On Stage: A New Dance Model

Photo by Chris CorrieWe’ve heard of Aspen, home of the rich and famous, in Colorado. We’re also well aware of Sante Fe, New Mexico, home of the artistically rich, playground of George O’Keefe and the third largest art market in the United States.

The two cities share a high altitude (Aspen at 8,200 feet and Santa Fe surprisingly at 7,000 feet in the foothills of the Rockies) and a strong interest in the cultural arts. They also share a ballet company, appropriately dubbed Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, that is making dance waves in more ways than one.

I touched base with Paul Organisak, vice president of programming for the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and executive director of the Pittsburgh Dance Council, about second part of the Dance Council’s split season. It marks the first time in memory that PDC began with two companies, then took a nearly four-month hiatus before resuming.

“The companies drove the schedule,” Organisak reassures me. “It depended on their routing and availability.” It also depended on their location, because international touring, with visa issues, has become extremely difficult. For that reason, Great Britain’s Vincent Dance Theater, where Charlotte Vincent is “one of the most powerful dance voices I’ve seen,” will be the only “foreign” troupe on the roster (May 1).

Complexions (Apr. 3) is red hot this year, given the multiple appearances of cofounders Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson on “So You Think You Can Dance.” Besides it’s Richardson’s farewell tour, noteworthy because he has been one of America’s most remarkable male dancers. Organisak also wanted Pittsburgh dance fans to see the work of Aszure Barton in “Jack in the Box”  and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa in “Zip Zap Zoom” on the BJM program (Apr. 17).

That brings us to the “extremely appealing” Aspen Santa Fe, which will lead off this mini-flurry of dance Feb. 26. Executive director Jean-Phillipe Malaty spoke on the phone from Aspen, where, surprisingly, he says there is no snow, particularly the champagne powder for which the mountain community is noted. Global warming? El Nino?

But Aspen has more than snow, including an art museum, theater, a “beautiful Victorian jewel of an opera house” and a “world class music and jazz festival.” For all the square footage and the number of residents (only 6,000), Aspen has become a mecca. “People come here to have the combination of natural beauty and access to world-class art offerings,” Malaty explains.

Photo by Rosalie O'ConnorThey also come from New York, Chicago and other major metropolitan centers. “We have a very educated and sophisticated audience, where they have seen the best dance,” he says. “When they come on vacation they expect the same.”

The ASFB story is all the more remarkable in that it is a relatively young company, founded in 1990 by longtime Aspenite, Bebe Schweppe. In 1996 she convinced Tom Mossbrucker and Malaty, also partners in life, to leave New York and take over her fledgling group. Mossbrucker brought with him a decidedly American approach (School of American Ballet and The Joffrey) and Malaty a European background (Mudra in Belgium, the John Cranko school in Stuttgart) with an American overlay (Ballet Hispanico of New York, Joffrey II, Lyric Opera of Chicago).

They shared a vision however, mostly in line with the Joffrey’s always-contagious freedom of spirit. Mossbrucker, perhaps the quieter of the two, became artistic director. Malaty, with a talent for organization, business and fund-raising, became executive director. He also admits “we couldn’t afford anyone else.”

Beginning in Aspen, performing opportunities quickly arose in Santa Fe. They also found that they had to diversify “out of necessity. We wanted to create a new business model for American dance companies” because many were failing.

They now have two schools, two presenting series (one of the largest in America) and the award-winning Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Folklorico, a free after school dance program where students learn about the Mexican heritage and culture and engage in performances. As Malaty aptly puts it, “We didn’t put all our eggs in one basket.”

Still, it was a lot to swallow — there is a saying that it takes 25 years to build a ballet company. But Malaty and Mossbrucker have achieved national recognition in only 14 years. How did they do it?

There is a long pause followed by one word.  “Serendipity?” Then a soft chuckle. “We don’t do ‘Swan Lake’ and we don’t do ‘Coppelia,” Malaty finally continues. “We don’t have a resident choreographer and the artistic director doesn’t choreograph. We are a true repertory dance company, so we invite top-notch choreographers. Our repertory, from the beginning, was one of the highest level, what we could afford at the time.”

The Pittsburgh Dance Council program at the Byham Theater reflects that — and maybe more connections to the Joffrey ideals. Robert Joffrey launched Twyla Tharp’s career with “Deuce Coupe.” The ASFB program will feature Tharp’s “Sue’s Leg.” Joffrey engaged William Forsythe early on and his “Slingerland” will also appear in Pittsburgh.

But both choreographers are now well established on the international dance scene. Malaty and Mossbrucker hope to carry on the Joffrey tradition further and have caught American choreographer Nicolo Fonte, formerly of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal and Nacho Duato’s Compania Nacional de Danza in Madrid, and Finnish and Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo on the proverbial way up.

ASFB will present Fonte’s “In Hidden Seconds.” Malaty says he is of the “biggest American success stories right now.” Elo, who Malaty calls both “the closest to a new voice” in ballet and “the hottest choreographer right now” will close the program with “Red Sweet.”

So the program reflects ASFB’s heady success. Malaty explains that “there has never been any time wasted between management and the artistic directorship. That is really the evil of many dance companies. We also never, never had any conflict between the administration and the board of directors or the artistic director and the dancers. We’ve been really able to focus on what matters, on real challenges and real problems.”

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