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Aspen Santa Fe Ballet wows Wolf Trap crowd despite missteps of two pieces

Members of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet perform "Last." (Andrew Propp/ANDREW PROPP/WOLF TRAP)
Dance critic

Wolf Trap is presenting only one evening of concert dance this summer (not counting “Ballroom With a Twist’s” raft of reality-TV entertainers), so it had to pick carefully.

Judging from Tuesday’s turnout and enthusiastic audience response, Wolf Trap’s choice to give its dance slot to the tiny Aspen Santa Fe Ballet was brilliantly calculated. This troupe of 11 dynamos specializes in new works from athletic-leaning, energetic choreographers such as Jorma Elo, Nicolo Fonte and Edwaard Liang, who are skilled in drawing whoops and hollers of appreciation. Perhaps they’ve learned a thing or two from reality TV — such as never underestimate the power of the crotch. When in doubt, crank the legs out.

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, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

This was the go-to philosophy in two of the three works performed at the Filene Center: “Fold by Fold” by Norbert De La Cruz III and “Last” by Alejandro Cerrudo. The world premiere of “Fold by Fold,” commissioned by Wolf Trap, was especially welcomed. The work also featured an interesting commissioned score by Michael Gilbertson (like De La Cruz, a former Juilliard student. The Philippines-born De La Cruz is a relative newcomer to choreography; what would he have to offer?

A fair amount, at least initially. “Fold by Fold” got off to a strong start with its eight dancers aligned in crisp, geometric formations, shifting positions in cascading sequences with the precision of the Rockettes. The steampunk costumes by Marion Talan added to the sense of elegance with a hint of menace: stylized frock coats framing pectoral cleavage for the men, hot-pants jumpsuits for the women. Lots of black.

But after the motif of sharp moves in successive arrangements had run its course, the dancing slid into the familiar territory of so many other contemporary works in circulation among the smaller regional ballet companies. The choreography was interchangeable with what I’ve seen of Liang’s, Fonte’s or even Cerrudo’s work. His “Last,” made for this company last year, followed “Fold” to its detriment, because it was so similar. (Only lit a little darker. Dark lighting is another virus spreading fast through contemporary ballet.)

Members of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet perform "Like a Samba." (Andrew Propp/ANDREW PROPP/WOLF TRAP)

The emphasis in “Fold” and “Last,” as in so many other works, is on big, angular shapes — choreography written with a Sharpie pen — performed with world-weary detachment. The most eye-catching moves are frozen for a few beats, so we’re sure to notice them. The women are vacant-eyed and emotionally empty. The men want to be helpful in their way, but human connections are invariably thin. This seems to be the point, over and over.

De La Cruz and Cerrudo both have great promise. The question is, will they continue to play to expectations — and remain indistinguishable from the field — or can they find their own expression?

They can look to Trey McIntyre, whose style is grounded in a warm, humanizing physical grace and wit. His “Like a Samba” (from 1997), which ended the evening, felt like a classic next to the other two. He let Astrud Gilberto’s dusky vintage vocals fill in the atmosphere; the dancers responded with understated suggestions of Brazilian moves, a squiggle here, a jiggle there. Solid craftsmanship and sharp comic timing: more difficult than you’d think, though McIntyre makes it look easy.



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