Ballet’s Dynamic Story in the American West
In the 1970s came the “dance boom.” Going to dance concerts and taking dance classes became a passion across the country. And so it was in the Rocky Mountain ski-resort town of Aspen, Colorado.
Aspenites had been viewing dance for years. The Salt Lake City-based Ballet West, under the leadership of William Christensen, conducted annual summer residencies in Aspen, giving master classes and performances on an open-air stage with a breathtaking natural backdrop of mountains. In this milieu, Bebe Schweppe, a visionary community leader and former ballet pupil of Robert Joffrey, opened a one-room ballet studio in 1991. That humble start gave rise to the Aspen Ballet Company and School—the precursor of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. In a town that annually transformed from a wintery sports haven to a summer arts mecca, dance took root.
In 1996, Ms. Schweppe presented her vision to Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty (similarly, Joffrey Ballet alum). She believed that Aspen could be a player on a larger dance map. The can-do response that greeted her proposal continues to characterize the organization. “Bebe’s vision for Aspen to have its own ballet company was the project of a lifetime,” says Malaty, ASFB’s executive director. “We embarked together on a serendipitous adventure.”
Malaty and the company’s artistic director, Mossbrucker, faced a blank slate. Anything was possible. Against all odds, a town of 6,000 permanent residents had a ballet company bearing its name. Pushing back against those odds was good fortune … and true grit. The dance company that emerged was treasured by its stakeholders: dancers, dance makers, patrons, and audiences. From the start, its fate was fragile. While the small-city setting initially kept things manageable, over time it inhibited growth. The team took this challenge as an opportunity: it pursued ‘horizontal’ growth. Ancillary dance activities would bolster the performing troupe’s needs. A multi-faceted and stable arts organization with diversified income developed rapidly.
Forging a New Dance Frontier
The company began modestly with seven dancers. Growth was organic. Friends in the field—Gerald Arpino, Trey McIntyre, Septime Webre, Dwight Rhoden—offered start-up repertoire. An early commission, Moses Pendleton’s popular Noir Blanc, was a seminal event—a ballet blockbuster. Mossbrucker, as artistic director, did not aspire to choreograph; so he would actively curate emerging choreographic talent instead. Visiting freelance choreographers would collaborate with the dancers in creative residencies in a basement ballet studio in Aspen. Their deliverable? New ballets—tailored to the young troupe’s size, style and spirit.
That style, best described as open and exploratory, emerged as Mossbrucker tapped the creative scene in Europe where classical ballet was breaking from its boundaries. The athletic and adventurous American dancers found themselves at a crossroads of dance history. The divide between ballet and modern dance was dissolving. A new generation of dancer, ready to leave those categories behind, found a home in Aspen.
Enter Santa Fe
Driving six hours due south from Aspen, through perilous climbs and descents, twisting roads and rugged terrain, brings a Colorado traveler to New Mexico, the southern-most of the six Rocky Mountain states. In the magical arts city of Santa Fe, local dance lovers, hearing of a newly formed ballet company, eagerly greeted the notion of sharing it with another city. Plans were underway for a full renovation of Santa Fe’s Lensic Theatre, a Spanish-Moorish architectural gem off the town’s historic Plaza. Serendipity blessed the organization as The Lensic, built in 1931 but newly state of the art, became a second home.
The footprint in New Mexico, engineered by Malaty, engendered a management strategy that endures today. This dual-city approach expanded the network of branded ballet schools, folkloric outreach program, and dance presentation series. The nascent dance company doubled its performance outlets, audience pool, and prospects for patronage and sponsorships. A new all-encompassing entity, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, emerged. It was a new millennium, the year 2000.
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet took as its paramount mission the development of new and compelling choreography for the classically trained dancer. ASFB commissions nurtured the early careers of burgeoning choreographers like Nicolo Fonte, Jorma Elo, Edwaard Liang, Jacopo Godani, Helen Pickett, and others. “For us it was never about the single work,” says Mossbrucker. “It was the relationship we built with our choreographers; they become part of the fabric of the company. The natural beauty of our surroundings has a profound impact on creativity, and our choreographers found it inspiring to create here.”
Was it the crisp, clean air of Aspen? Or did the dramatic vistas of Santa Fe spur the dexterous, risk-taking dancers to bring their best game to rehearsal after morning ballet class? For whatever reason, it clicked; and a constantly refreshed supply of new works came to define Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. Returning choreographers included: Nicolo Fonte, a bold dance maker who completed eight original creations for ASFB; Jorma Elo, who made five. Cayetano Soto and Alejandro Cerrudo, two Spaniards, each choreographed three original works for ASFB. Four ballets came from Dwight Rhoden. Importantly, ASFB’s repertoire included four masterworks by Jiří Kylián, the Czech-born maestro credited with first infusing classical ballet with modern dance to spawn a contemporary dance genre. Works by master choreographers of the late 20th century—George Balanchine, William Forsythe, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp—rounded out the repertoire.
The importance of the body of 40 original works created over ASFB’s quarter century of existence is best illustrated by restagings by other dance companies. Nicolo Fonte’s Left Unsaid entered Goteberg Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theater, and Ballet Austin. Alejandro Cerrudo’s Silent Ghost has been performed by Pacific Northwest Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Jorma Elo’s Red Sweet found a home at Oklahoma City Ballet. Helen Pickett’s Petal has been restaged by no less than eight companies, among them Alberta Ballet, Atlanta Ballet, Boston Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theater. Cayetano Soto’s Uneven, as danced by the Perm Opera Ballet, won Russia’s Golden Mask Award.
Touring Company Renowned in the U.S. & Abroad
Straddling two arts-aware cities as a fortified home base, ASFB moved to the vanguard of its field, brandishing a strong national reputation as a high-quality, boutique-scaled touring troupe. Top American and Canadian stages hosted the company, often with return engagements, including: The Joyce Theater, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Harris Theater for Music and Dance, Ottawa National Arts Centre, Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Dance Victoria, American Dance Festival, and The Kennedy Center. Audiences across the U.S.—in small rural venues, university theaters, and large urban performing-arts centers reveled in the high-energy dancers from the country’s Western region. Special relationships sparked with The Joyce Theater in New York City, where the company enjoyed nine week-long visits (one every other year, for 18 years). ASFB’s numerous visits to Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the Terpsichorean oasis in the Berkshire Mountains, made The Pillow a spiritual home.
The company regularly forayed overseas. Serving as a proud American arts ambassador, ASFB traveled to Asia, Latin and Central America, Europe, and the Middle East, with showcases in Brazil, Canada, France, Greece, Guatemala, Israel, Italy, Mexico, and Russia. After finessing the raked stage of the oldest opera house in Venice, Italy, the Malibran Theatre of Teatro La Fenice, the dancers garnered ovations. The seaside theater where they danced in Biarritz, in the southwest of France, gave out to the sound of the Atlantic Ocean crashing onto a rocky beach. In Russia—the motherland where classical ballet is concerned—the Americans received a warm embrace. Traveling to Israel, they performed in the cultural capital of Tel Aviv, which, since the late 20th Century, has been a font of dance innovation. The company’s final years were heightened by a five-year relationship as resident dance company at the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts, also known as The Soraya. This was the first-ever dance residency for the luminous cake-box theatre on the campus of California State University/Northridge in Los Angeles. The honor was compounded when an original three-year engagement was twice extended. ASFB brought its pithiest mixed-repertory programs to the richly appointed concert hall. The residency culminated, like a cherry on top, with a run of the company’s production of The Nutcracker, in 2019.
Soon thereafter, in Aspen, over the last weekend of February 2020, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet danced its final performances. The program featured a full-length work, Nicolo Fonte’s 75-minute Beautiful Decay. In this ballet, which incorporates two senior-aged dancers amidst youthful, technically virtuosic ones, Fonte evokes the passage of time. Fittingly, it conjures mortality. On the cusp of its 25th anniversary and at its artistic peak, ASFB was brought to an abrupt halt by the global pandemic. One year later, it was announced that the vibrant company had reached its resting point.
Innovative Business Model
Since the partnership with Santa Fe was forged in 2000, the multi-faceted arts organization has flourished. It comprises a network of ballet schools, a Mexican folkloric after-school program, and a dance presentation series—replicated in two markets. Under this hybrid business model, this roster of arts activities thrives. Performance, education, and community outreach all belong to the mix.
The organization’s strong artistic vision has long been underpinned by solid financial footing. Premier American funders played a role—The National Endowment for the Arts, New England Foundation for the Arts / National Dance Project, Joyce Foundation, Shubert Foundation, Wolf Trap Foundation, Melville Hankins Family Foundation, Jerome Robbins Foundation, and Princess Grace Foundation all supported ASFB’s growth and success.
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet School
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is an organization rooted in dance education across a spectrum of dance forms, in classical ballet, jazz, tap, modern, flamenco and folkloric dance. Through the extensive network of satellite locations in Colorado and New Mexico, every dance aspirant, whether pre-professional or recreational, can find opportunities for creative expression. The organization’s strong commitment to community and dance education is evidenced by its generous tuition assistance program, ensuring that no child who lacks funds to study dance is turned away. School alumni have gone on to train at the nation’s major dance academies: Ailey/Fordham, Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at American Ballet Theatre, Interlochen Arts Academy, Joffrey Ballet School, North Carolina School for the Arts, Pacific Northwest Ballet School, and School of American Ballet. Two alumni furthered their studies at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow.
Alumni have advanced to professional careers with American Ballet Theatre, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Ballet Idaho, Gothenburg Ballet, New York City Ballet, Royal New Zealand Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, and Washington Ballet. In the realm of modern dance, students have joined the companies of Shen Wei and Trisha Brown.
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Folklórico
ASFB Folklórico harnesses the energy of children and gets them dancing in this free, after-school, lively arts program. ASFB’s Folklórico joined the organization’s umbrella structure in 1998 as the sole ethnic folkloric dance outreach program sponsored by a ballet company. Using Mexican folk dance as a vehicle to promote Latino cultural awareness and reinforce self-esteem, Folklórico now directly impacts the lives over 600 children from Aspen to Rifle, Colorado, and throughout the greater Santa Fe area. The charming Folklórico ensemble regularly performs across the region, bearing ribbons, medals, awards, stories, and smiles upon their return. These valuable programs have long defined ASFB’s community outreach with consistency—and with proven positive impact on children’s health, social lives, and creativity.
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Presents
ASFB’s sheer love of the art form shines forth in ASFB Presents, one of the nation’s leading dance-only presentation series. In 1999, the organization added this live-performance component to its umbrella of dance offerings. A deep commitment to cultural and aesthetic diversity is represented in the stellar roster of more than fifty global dance companies that have been invited to perform at the Aspen District Theater and the Lensic Theatre. Among them are Alonzo King Lines Ballet, Alvin Ailey II, Ballet West, Compagnie Hervé Koubi, Compagnie Marie Chouinard, Complexions Contemporary Ballet, Diavolo Dance Theatre, Grupo Corpo, Hong Kong Ballet, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Joffrey Ballet, Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Miami City Ballet, MOMIX, Parsons Dance, Paul Taylor Dance Company, Pilobolus, Sydney Dance Company, and Twyla Tharp Dance.
Partnerships and Sharing
The value of collaboration, linkages, and sharing with others in the dance field is deeply ingrained in ASFB culture and has been manifest in exemplary partnerships and relationships. It began the fateful day when founder Bebe Schweppe shared her vision with Malaty and Mossbrucker. It continued through long relationships with dancers, some who reached 10 and 17-year anniversaries with the company. Many choreographers have made the journey to Aspen to create new works—and many returned multiple times. Sharing continues with the presentation series, which spotlights worthy dance companies in a collegial way of connecting. ASFB’s sharing ethos illuminated its pathway through decades, touching many lives through fundraisers, celebrations, anniversaries, retirements, new arrivals, even romantic partnerships resulting in ASFB toddlers.
In 2014, for two seasons, ASFB shared resources with a fledgling local troupe, Juan Siddi Flamenco Santa Fe (JSFSF). This entrepreneurial project led to artistic heights at Jacob’s Pillow and New York’s Joyce Theater. At The Pillow in the summer of 2016, came a rare and unprecedented honor: Jacob’s Pillow presented, during the same summer weekend, both companies under ASFB management: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet at the Ted Shawn Theatre, and Juan Siddi Flamenco Santa Fe at the second house, the Doris Duke Theater.
Multiculturalism and Progressive Social Values
ASFB’s progressive values began with the dignified treatment of its dancers. A multiracial company of skilled and charismatic dancers, worked on a year-round employment contract whose salary package included health care, and matching retirement benefits. Such employment conditions were groundbreaking, when introduced, for a small company. ASFB Presents, the presenting series, has taken diversity as its compass, bringing audiences multicultural dance offerings, such as, Ballet Folklorico “Quetzalli” de Veracruz, Batoto Yetu, Juan Siddi Flamenco Santa Fe, Les Ballets Africains, Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, and Peking Acrobats.
A groundbreaking element of ASFB’s The Nutcracker, co-created by Malaty and Mossbrucker in 1997, noteworthy for its time, was the respectful inclusion of authentic ethnic dancing to interpret Tchaikovsky’s delightful ‘national variations’ section. Traditional Chinese, Russian, and Spanish dances were spotlighted, in avoidance of hurtful or offensive racial stereotypes.
Kudos and Acclaim
Since its founding, ASFB has been the recipient of awards and honors. In 2010, Malaty and Mossbrucker were honored with the Joyce Theater Foundation Award in recognition of ASFB’s contribution to dance. The Santa Fe Community Foundation bestowed on the company its Piñon Award. Jean-Philippe Malaty and Founder Bebe Schweppe served as panelists for both the Colorado Council for the Arts and the National Endowment for Arts. The Denver Bonfils-Stanton Foundation granted Jean-Philippe a Livingston Fellowship in recognition of his leadership role in Colorado’s non-profit sector. A touching honor came in 2016 when Francisco “Paco” Nevarez-Burgueño, who helped develop ASFB Folklórico, received a Governor’s Leadership Award for his commitment to Colorado’s creative landscape through civic leadership and volunteerism.
Into a Bright Future
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, like every company in the dance world, lay dormant for an entire year, 2020, due to the novel coronavirus. It was a time for introspection and gratitude. “ASFB performances have fed the souls of thousands of people,” said Malaty. “We are humbled by the hundreds of individuals, foundations, government agencies, and businesses who supported our work.” Through careful dialogue with a supportive Board of Trustees, Malaty and Mossbrucker grew convinced that a bold reinvention was the right thing to do. On March 8, 2021, the co-directors and the Board announced the closure of the noble ballet troupe in order to better support and sustain the long-term health and viability of the organization’s diverse activities.
In a furtherance of the organization’s mission, the ASFB Fund for Innovation in Dance was announced to preserve dance education and live performance in Aspen and Santa Fe, and continue the national presence by sharing resources and promoting collaborative thinking within the field. In implementing the Fund, Mossbrucker says, “It’s been very important for us to find a way to honor the legacy of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet—and the pioneering spirit that sits at its heart. We stand on the shoulders of 25 years of live performance, and everything that went into it. We want to capture the essence of a dance company that belongs to so many, and that was nurtured by the love of two communities. That spirit we now infuse with new life and a robust future.”