-old has been a dancer with the company some nine years, or nearly the entire life of the ASFB. And Chittenden’s approach to dance in that span ” not to mention his physique ” are bound to make audiences think of the sports realm as much as the dance stage.

“I definitely approach things in the physical way, from the inside out,” said Chittenden. “I try to get it to come from within, see how they make me feel, as opposed to thinking, ‘I have to tilt my head this way, or hold my arm that way, so it will look like this.’ “The pieces I enjoy the most are those that feel the best to my body. Rather than the pieces that might just translate well to the audience.”

Jean-Philippe Malaty, who co-founded the company and serves as executive director (his fellow co-founder, Tom Mossbrucker, is the company’s artistic director), is quick to agree with the assessment of Chittenden as a physical presence. But he is just as quick to add that another element is just as vital in Chittenden’s artistic makeup.

“There’s no affectation. There’s honesty,” said Malaty. “And that’s a rare quality, especially for a male dancer.

“But he’s also powerful. It’s the blend of athleticism and sensitivity that makes Sam. He’s not athletic just for the sake of being athletic. That’s a hard mix to achieve. He has a very masculine quality, but he doesn’t mind being vulnerable. He doesn’t mind revealing who he is onstage.”

Chittenden will draw on his physical reserves this weekend. He is featured in three of the four dances to be performed when the ASFB company presents a program of mixed repertoire on Friday, Feb. 16, and Saturday, Feb. 17, at 7:30 p.m. at the Aspen District Theatre. Chittenden will perform in Dominique Dumais’ emotion-oriented “sans detour,” a long-standing part of the repertoire; ” It’s Not About the Numbers,” a piece by Nicolo Fonte that features a sculpture by internationally renowned valley resident James Surls; and “Petite Morts,” which marks the company’s first time dancing a piece by European choreographer Jiri Kylian. Rounding out the program is the “Light Rain” pas de deux, a piece that shows off the ASFB’s roots in classical ballet.

– – – –

It’s no surprise that Chittenden’s entrance onto the dance stage came directly out of his athletic pursuits. As a freshman in college, at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, Chittenden had had no exposure to dance at all. But after he dropped a chemistry class in his first quartet, he needed to pick up another class to maintain his full-time-student status. A friend ” Glenwood Springs product Ethan White, who is a former member of the ASFB ” convinced him to join him in a ballet class. Chittenden was hooked when White told him that the work on balance and flexibility would help his rock-climbing.

“Rock climbing was huge,” said Chittenden, who took up the sport as a 10th grader. Chittenden’s surroundings in Stillwater, Minn., were hardly conducive to climbing. But his leap into the sport coincided with the advent of indoor climbing gyms, and there were two good ones in the Twin Cities, some 30 miles to the west. When Chittenden graduated high school, he postponed college for a year in favor of climbing with a buddy.

“It was an eight-month adventure, living in a white Chrysler minivan with wood-paneled sides and road-tripping,” said Chittenden, who ticked off the itinerary of climbing hotspots: Devil’s Tower, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Oregon’s Smith Rock, and Hueco Tanks in West Texas, a world-class bouldering site. “We had maybe $2,000 saved up for the whole eight months. We’d spend $50, $60 for two weeks of food, for both of us. I laugh at that now.”

Chittenden had always showed a tendency toward outsider sports. In high school, he competed in track and field ” as a pole-vaulter. “The best part was we didn’t have to do springs, or run laps,” he said. “We just pole-vaulted, hanging out in the pit. It was fun and kind of different.” He also skied ” and thanks to having an uncle in Utah, his introduction was in the Rocky Mountains, rather than the Minnesota hills.

The ascent in the dance world was gradual. Chittenden’s teacher in that first class, Randy Wray, happened to do double duty as director of Ft. Collins’ Canyon Concert Ballet. When Wray needed male dancers for a production of “The Nutcracker,” Chittenden was, as he says, “conscripted.” He danced well enough that he was asked to do more shows with Canyon Concert Ballet; by his sophomore year, he was not only a regular performer with the company, he was also taking classes with the dance troupe. Chittenden headed west again ” this time, not to climb rocks or ski, but to enroll at the University of Utah, which had a solid dance program.

Chittenden took on ballet with the same passion he brought to climbing routes. During the summers at Utah, the university dance program had no regular classes ” so Chittenden signed up as a dorm resident adviser so he could take classes for free with the Ballet West Conservatory, which took over the school’s dance studio in the summers.

“I was green,” he explained, adding that he watched as many dance performances as he could while a student. “So I was trying to get up to speed, doing as much as I could to get better.”

In Chittenden’s second summer studying with Ballet West, one of the guest teachers was Jean-Philippe Malaty. Malaty let out word that his fledgling organization ” then known as the Aspen Ballet Company ” was looking for a male dancer.

“I thought, what the hell? I gave my resume, which I typed up that week, and my head shot, which was a snapshot. Totally unprofessional,” said Chittenden. But something must have impressed Malaty and Tom Mossbrucker. When the Aspen Ballet Company came to perform in Utah that fall, they called Chittenden and invited him to participate in a class with the company dancers. Then they offered him a job.

– – – –

Chittenden hadn’t finished his degree when he was offered the Aspen position in the fall of 1998. But he took the job, figuring he could earn credits for being in a professional dance company. (Which he did, slowly. Chittenden finally earned his bachelor of arts degree in dance in 2005.) Several things attracted Chittenden. There was Aspen itself and the climbing in the area, which he still pursues. Moreover, joining a company represented a challenge. “I didn’t have any idea what I was doing,” he said. “I was learning a new language, trying to get my body to do all these weird things I’d never done. But the more involved, the more you know, the more you like it.”

And there was the athleticism of the young company he was joining. “I think what attracted me was the physicality of it. I connected with that. I liked exploring the physicality,” he said.

It was a new dance world Chittenden had leaped into. The Aspen company had positioned itself as a contemporary troupe, but one with a grounding in classical toe dancing. Malaty and Mossbrucker had already begun forming the relationships with young, up-and-coming choreographers that would become a signature of the company.

“My exposure to that type of choreography, world-class choreography, was limited,” he said. “It was mostly classical ballet, focused on that training. So when I saw the company the first time, the pieces were dynamic. It wasn’t all tutus and pointe shoes. It opened my eyes.”

Chittenden’s work with the company hasn’t been all dancing. A member of a rock band in high school, he did an original remix of some of Tchaikovsky’s score for the ASFB’s “The Nutcracker.” (He also composed music for a piece by the Diablo Ballet, in San Francisco.) With an eye on a post-dancing career as a graphic designer, he has created several of the current ads for the ASFB and started his own Space Monkey Design Lab.

– – – –

The dances Chittenden has done with the ASFB have included the sensual, like “Apres-midi d’un Faun,” and the theatrical, like Moses Pendleton’s “Noir Blanc.” But it is the more physical pieces that seem to make the biggest impact.

“The style the company has come to be known for is athletic,” he said. “The pieces we do tend to reflect that. We don’t do ‘Swan Lake.’ It’s less about pretty pictures and more about that transfer of movement.

“What people connect with when they see our performances is the human body doing things they might not be able to do themselves. As opposed to this idea of lofty, airy ballerina.”

In the physical category is “The Same Wall,” a piece commissioned by the company from Nicolo Fonte. It is inspired by rock-climbing.

“I think he was inspired ” maybe not by me specifically, but by a place outside of dance, rock-climbing, that was athletic,” said Chittenden. “We got to hang on the wall, which was fun. We had a lot of input. He wanted to see what was possible with that added element.”

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


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