Last Friday evening I had an early dinner with my little family, said goodnight to my toddler as he prepared for his nightly bath, and voyaged downtown to catch Aspen Santa Fe Ballet at the Wortham. The company, which closed out Houston’s Society of the Performing Arts season with three selections from their repertory, are unique in a number of ways… here are three of them:
- They are a rare two-city organization, operating in both Aspen, Colorado and Santa Fe, New Mexico.
- With only ten dancers, this group is small even for a small ballet company.
- They have no resident choreographer, meaning that their entire repertory consists of acquired or commissioned work.
The trio of works on the program Friday night were excellent examples of ASFB’s eclecticism. Twyla Tharp’s “Sweet Fields,” “Red Sweet,” by choreographer-on-the-rise, Jorma Elo, and “Noir Blanc,” masterminded by Pilobolus co-founder and Momix Artistic Director, Moses Pendleton. Their two-word titles are just about all these three dances have in common.
“Sweet Fields” – Featuring Sacred Harp music and other a cappella selections in the Shaker tradition, this work is an homage of sorts to Tharp’s Quaker origins. Light, streaming onto a dark stage, ritualistic gesture, and a tableau reminiscent of pallbearers at a funeral, set a somber tone. A moment which involves a male dancer being tossed in the air helicopter-style seems to initiate an ascent in mood, though. The dancers’ costumes, barely more than negligee have a classic look that matches the geometrically sculptured, yet lyrical, movement vocabulary that could perhaps feel truly joyous if it weren’t weighted by the work’s monotonous music. I wanted to connect to this work but I just didn’t, and I didn’t sense that the company of dancers did either.
- “Red Sweet” – It was a pleasure to make acquaintance with Jorma Elo’s work. Turning traditional ballet partnering on its ear, he creates moments of charmingly silly situational humor. The ASFB dancers make the most of these sly and witty comedic “bits” and demonstrate their ability to harmonize as an ensemble. Though it took me a few minutes to suss out where Elo was taking me, it was clear that ASFB were enjoying this one. When I finally got into the rhythm and riffs of “Red Sweet,” I was captivated. There is a playfulness in this work that seems nearly spontaneous and I found it really intriguing that some of the most fun and witty gags were reserved for exits, a choreographic “space” that sometimes is neglected.
- “Noir Blanc” – Let me preface this portion of my assessment by stating that I had quite a unique experience viewing the final work of the evening. Invited to watch from a top secret location within the theatre (no, I’m not making this up), I sat in a small room with a handful of other dance writers and promoters. And, as if that weren’t odd enough, we chattered away during the entire number in our little sound-proof pad, oohing and awing, as I imagine the rest of the audience did.”Noir Blanc” is a masterfully innovative little gem — not surprising, having been conceived by a choreographer known for delighting audiences. Though some write off this type of work as being little more than spectacle, it’s clear to me that not everyone can make work that thrills without being completely vacuous or pandering. This particular work has an other-worldly quality supported by projections of celestial bodies and a collage of New Age music. The dancers, wearing black and white unitards, are lit with black light. They are instruments, played for the veneration of the work which manipulates positive and negative space to reveal bodies floating horizontally in mid-air and balancing in impossibly precarious positions. Nothing is “black and white” in this choreography as the mind struggles to keep up with the illusion.
If it seems I’ve spent a lot of this review talking about choreography, you are probably right. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, as an organization, distinguishes itself by putting the work at the forefront. They make absolutely no apologies for this, strategically collecting a wide variety of pieces by prominent contemporary choreographers that entertain and move audiences. What is delightful is that this little ballet company from the western mountains of the United States quite capably navigates such sundry terrain.