Aspen Santa Fe captivating crossover
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There was a time when the difference between ballet and modern dance was as simple as the point and the flex of the feet. But Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, a rising young star of a company in the dance firmament, is the latest example in honing that once-large gap into a mere sliver of differentiation.
For example, the Pittsburgh Dance Council program at the Byham Theater on Friday bore more than a passing resemblance to Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, which last performed here three years ago. Its program, like ASFB, contained a work by Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo. And Hubbard has been a noted repository for Twyla Tharp works, while ASFB showcased its third Tharp work, "Sue's Leg."
Small world of dance.
Repertoire aside, what was the difference between this contemporary ballet, where Aspen Santa Fe had a distinct European influence combined with an American spirit, and Hubbard's contemporary dance, which has moved toward a European look with an American physicality?
There is a simple answer to that question, even though it's becoming harder to clarify. Although the dancers sometimes slip into their "modern" training, ASFB mostly maintains the lift and extension of ballet. This despite the fact that only one its pieces, William Forsythe's scintillating deconstruction of a classical adagio, was performed en pointe, albeit with well-worn, soft shoes.
Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Phillippe Malaty also have assembled a killer roster of choreographers, mainly through discerning eyes and great foresight. Actually "Sue's Leg" looked like the odd piece out in this company. Created in 1975 for the inaugural program on PBS's "Dance in America" series, it holds a position of historical significance. It has only been revived by two companies since, the other coincidentally being Hubbard Street.
This version had a lightness and '70's naivete amid Tharp's deceptively complex playground of movement for a percolating quartet of dancers. While I missed the natural weight of Tharp's slouchy approach, it showed that there was room to move to a balletic interpretation. After all, Tharp was the first proponent of what was labeled a "crossover" ballet for the Joffrey.
But it seemed that ASFB should concentrate on the cusp of choreographic expectations. The rest of the program was created within the past 10 years and suited the company's trajectory so well.
Forsythe's "Slingerland" was a wonderful example. Dancers Katherine Bolanos and Sam Chittenden capitalized on his abstract approach, full of stops and starts, angles and well-defined arcs. It simultaneously defined the beauty of the ballet as well as incorporating a sense of alienation.
The program opened with Nicolo Fonte's "In Hidden Seconds," which the choreographer called "the moment during yogic breathing, when you inhale and exhale, where the body is in a state of complete inaction." The misty stage was reminiscent of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's recent performances of Tharp's "In the Upper Room," although the black-slatted curtain provided some heightened lighting opportunities by Nicolas Fischtel and Fonte. It featured the full company, a sleek component of 10 dancers.
Fonte drew upon the molten movement found in Nacho Duato's Compania Nacional de Danza in Madrid, where he spent most of his career. But here was dance that moved gently in and out of the shadows. Fonte's choreography oscillated and swelled, but never with any sharp angles, always with an elliptical sense of motion.
Elo's "Red Sweet" would best seem to define ASFB. He had a teasing choreographic nature about him, but could be musically explicit in the middle of a string phrase by Baroque composers Antonio Vivaldi and Heinrich Biber. But this was mostly fresh-faced dance with a humorous touch, where a man dragged a women backwards, she in attitude and he seeming to cast a spell over her. The dancers chugged and rolled their shoulders. Despite the busy flurries of choreographic activity, it ended as if exhaling.
Like Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, you didn't quite know what to expect, and that was a feeling worth repeating.