Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Goodness, no! And certainly not with the chimes of the new year, even a new decade, still lingering in our ears. The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s appearance at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater on Thursday marks the company’s fourth visit to the Valley Isle, after an absence of five years.
Do you identify ballet with the aristocratic, pedigreed troupes of Paris, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, London and New York, their populous rosters stratified into stars (principals), lesser lights (soloists) and the glamorous rank and file (corps de ballet)? Do you regard those companies’ baked-in reverence for pomp and ceremony as the soul of the art form?
Then brace for a SWAT team of just 10 performers.
“We don’t hire dancers; we hire people,” ASFB’s co-founder and executive director, Jean-Philippe Malaty, said recently from Colorado. “Hopefully, they can dance and are great. We want to see what they have to say as artists. Choreographers always allow for that. We have a company aesthetic, but you will see very different personalities and sense of expression.”
New recruit or veteran of 20 years, all are equal in status, now perhaps taking the lead, now perhaps taking the lead from someone else.
If you’re envisioning ballerinas in stiff white tutus, twirling on point, that too would be off the mark. While some ballets in the company’s repertory do incorporate toe-dancing, the three on the current tour program do not. That said, the foundation upon which ballet was built, beginning with the five textbook positions, is never in question.
“All our dancers are classically trained,” Malaty continued. “They take a classical class every morning. You see the discipline in every dancer’s line and body. Our company does embrace a fusion of styles, but everything we do is rooted in classical ballet.”
To exaggerate a valid distinction, ballet is dance in quest of extension, of elevation, dance that wants to take to the air — as contrasted with modern dance, which releases energy from contraction and prizes the connection to the earth, which is why it is performed barefoot.
Now in its 24th season, ASFB is reportedly unique among ballet companies in that it is based in two cities, with schools in both. Yet in size and structure it closely resembles iconic modern-dance troupes. Yet here another distinction is in order.
Historically, modern-dance companies have mostly functioned as showcases for the choreography of founders like Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor. Malaty and Tom Mossbrucker, co-founder with Malaty of ASFB and the company’s artistic director, envisioned from the outset an ensemble that would be an instrument for an international cadre of contrasting and exciting creative talents.
“The only ballet Tom and I choreographed ourselves is our very traditional Christmas ‘Nutcracker,’ for which we bring in an extra two dozen dancers or so,” Malaty noted. “We met as dancers in the Joffrey Ballet and between us had done ‘The Nutcracker’ thousands of times. Besides, we knew our company better than anyone else. So, it only made sense.”
Occasionally, the company acquires a pre-existing ballet, but for the most part, the repertory consists of custom-made pieces.
“We’ve developed great partnerships and solid relationships,” Malaty said. “When the fit is right, we like to invite choreographers back to create new work on our dancers. Ongoing collaboration deepens the relationship and makes a finer product.”
The program for Maui mirrors this philosophy. “Where We Left Off” (2011), to music of Philip Glass, is by the New Yorker Nicolo Fonte, who has made 10 dances for the company. “Silent Ghost” (2015), with a score stitched together from many sources, is the company’s fourth piece from Alejandro Cerrudo, a native of Madrid.
The final entry, “1st Flash” (2003), one of ASFB’s eight repertory pieces by Jorma Elo of Helsinki, is set to the 40-minute Violin Concerto of Elo’s fellow Finn Jean Sibelius.
Conjuring up haunted, sometimes bleak wide-open landscapes, the score builds to a controlled tornado one early champion called “a polonaise” — the polonaise being a ballroom dance dear to the heart of Frederic Chopin — but “a polonaise for polar bears.”
Yes, or maybe grizzlies. Unlike the other pieces on the program, which both call for the company’s full complement of 10 dancers, “1st Flash” features just six, who will have their work cut out for them.