Livermore's Bankhead to host dazzling Aspen Santa Fe Ballet
By Lou Fancher
Twenty years after its launch, the marvelous feats -- not feet -- of the contemporary dance company, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, are arguably invisible.
This isn't to downgrade the dancers, who will appear April 21 at the Bankhead Theater to perform physical acts of undeniable athletic skill and artistry. Nor is it to negate the forward-thinking choreography, or the underlying current of respect and authoritative grasp of classical ballet that imbues their programs with richness.
As a sector of the entertainment industry, dance is known for physical hardship, financial distress, star worship, "crazy artist" indulgence -- and other unattractive aspects not a part of ASFB's makeup. The "invisible," therefore, are not these bad things, hidden away, but their fine replacements: human dignity, institutional integrity, overwhelming generosity.
Five minutes of conversation with the Colorado/New Mexico-based company's artistic director, Tom Mossbrucker, leaves a clear indication of the people-centric focus behind the operations. Asked to speak about achieving financial stability and maintaining a solid board of directors during fractured economic times in the company's 20-year history, he flips the script to emphasize the importance of paying dancers living-wage salaries that include health and retirement benefits and guaranteeing an industry-high 52-week season.
What he and Executive Director Jean-Philippe Malaty have clearly thought about -- ever since founder Bebe Schwepp convinced the two former dancers and life partners to establish a professional dance company in the Rocky Mountains -- are the artists and their welfare. "Certainly, we'd like to have 12 dancers. But we never break the bank for more dancers: we'd rather invest in the dancers we have. It's dancers first."In addition to the dancers' sturdy contracts and philosophies of care that evolved organically as the company grew from six dancers traveling "anywhere that'd host us" to a dual-city, $4.2 million machine, choreographers have prospered under the ASFB umbrella. Partly out of necessity, the directors' first used their considerable connections to wrangle works from better-known choreographers: Gerald Arpino, Trey McIntyre, Moses Pendleton and others.
The strategy established ASFB's quality and, moving to the next flank, they commissioned young, inexpensive dance-makers. Today, those once-less familiar names -- Nicolo Fonte, Jorma Elo, Hellen Pickett and more -- are found on the programs of leading dance companies worldwide, and ASFB's repertoire has expanded to include 20th century masters like William Forsythe and Twyla Tharp.
The elusive elixir that sustains a dual-city ballet company, whatever it is, hasn't worked as well here in the Bay Area. The San Jose Cleveland Ballet, founded in 1986 and partnered with the 10-year-old Ohio company that folded in 2000, became Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley, then simply Ballet San Jose, but ceased operations last month after multiple upheavals.
"Once we became Aspen Santa Fe in 2000, everyone was interested," says Mossbrucker. "The name had cache and conjured up the arts, nature, Western beauty, athletes, skiing. It had the ring of things people wanted to see."
Malaty, addressing the company's 2014 addition that brought into the fold the Juan Siddi Flamenco Santa Fe, a sought-after flamenco company, says, "Responding well to opportunity has been intrinsic to Aspen Santa Fe Ballet's history and development. Maintaining a culture of collaboration has been one of our strengths as an organization. It's a privilege to help a fellow dance company reach its potential."
Lest anyone mistakenly think professional dancers and choreographers are the sole beneficiaries, the company also maintains dynamic schools in the two cities with more than 500 students and an outreach program that offers free after-school instruction in Mexican folkloric dance.
Arriving in Livermore with works by Elo, Alejandro Cerrudo and Cayetano Soto, three ballets similar in movement vocabulary but differing in tone from dramatic to hypnotic to fun, respectively, Mossbrucker says a program of all neoclassical, contemporary ballet is just like "Swan Lake." "If you see three acts of 'Swan Lake,' it all looks like 'Swan Lake.' This is the same concept."
Interpreted, Mossbrucker suggests that the onstage "story" is in the human relationships, much as it is the key to ASFB's success. Audiences might look for touch and recognize love; or notice physical prowess and celebrate the tale of well-trained athletes competing and striving to meet their individual and collective goals. Practical people may bask in the idea that these taxpaying citizens contribute to the economy. The rest of us? We'll simply thrill in the fact that ASFB makes the world a more beautiful place in which to live.