Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is a relatively young company, but its stature in the dance world has grown quickly. As one of the country’s premiere commissioning organizations for new work, ASFB has established ongoing relationships with a number of choreographers. They include Nicolo Fonte and Jorma Elo, whose latest pieces frame the troupe’s upcoming performance Saturday night at Winspear Opera House. It’s the third time in seven years that ASFB has been part of the dance season put on by presenting organization TITAS.
I recently talked to artistic director Tom Mossbrucker about his group’s approach to dance, the way they select the choreographers they want to work with, their business model and their focus on beauty. My review of the show ran Sunday in The Dallas Morning News. Here’s Margaret Putnam’s take for Theater Jones.
Mossbrucker, a former Joffrey Ballet dancer, and executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty were recruited in 1996 by Aspen Ballet School founder Bebe Schweppe to start a company. In 2000, they expanded to a second home base in Santa Fe. The group puts on seasons in both cities and tours about 12 weeks a year, performing work by some of the best dance-makers in history, among them George Balanchine, Twyla Tharp, Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe, Paul Taylor, Martha Clarke, Lar Lubovitch, David Parsons, Laura Dean and Karole Armitage.
DFW Dance Blog: How would you describe the style of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet?
Mossbrucker: We’re a contemporary ballet company. The dancers are all classically trained. And the repertoire is contemporary based, so a little different from a modern company or a classical ballet company. I would describe it as contemporary dance.
The women are able to dance on pointe and many of our dances are performed on pointe, though we’re not doing any pointe work in Dallas. The choreographers we choose use a broad vocabulary, modern and ballet vocabulary.
DFWDB: The company is successful both artistically and financially, even in this down economy. Is it that you’re based in these two affluent communities that support the arts or is it something else?
Mossbrucker: It is that, but it’s also that we’re very lean. Everyone in the organization works very hard. I’m not saying that they don’t in other places, but we’re also a very diverse organization. We have two schools, one in each community. We have a presenting series. We have a folklorico outreach program. We’re a little bit of a hybrid. We’re not just a dance company. But it is also that we’re based in two very arts-minded communities.
DFWDB: The company commissions a lot of new work. What do you look for in choreographers?
Mossbrucker: We do commission a lot of work. That’s one of the hallmarks of the company: we’re always looking forward. We’re always trying to find new work, new voices. And that’s what we look for in a choreographer – somebody who has got a distinct voice and also a forward-looking voice, which is not always easy and it’s hard to describe in words, but when we see it we know it right away.
One of the choreographers on the Dallas program is Nicolo Fonte. He’s been working with us for more than 10 years now and when we saw his work – he sent us a videotape – we knew so fast that we wanted him that we were on the phone before the video was even out of the machine.
So it’s just sort of a feeling we have. If we respond to it emotionally, then we know it’s right.
We also try to develop relationships with choreographers. Once we find one that we think is a good fit for the company, we work with them once and if everything goes well we try to develop that relationship. That’s what we did with Nicolo Fonte. He’s done eight works for us now.
DFWDB: What was it about him that you knew right away you wanted to work with him and has continued to be the case?
Mossbrucker: When we saw his work on video, we thought it was interesting and innovative and new. But more than that, it was the relationship that developed. It was the way he worked with the dancers, the way they responded to him and then the final product on stage. So we keep doing that and now we’re at the point where he knows the company so well, the dancers so well that when he comes back he’s able to continue where he left off and not start over.
We always joke that if we had a resident choreographer it would be Nicolo. And in fact he named a piece [to be performed in Dallas] Where We Left Off and that was really the reason. He felt that every time he comes back, he picks up where he left off and continues forward.
DFWDB: Tell me a little bit about the Fonte piece. Is it about something, what does it look like?
Mossbrucker: It’s an abstract work. It’s not about anything, and it was a real departure for Nicolo, whose work is sometimes a little bit edgy. He came with the idea of hope. And that’s not a common theme for a lot of choreographers. As he developed it, it became very beautiful, flow-y, not romantic but almost lyrical in feel. For many contemporary choreographers, it takes a lot of courage to make a beautiful piece rather than a serious work that’s dark. This one is about life and hope and light and relationships. They’re all in white, and we’re actually going to have a live accompaniment for it. It’s a Philip Glass score for solo piano played by Han Chen. He’s going to be a star, I think.
DFWDB: How does the Philip Glass music inform the dance?
Mossbrucker: In this case, it’s very literal. The music is very melodic. It’s very beautiful in places. It’s very poetic. And the dance really reflects that. Sometimes choreographers will work deliberately against the music. In this case, Nicolo worked deliberately with it. It has a very dreamy quality.
DFWDB: You put a premium on this idea of beauty. The pieces I watched online emphasized very beautiful clean lines and shapes. You can tell that the dancers are very well trained in ballet. Is beauty something that’s always there at the back of your mind when you’re looking for pieces?
Mossbrucker: I think what you’re talking about is an outcome of the way we work and the training. We strive for the dancers to be very pure because we have a wide repertoire. We don’t choreograph. All of the work is brought in. We want to give the choreographers a blank slate, so we encourage the dancers to be pure and open and without mannerisms or affectations. So I think that comes across as beauty.
DFWDB: Another piece on the program is Over Glow by Jorma Elo. What can you tell me about it?
Mossbrucker: The music is a Mendelssohn overture and then it goes into a long adagio Beethoven section and then it goes back to the Mendelssohn. Jorma is somebody very much like Nicolo who we’ve worked with a lot. I should mention that we were the first company to commission Nicolo and that’s happened many times with many of our choreographers.
We were not the first to commission Jorma, but we were one of the first to commission him before he became the megastar that he is now. We’ve really developed this relationship with Jorma to the point that this time when he came back he knew exactly which dancers he was going to use, he knew exactly how he was going to pair them up, and I think in his head he knew exactly how he was going to exploit their strengths.
This work I feel is such a personal gift to each one of the dancers, because it’s so beautifully suited to their individual strengths and characteristics.
DFWDB: Is there a way to characterize his style?
Mossbrucker: There is an easy way to characterize his style, which many writers and critics refer to. Many times he has very quirky movements that he uses, and that’s sort of on the surface and people pick up on that.
But the thing underlying is that there is an incredible human aspect to the work, an incredible physicality and humanity in the work that people don’t often as easily pick up on because they are so focused on the top layer of this quirky, jerky movement. He draws on hip-hop, he draws on classical ballet, he draws on modern. But in the end, if you look deeply, there is this incredible musicality and incredible humanity to it.
DFWDB: Choreographers can invent vocabulary that’s very specific to whatever they’re trying to say or do in a piece. Is that the case with Elo or something your company looks for?
Mossbrucker: No, I don’t think so. Jorma actually in many cases uses the same vocabulary over and over, much like a painter. You can tell a Picasso if you look at any of his paintings. There’s no mistaking a Picasso.
Jorma’s work is very much like that. You can recognize imagery, vocabulary. There’s no mistaking a Jorma Elo piece and yet one is very different from the other in feel. This is the fourth work he has done for us.
I think this work was a real departure for him in some ways. The second section is very slow and adagio and a lot of times his work is very kinetic and fast and complex and never stops, never stops, never stops. This piece is a real change.
DFWDB: Stamping Ground by Jiri Kylian, why is that piece on this program?
Mossbrucker: This piece we just added to our repertoire this year, and we’ve done it a lot. It’s a really great, great fit for the company. It really shows off the dancers. The work of Jiri Kylian is in a way a badge of honor for any company to do. Every dancer wants to do his work. I remember when I was a dancer all anybody wanted to do was dance Kylian work or be in his company.
It’s the third work of his we’ve done. People look at it, and it’s not what they immediately expect from Kylian. It’s not what you have in your head when you think of Kylian. There’s humor to it. It’s a little bit quirky.
It’s a good fit for this program because it breaks up the two contemporary pieces. It’s also an older work. And it’s funny to think of Kylian as an older work, but this one is from the ‘80s. It’s also interesting because he influenced so much in the contemporary dance world. Jorma Elo was a dancer of his for many, many years, so it’s interesting to see the influence he had over other choreographers. He’s such a pioneer and continues to be so today.
DFWDB: When I think of Kylian’s Nederlands Dans Theater or European dance in general, people sometimes use the word expressionistic, which can have different meanings. I’m wondering if you think of yourselves as expressionistic or is this not a useful term any more?
Mossbrucker: We have tended in the past few years to use a lot of Europeans choreographers. And it’s not really intentional, it’s just that we’re drawn to that work. The contemporary dance that they’re doing in Europe is a little bit different than what they’re doing here. In a way, it defines the company, but I’m not sure how to answer that.
DFWDB: What’s different about what’s going on in Europe?
Mossbucker: Europe for the past 20, 30 years has really been a hotbed for choreographers. When you look at Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe, Nacho Duato, they’ve really revolutionized dance in their communities. They really changed dance, and also in Europe they had the money to do so. Forsythe could be in the theater for a month working on a piece. He had the luxury to do that. So did Kylian. In America, we don’t have that luxury of the financial means to do that. You bring in a choreographer for four weeks, they do a piece, you have a day in the theater and then you do a show. It’s not the same type of hotbed for choreographic creativity that they had in Europe.
DFWDB: You guys are in demand in Europe and around the world, touring quite a bit. What is it about your company that has made you hot?
Mossbrucker: I think it’s two things. It’s the beauty and the openness and the purity of the dancers that’s appealing to the audience. It’s refreshing. There are only 10 of them. If you have a bigger company – 20, 30 dancers – it’s hard for people to key in and relate to those individual artists.
In our company, there are five women and five men and you see them in all three pieces and you make a strong connection because they are engaging, they are open. They do give a lot back to the audience, not in showy way but in an honest way. I think it’s captivating.
And the second thing is the repertoire. I think people are interested in these works, and they’re accessible, they’re quality work. The combination of those two things – it’s surprisingly appealing. The audience doesn’t know what to expect and just loves it.
DFWDB: The merger of Bill T. Jones’ company and the performance space Dance Theater Workshop: Is that not as weird as it sounds?
Mossbrucker: In these times, anyone who can think outside of the box is the one who is going to succeed. I think for Bill to find a way to do something differently and a way to make it work for him is great. And that’s what we did. Everybody says we want to study your model. But you can’t. You have to make it work for yourself. Anyone who can do something different than the way everyone else is doing it, chances are it’s going to work. That’s why we’ve been successful, and I think he’s going to be, too.
DFWDB: Tell me about [dancer] Nolan [DeMarco McGahan], who’s from Dallas.
Mossbrucker: He’s been in the company for five years. He is a Julliard graduate. He came to us right out of Julliard. And he’s been the epitome of what we value in a dancer. To have watched him develop in the time he has been with the company has been really what we strive for, to see raw talent join the company and develop into a wonderful artist. He’s in all three pieces. He’s like a chameleon. He’s different in all three pieces. He gives so much of himself emotionally, not just technically, to the work. It just blasts across the stage to the last row of the balcony.