Founded in 1996 in the upscale mountain town of Aspen, Colorado, and expanded to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2000, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet (ASFB) is a company for a new era. A typical American ballet company features scores of principal, soloist, and corps de ballet dancers based in a single metropolitan area: a model that’s proving unsustainable in today’s arts climate. By contrast, ASFB boasts just 11 professional dancers and enjoys the revenue from two home cities. The company also runs ballet schools, offers free folkloric dance classes, and acts as a presenter, bringing a range of dance groups to perform in each community. And unlike some contemporary ballet companies that focus on adding established pieces to their repertory, ASFB goes for new work — in just 16 years, it’s commissioned no less than 25 original ballets.
Next Tuesday, the forward-thinking company visits Santa Barbara for the first time, bringing with it an unusual mixed bill including works by contemporary ballet great Jiří Kylián and newcomer Norbert De La Cruz III.
It’s in keeping with their quest for the new and the innovative that ASFB’s directors are always on the lookout for new talent. Each year, they travel to New York on a scouting mission. Top among their stop-offs is the Juilliard School, the training ground for some of the country’s most promising young dancers. On a recent Juilliard visit, ASFB artistic director Tom Mossbrucker and executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty were struck not just by the dancing, but by the choreography of a particularly gifted student.
In an industry where performers often work for directors and choreographers of their parents’ generation, the choice to commission work from an artist fresh out of college is an anomaly. Now 23, De La Cruz is the youngest choreographer ASFB has ever worked with. Taking his work on tour is something of a risk for the company but one Mossbrucker says is in keeping with their commitment to fostering emerging talent. Either way, he explained over the phone from the company’s Colorado base, De La Cruz was too good to pass up.
“When you see lots and lots of choreography, you’re not often surprised by the structure or composition,” he said, “but we were really surprised by the craft of his work, the way he put things together. It seemed to be instinctive for him.”
The work ASFB commissioned, “Square None,” is a work for six dancers set to an eclectic mix of musical sources ranging from George Frideric Handel to Aphex Twin. It also features costumes designed by Austin Scarlett of Project Runway fame.
“Square None” will open the program, which also includes Czech-born choreographer Jirí Kylián’s 1983 classic “Stamping Ground,” a work that takes its inspiration from the aboriginal tribes of Australia. Finnish artist Jorma Elo’s 2011 work “Over Glow,” created for ASFB, completes the bill. Mossbrucker acknowledges that many of contemporary ballet’s defining artists hail from Europe rather than the United States. “The Kylián and the [William] Forsythe years in Europe spawned a lot of creativity,” he explained. “Here in the States, you don’t have a lot of time to create; you have one day on the stage, and then it’s over. In Europe in the ’80s and ’90s, they really invested time and money in the creative process.”
It may be impossible to replicate that golden age of contemporary ballet, but ASFB is doing what it can to give choreographers the time and space to generate new work.
“It’s a very safe, soothing place to create,” Mossbrucker said of Aspen, where the dancers are based and where new work is incubated. “The artists who come here appreciate not having to worry about the hectic hustle and bustle of the big city. We try to make it a haven for them.”
Once ASFB has established a successful relationship with an artist, Mossbrucker likes to invite them back — Elo, for example, has created four new works for ASFB. “They get to know the dancers, and they come back a second time with a different mindset,” Mossbrucker noted. “We’ve really been successful with this approach.”
With two home bases, a commitment to community outreach and presenting, and a track record of fostering close ties with emerging artists, ASFB may well be a model for where American contemporary ballet is going. As for De La Cruz’s trajectory, it looks like blue skies ahead.
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet will perform at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.) on Tuesday, October 2, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu for tickets and info. The company will also teach a free community dance class at Gustafson School of Dance on Monday, October 1, at 5:30 p.m. Call (805) 966-6950 for info.