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Flash Review 2, 3-26: No Stars, All Bright
Aspen Santa Fe: Overwhelming Ballet

By Corinne Imberski
Copyright 2004 Corinne Imberski

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SANTA FE --- On the first day I arrived in Santa Fe, while walking aimlessly (or lost) through downtown, I came across the wonderfully restored Lensic Theater. An advertisement for a performance by the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet caught my eye, and since I was excited to find signs of dance within the first couple of hours of moving to this city, I promptly bought a ticket. Saturday's performance by the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet did not disappoint. The eleven dancers of ASFB danced so confidently and expressively that it seems hard to believe that the company is only in its eighth season. The "no star, all-star" policy that directors Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philipe Malaty insist upon for the company has served them well -- it did not create a bland homogeneity, but rather a company of vibrant synergy whose members work amazingly well together.

The first dance of the evening, "Life Forms," was an ASFB-commissioned piece by Italian choreographer Jacopo Godani and danced to the relentlessly steady beating of Diego Dall'Osto's score. Hints of Godani's long association with William Forsythe were evident in the piece. Torso undulations and spirals, displays of extreme flexibility, and a mixture of classical ballet and post-modern vocabularies comprised the base elements of Godani's work. It was a dance of extremes. Moments of simply, quietly holding a partner's head were followed by daring throws and lifts that involved complicated interweavings of limbs and rapid successions of falling and rising. Both types of moments were equally arresting; the former showed a deep sensitivity and connection between the dancers, while the latter demonstrated a fearlessness and complete faith in partnering that I have not witnessed onstage in a very long time. Godani's choreography played with the contrast of sculptural movement and poses (the strong side lighting designed by the choreographer heightened the dramatic shaping of the dancers' bodies) and movement so supple and organic that one could almost see the rippling of energy radiating within and then out of the dancers. One of my favorite moments that illustrated this contrast came when a low, swayed-back crouch was immediately followed by a very "balletic" attitude position on releve. There was no discernible transition between the two movements, and I marveled at how perfectly this odd combination fit together, and at the agility of the dancers to make it appear so natural. "Life Forms" showcased the strong versatility and range of the ASFB dancers and made me anxious to see more of Godani's work.

The next piece of the evening, Dwight Rhoden's "Ave Maria," I had previously seen and reviewed for the DI, in a performance by Complexions. Unfortunately, my opinion of the piece did not improve with this performance. This was absolutely not the fault of the dancers, Brooke Klinger and Seth Del Grasso (as it had not been the fault of the Complexions dancers), but rather a function of Rhoden's choreography. Watching the piece a second time, I was again struck by the frantic nature of this "love" duet. It felt as if Rhoden tried to fit in everything he ever wanted to express about love in one relatively short duet. The effect was an overwhelming of the eye that the brain and heart could not keep up with. One day later, I could not recall a single moment, movement, or gesture. "Ave Maria" struck me as more artifice than art. It was the "love" created by reality television instead of a love grounded in a deep physical/mental/emotional longing.

The Santa Fe premiere of Thierry Malandain's "L'Apres-midi D'un Faune," a solo for the charming Sam Chittenden to the Debussy score, was perhaps the most potentially controversial dance of the evening. I personally found the forays of the sexually awakening faun to be more on the side of whimsical and slightly provocative (think Calvin Klein underwear ad) than offensive. In fact, I find the original Nijinsky version of "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune" to be much more daring than Malandain's version. Even though Malandain retained some images from Nijinsky's choreography (cloven hand/forced arch gesture in profile, sexual writhing with the scarf/tissue, parallel walks in profile with high knees and flexed feet, etc.), I found this contemporary version to be less "contemporary" in that it used a greater amount of turn out, classical ballet vocabulary, and greater use of frontal orientation than Nijinsky's version. Malandain's "Faune" had an updated set that consisted of two large balls of tissue (almost tutu-like) and a huge white box that resembled both a tissue box and a part of the female anatomy. I was not offended by this representation or by any of the movement because I found the self-absorption of Chittenden's faun to be very innocent. It was as if he just stumbled across his first Playboy and was amazed (and delighted) by what he found inside. Chittenden was absolutely mesmerizing in this solo role. His faun was a mixture of awkwardness and sublime grace. He also seemed to incorporate other animal qualities: a curious monkey when he investigated the new objects around him, a feisty bird that hopped and leapt in spurts around the stage, and an eager puppy ready to dive into the water (or the box as it were -- e dove in head first at the end of this piece). If anything, I wish that Malandain had been more daring and scandalous in his choreography. Is there really nothing that would surprise a ballet audience anymore?

The evening's last offering was Septime Webre's "Fluctuating Hemlines." The piece started with a series of repeating gestures performed by two separate groups of women and men. The women, in rainbow-colored, silk mini-dresses and bobbed wigs, applied lipstick, primped their hair, straightened their dresses, and feigned over-exaggerated laughs. The men, in business suits of various combinations of brown, gray, and black, slicked back their hair, checked their watches, and brushed the shoulders of their jackets. The dancers exited and re-entered with a stripped down appearance -- barely there, short, white unitards, the women with their long hair loose. The rest of the dance consisted primarily of fast-paced movement propelled by Robert "Tigger" Benford's percussive score. While the movement was not particularly remarkable or innovative, it did have a wonderful dynamic quality to it that the dancers clearly seemed to enjoy and derive energy from. Dancers in the stripped down costumes appeared to interact with those in unitards; why wasn't exactly clear, and even seemed arbitrary at times. Numerous entrances, exits, large leaps, and multiple pirouettes created a snowballing momentum that culminated in a clutching hug between a man in a white unitard and a woman in her original dress and wig. It was a fitting ending to the piece and the evening -- the conviction, unity, and abilities of the ASFB dancers was almost overwhelming.

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