Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is the centerpiece of a bold collaboration on an ever-broadening scale to merge arts organizations in two cities to maximize their impact in both locales. Beginning in 1996 in Aspen under the direction and at the impetus of Aspen Ballet founder Bebe Schweppe, the company hired Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty to build a company based on the ballet school Schweppe had established in the Rocky Mountain region. In 2000, with Santa Fe, the two-city structure was inaugurated. Offering a repertoire that one would expect to find in the four top U.S. companies, Aspen Santa Fe became a destination for top-flight classically trained dancers with a natural gift for movement who enjoy dancing the contemporary works of some of today’s most innovative choreographers. The dancers we saw could have just as easily found their way to San Francisco’s LINES Ballet or Amsterdam’s Nederlands Dans Theater. Appearing at the Cullen Theater in Houston’s Wortham Center on September 29, the small but sturdy company of eleven dancers met and surpassed the high expectations of a full house audience studded with ballet aficionados and the most urbane of dance critics.
Last, a commissioned work by Alejandro Cerrudo to music by Henryk Gorecki, opened on a stage diminished in height by a curtain that reached to the midpoint of the backdrop. Scabbards of winter white light added depth, as dancers placed in profile, leaning slightly forward in semi-lunges, responded to counts sounded by chimes. Women in grey tunics and black-shirted men in jeans began an adagio ritual of shape making as the women ascended in lifts toward the hemline of the half curtain, then flipping so that they were held upside down. Two men appeared and then a woman with a blue cami under her tunic. The men guided her through airborne lifts where she was parallel to the floor, now bisecting the half-height space. She is passed from one to the other, as sustained piano notes infiltrated by violin music elongate the whoosh of the passages, at first visual and then auditory. Then there is just one couple and the chimes accompany their duet, offering a deepening of a Calvary-like quality only hinted at in the opening moments, a cross-bearing supplication, where arms held across the shoulders call attention to suffering within. A woman in a floor split is dragged across half the stage and raised to a still-deferential low lift. This is a passion play in the contemporary argot, as dancers struggle for full-out expression against prerogatives that have been halved. A woman’s hands reach to her legs to bring her knees together in this same mood of self-reproach. Her neck reaches upward to thin and elongate a sustained note. Her partner is sprawled on the floor, crablike: he can go no lower or flatter, and yet, she bores her way in to crawl beneath him at his lowest moment, until they are both spread like a smear of crushed violets.
The second movement opens with a volley of scattershot runs. The runs become turns, creating a flipbook of shapes, arms above heads. Then comes an andante movement, where the music stops short as pas de deux lifts reveal legs liberated by halves as they open into bent-knee extensions. A tolling bell sounds, beckoning an ending in which a woman dancer is dragged up off the floor and into a skater’s bent-knee second position, pulled into a half circle around by her partner. She faces the audience, mouth agape in a silent scream. Her partner brings his hands across her mouth to muzzle her as the curtain finally descends all the way to the stage floor.
Jiri Kylian’s Stamping Ground, staged by Patrick Delacroix, opens to no music. For a good six minutes, we hear nothing of the Carlos Chávez score. We focus on the thin silvery strands thickly strung as an upstage backdrop, through which dancers emerge, half disappear and re-appear. A woman shows up. Arms flail left and then right. In profile, she contracts and releases, accelerating more each time until, driven by her spine, her body goes orgasmic. A man then does what she did. More movements are shown, as if the dancers are selecting them from a half-century-old New Dance Group archive brought out for commemorative purposes; a soundless hit parade. Just as we allow that the absence of music is dipping into the zone of tedium, hot men in black briefs slap their thighs, someone mimes peeking through a window curtain, and there are galloping chassés. A woman begins a set of hand manipulations as she searches out the audience, her head checking in from behind her armpit. Soon, all are stamping their feet and a line of dancers breaks into a profile plié walk, weight on the back foot, heads thrown back. Shadow puppet hands create new roles instantly.
At last the music comes up—the icing on a wedding cake where two styles marry: LINES with jewel box. A male dancer arrives with lush, gorgeous movement in opposition to his heat-packing female partner. They are dancing large, with big gulping jumps. Rat-a-tat knees top off legs stomping out the ceremonial beat, as three women join them in a contrapuntal combination, chasing each other across the stage with flexed-footed grand jetés. The rhythms turn indigenously aboriginal in a side-to-side bellows-like triplet step. Torsos rock to xylophonic notes in a sideways cloche, as this frenetic carnival of animals comes to a close.
Jorma Elo’s Overglow enunciates a parallel vocabulary that for this reviewer settles all mysteries, debates, and rants against and about his work, and places him in a benighted league of his own. The work begins with a series of rock ’em sock ’em chainé turns by a dancer costumed in the springtime green that we recognize as the ubiquitous environmentalist brand. Then come tours, not the kind that bob on top of the music like oversized vessels, but turns that deftly defy the traditions sewn into every point shoe by a Mendelssohn score such as this one is, though sharing the honors with Beethoven. Elo favors turning steps that are passive into active ones, and drives those that are active into the camp of the differently active. So his degagé becomes a squirrelly accent instead of a salvo. The plié becomes a step in its own right instead of a preparation, ending or transition. Even passé is active. Hands are not so much decorative as they are outsized neurotransmitters. A circle of dancers is a sweet thing until one dancer inexplicably recuses herself, and it is no longer the perfect shape that completes us, but a snippet of landscape on the road to infinity. Head movements act as the bridge between steps instead of accents or other more mundane punctuation marks.
Elo’s parallel lexicon is both a tribute and a repost to ballet formalities. In Overglow, it assumes the role of a crazy/happy brainteaser, the riddles kids tell to make each other giddy during car trips, or the games adults used to play on long railroad journeys, where adulthood would be temporarily and mercifully suspended.
The second movement is ceremonial, but not in the same way as Kylian. Here formality takes center stage, with reverential half lifts showing wobbly-nervous knees. A woman is raised higher, as if on an expanding scaffold, a vision in extremis that resolves into an impassioned lift, opening in silky ecstasy. The lift unfolds like the petals of a flower, each assay mastering a new level of difficulty. Somewhere else, there is a profile cloche step that stiffens into something more acute, arms closing en avant into the oblique. Then up she goes again into the pendulum mode, and we see that these steps are points on a fulcrum, not made to show off balletic bodies so much as launch a discourse filled with inclinations and feints to the theatrical side.
The dancer’s lifeless body lies submerged in a puddle of slate-colored silken folds. This cloud of grey is her costume, a color that blends with the earth beneath her. Another woman paces in circles a half a stage away. Her classical steps are unassailable as she discharges frappés like bullets from the body one could mistake for a revolver on a dark and rainy Houston evening.