Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, leaving ballet behind


Dancers of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in Jorma Elo's ‘Over Glow.’ (Rosalie O'Connor/Rosalie O'Connor)

The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet has good, wholesome fun written all over it, dividing its time between towns known for natural beauty, mountains and money. But watching the troupe’s program at Wolf Trap on Tuesday night, I wondered: Is it also known for ballet?

The evening could stand as a snapshot of where ballet — I’m tempted to put the word in quotes — exists for so many of the nation’s smaller regional troupes. With just 10 dancers, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is too small for much of the classical repertoire or even newer neoclassical works.

Still, better choices could have been made than the three short pieces performed on the Filene Center stage, each one so similar to the others as to have come off the same production line.

They were: Jiri Kylian’s “Stamping Ground,” a stripped-down riff on the tribal dancing of Australian aborigines; “Where We Left Off,” Nicolo Fonte’s pleasingly fluid take on Philip Glass’s pleasingly fluid music (just about every contemporary choreographer has a piece like this, it seems); and Jorma Elo’s “Over Glow,” whose oddities and quirky-jerkiness resembled just about every other Elo work I’ve seen. This last was a world premiere, commissioned by Wolf Trap.

Ballet steps made only fleeting appearances; none of the pieces used pointe work. Much was made of the flexibility and lithe slipperiness of the dancers. But not one of the choreographers had much regard for the brilliant undergirding — the classical technique — that made possible the wow factor on which their efforts depended.

“Stamping Ground,” from 1983, was the granddaddy of the bunch, a work whose modern design and silent meditation on the animal within was surely striking at the time of its premiere. The backdrop looks like a metallic shower curtain sent through a shredder, and the six dancers wear nothing but black bathing suits. There is a series of slow solos, in which a dancer may slap his abs or thump the floor; in the ensemble section, with its clanging drumbeats, the dancers climb atop one another. One clever effect: A woman dangles between the upraised arms of two men and swings like a metronome. There are more tricks like this; it could be an earthbound Cirque du Soleil.

Elo’s “Over Glow” made an emphatic statement that little has changed in the nearly 30 years since “Stamping Ground” was created. Music by Beethoven and Mendelssohn was used ironically, although there were flashes of a basic sense of musicality and visual balance. Like “Stamping Ground,” this piece featured six dancers, shirtless men, body-slapping, tricky balancing acts, a hidden language of gestures.

I’m not suggesting the choreographer copied Kylian — these have become standard ingredients of a certain brand of contemporary dance. Add the Kylian and Elo to Fonte’s pretty but unremarkable “Where We Left Off,” created this year, and you have what I believe is a chief reason the evening was so lightly attended. In some segments of the ballet world, there just isn’t much to see.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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