The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is a hardy little company. Eleven years old, with an ensemble of 10, it cultivates a school, plays short seasons in two cities, tours a lot, sponsors other companies and organizes a dance festival. Artistic director Tom Mossbrucker and Executive Director Jean-Philippe Malaty must be doing something right. What seemed like a large contingent of enthusiastic supporters from their hometowns followed them to New York for opening night.
It’s difficult to tell from the Joyce how they do in traditional ballets. Only one choreographer, Nicolo Fonte, put the women on pointe, and his choreography makes scant use of the slippers’ possibilities. The dancers’ most endearing trait is their brio, coupled with a serious determination to get everything right. For Jorma Elo, they’re able to disassemble their bodies and jut or ripple various parts simultaneously in several directions. Pointeoff , to Ferruccio Busoni’s florid pianistic adaptations of Bach, is calmer—at least initially—than other works by this in-demand Finnish choreographer. Two men (Sam Chittenden and Luke Willis on opening night) divide their time between two sets of women (Samantha Klanac and Katherine Eberle, Lauren Alzamora and Katie Dehler). Elo organizes the dancers into traveling squads and lines that contain the fierce precision of their movements. The steps are intriguing, but by the time an array of solos and duets has given way to increasingly kinky complexities, I yearn for contrast. George Balanchine was a master at varying density with simple moves, like chains of dancers taking time to create a human knot and then untie it. Elo’s approach is more that of making a fruitcake: each slice should have the same amount of raisins and candied citron.
Fonte, like Elo, sometimes favors body complications reminiscent of William Forsythe’s work, and his It’s not about the Numbers treats Steve Reich’s music (Three Movements for Orchestra and The Four Sections) more as a throbbing propulsive force than a sophisticated rhythmic structure. But, beginning with a trio for Brooke Klinger, Eric Chase, and Willis, Fonte creates some attractive dancing for seven company members (all wearing Christine Joly’s unisex black outfits with very short skirts). The sculpture by James Surls that looms over one side of the stage and lowers toward the end is interesting to ponder (huge metal daisies mingling with pointy, three-dimensional kite shapes), but its significance is a mystery.
The Elo and Fonte ballets bookend the program’s major delight: Twyla Tharp’s rarely performed Sweet Fields, made for Tharp!, the company of young modern dancers she formed in 1996. Set to early American hymns by William Billings, from Shaker communities, and from The Sacred Harp songbook, the piece celebrates a joyous, naive faith. In their white trunks and tops, and loose, transparent white coats by Norma Kamali, the 10 dancers resemble both angels in a folk painting and members of a 19th-century Utopian community frolicking in the pastures of the Lord. Compared with much of Tharp’s work, Sweet Fields is deceptively simple; its unison wheeling, hopping patterns are as open to the breezes as the recorded voices of men and women singing in fervent octaves and open fifths. In Elo’s Pointeoff, the Aspen Santa Fe dancers sometimes lose flow and thrust in transition or preparatory steps; here their spirit literally leads them triumphantly on.
Death holds no fears for this assembly. Men bear one of their group overhead as in a funeral procession, but the one lifted keeps changing, and in a breath-stopping moment, Chase is tossed up, where he spins like a compass needle before dropping into waiting arms. Religious devotion becomes as rugged and unsentimental as a children’s game. These people may stand on Jordan’s stormy banks but they believe that “death itself shall die.”
Tharp is one of the 20th century’s originals, but she often acknowledged her debt to George Balanchine and her artistic friendship with Jerome Robbins. One of the ten programs into which the New York City Ballet has grouped its spring-season repertory is called “Jerome Robbins: An American Icon.” A beautifully groomed simplicity marks the first two ballets, both set to music by Bach. The first, 2 & 3 Part Inventions (here elegantly accompanied by Nancy McDill), was made by Robbins in 1995 for one of the School of American Ballet’s annual workshop performances. The freshness he absorbed from those young dancers still pervades the work. The eight who perform it now (Rebecca Krohn, Tyler Angle, Sterling Hylton, Jonathan Stafford, Tiler Peck, Amar Ramasar, Ana Sophia Scheller, and Seth Orza—six of them recently promoted to soloists) execute their grave courtesies and sunny canonic games with the blend of skill and understatement Robbins loved. Angle vaults into sautés and beats with buoyancy and clear-as-a bell precision, but no show-off manners. Hylton moves through a lovely solo as if she were dreaming it.
A Suite of Dances, to movements from Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello, premiered the year before 2 & 3 Part Inventions. Robbins made it for Mikhail Baryshnikov, and much of the great dancer’s impishness and adventurousness colors the choreography still. But Damian Woetzel performs it with a looseness I’m tempted to call it “American.” He makes performing with virtuosic exactitude look like inspired goofing off. That’s built into the choreography, of course, but Woetzel gives it an illusion of spontaneity. The occasional glances he exchanges with onstage cellist Ann Kim suggest that he’s riffing off her playing or trying to figure out what comes next. The effect is that of a frequently witty creative game between equals, and Woetzel has mastered Robbins’s gift for the little joke that never begs for a laugh.
Robbins’s poignant In Memory Of. . ., a meditation on death and transfiguration is set to Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, written in memory of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler, who died at 18. When Robbins choreographed his ballet in 1985, a number of friends, including Balanchine, had passed away in recent years. In Memory of. . . celebrates a community, not unlike a dance company, through which a woman (the miraculous Wendy Whelan) moves with her lover (Orza, fine in his reticent solicitude). Although he holds her, it’s as if he’s already losing her. The heart of the ballet is her struggle with another, more domineering suitor who represents death (a strong performance by Charles Askegard). Like Death in Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, he comes to her both tenderly and remorselessly, and Whelan beautifully modulates between fear and desire before yielding to his embrace.
In the end, white-clad dancers skein patterns of step-step-piqué arabesque over the stage. A circling of angels. But these are the same people who danced with the heroine earlier, and the kingdom she’s passing through is a more exalted version of home.
The evening ends with I’m Old-Fashioned, Robbins’s tribute to Fred Astaire. Audiences love this ballet, with its prefatory scene of Astaire romancing Rita Hayworth in You Were Never Lovelier. But while Robbins felt he never reached Astaire’s level, he made a sweet, fluent set of variations (Morton Gould using Jerome Kern’s song as a theme) that show off a large ensemble and six leading dancers (Krohn, Jennifer Ringer, Sara Mearns, Tyler Angle, Jared Angle, and Stephen Hanna–all excellent on January 24). Mearns is a revelation—wonderfully pliant and generous in a solo in 3/4 time and a fine duet with Hanna.
Speaking of outstanding dancing at NYCB, I was glad to see a performance of Peter Martins’s abridged Sleeping Beauty in which Ashley Bouder played Princess Aurora and Benjamin Millepied her princely wake-up call. Granted, they had some slightly alarming moments in the final duet’s three repeated dive-lifts, but they both illumine the roles with apparently effortless strength and clarity. Bouder captures both Aurora’s “I’m 16 today!” enthusiasm in the first act and the regal graciousness she must display to her suitors during the Rose Adagio’s difficult balances. Millepied partners her ardently; after 100 years asleep, Aurora finally grows up into love.