Running a ballet company based in Aspen, Colorado, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, may sound glamorous, but for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Executive Director Jean-Philippe Malaty and his onstage and offstage partner of 25 years, Artistic Director Tom Mossbrucker, having a getaway place in Palm Springs is key.
“I love the heat in Palm Springs,” says Malaty, a French-born former dancer. “There’s something about the vibe in Palm Springs that connects for us. The aesthetic of many of our dances is like the midcentury architecture — stripped-down, clean, with horizontal lines.”
Malaty and Mossbrucker have run ASFB since its founding by Bebe Schweppe in 1996, molding a unique dual-city enterprise that has earned a reputation for its cutting-edge repertoire. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet stands out from other regional American ballet companies by operating with a relatively small group of superb dancers (11 currently) and by commissioning original ballets. A stable of regular ASFB choreographers, many from Europe, has given the company repertoire unique flavor.
“The program coming to the McCallum features ballets you won’t see from any any other dance company in the world,” says Mossbrucker, who was the Joffrey’s star principal in the ’70s and ’80s. Malaty, who also danced with the Joffrey, turned his talents to the administrative side when he was in his 20s.
Craig Black and Emily Proctor in Alejandro Cerrudo’s Silent Ghost.
In January, after Malaty and Mossbrucker spent a quick, post-Nutcracker vacation at their getaway pad in Movie Colony East, they were back in Colorado to begin rehearsals on a new dance. Cherice Barton, an L.A.-based choreographer who brings classical ballet training and a successful career as a commercial choreographer into the mix, was creating a new work. Barton created dances for Katy Perry’s appearance at the 2015 Grammy Awards, for the Broadway show Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, and the aquatic Cirque spectacular La Rêve at the Wynn Las Vegas. Mossbrucker explains this new piece, perhaps a tonic for these dark times, was inspired by happiness.
The dances ASFB is bringing to the McCallum March 7 are, like the Barton piece, all up-to-the-minute, post-Balanchine ballets. ASFB has performed at the McCallum Theatre three times and at the Annenberg Theater twice. Bill Witte, who was programming director at the Annenberg from 1996 to 2004, saw something he liked in the group early on and booked the dancers in 2001 before they had developed a national reputation. This year, in a possible snow-avoidance maneuver, the company’s winter tour has them performing in Miami, Northridge, Irvine, Scottsdale, and Houston. In the spring, they’ll travel to the East Coast for weeklong engagements at the Joyce Theater in New York and the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia.
Emily Proctor in Cayetano Soto’s Huma Rojo.
ASFB will also perform pieces by Jorma Elo, Alejandro Cerrudo, and Cayetano Soto at the McCallum. Elo, resident choreographer for the Boston Ballet, is Finnish but studied at the Kirov School in St. Petersburg, Russia, and performed with major ballet companies in Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands. 1st Flash, developed in 2003 at Nederlands Dans Theater while he was still dancing, is Elo’s take on the Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47 by Jean Sibelius. Fast paced, with wildly idiosyncratic movements and a thrilling physicality, 1st Flash offers the shock value of a strobe illuminating orchestral music, but brings the focus to the strengths of the ASFB dancers.
Silent Ghost, a commissioned work created for the company by Alejandro Cerrudo in 2015, includes music by Dustin Hamman, King Creosote & John Hopkins, Ólafur Arnalds, and Nils Frahm. Cerrudo was born in Spain, danced with the Stuttgart Ballet, and is currently resident choreographer of Hubbard Street Dance Company in Chicago. Silent Ghost is his second piece for ASFB. This 10-person piece contains some dynamic male dancing in group sections divided by gender. Much of the piece strikes an elegiac tone. Two bookending duets make up the heart of the dance. They tell a bittersweet story of relationships. “I am continually amazed at the unexpected reactions people have to this piece,” Mossbrucker says, “They often cry.”
Cayetano Soto’s Huma Rojo is the company’s newest commission and is a departure for the choreographer, who has created three much darker dances for the company. His new piece is like a spoof on Zumba, or a scene in a movie by Pedro Almodóvar. The music — by Ray Barretto, Nat King Cole, Cugat and His Orchestra, Abbe Lane, Pérez Prado, and others — creates a feeling of frenzy as lines of red-clad dancers go completely camp. “I think it’s a cool, hip piece,” says Malaty. “It’s a happy closer and audiences love the Latin music.”
Pete Leo Walker and Katherine Boloanos in Huma Rojo.
Dancers in the company include a 13-year veteran, a handful of Juilliard graduates, and others who joined ASFB after residencies with North Carolina Dance Theatre, Joffrey Ballet, and Dance Theatre of Harlem. Behind the scenes, Malaty and Mossbrucker foster a tight-knit, family-style operation. Relationships among dancers have flourished and failed over the years, as such close quarters inevitably evolve. Current dancers Seia Rassenti and Joseph Watson are newlyweds, Pete Leo Walker and Anna Gerberich are reunited after dancing in separate cities, and Emily Proctor and Craig Black were both recently married to dancers in other companies — their spouses are invited to join ASFB’s morning class whenever they’re in town.
Seia Rassenti Watson and Anthony Tiedeman in Silent Ghost.
While touring is a financial necessity for a company based in two relatively small, affluent communities, ASFB thrives on the road. They travel light — without any trucks, musicians, or sets. Having this kind of nimble presence on the circuit has led to repeat engagements, which in turn has created a network of fans in cities across the country. On tour, lighting designer Seah Johnson travels with the dancers. Her visual contribution is major, as much a part of the company’s identity as any of the dances. She creates arresting imagery night after night, city after city, with whatever lighting instruments are available. International travel has also become routine for the dancers. Last year they danced at the historic Venice theater, Teatro Malibran (one of two theaters owned by La Fenice) and before that have performed in countries such as Brazil, Guatemala, Israel, Canada, and Russia.
Perhaps because of the frequent travel, Mossbrucker and Malaty look forward to hunkering down in their Palm Springs home during breaks in the company’s long touring schedule. They love hiking and the desert landscape. A recent afternoon had them spending hours inspired by the architecture at Sunnylands, the former Annenberg estate. And then there is the sun. “The other day we were walking around in our shirt sleeves, shopping, and enjoying the weather,” Malaty says, still marveling at the midwinter reprieve. “A few hours and two flights later, we landed in Aspen during a blizzard. When we got home, there was four feet of snow waiting for us in the driveway.”