Aspen Sante Fe Ballet came to Park City last weekend, and were well-received by a stylish audience. It was my first visit to the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, which is a large, beautiful theater attached to a public high school. I have never seen arts programs so well-endowed in the public sector. Keep up the good work, Utah!
It was clear that this renowned company had been to Park City before, as the Park City Performing Arts Foundation gave them a warm and familiar welcome. A smallish, spunky group hailing from the Intermountain West, they bely their regional roots with world-class ambition and professionalism.
The first piece of the evening, "Over Glow," was commissioned from Finnish-born Jorma Elo, Resident Choreographer of Boston Ballet. As the dulcet strings of Mendelssohn filled the air, curtains parted to reveal a muscular male dancer, shirtless, in what appeared to be skin-tight denim pants. A plethora of quirky ballet-inspired steps followed, as other men and women took the stage, in denim and taffeta day-glo tennis dresses, respectively. Although the onslaught of technical prowess lost its appeal gradually, I never stopped marveling at the cool confidence of the women. One looked so much like Courtney Cox, another reminded me of Charlize Theron. It could have ended after that first section, and I would have believed that this is all the glamorous panache that Aspen could want in a ballet company.
It did not end after the first section, and to my surprise, I grew to love these quirky characters, and their subtly sweet duets with the butt-hugging denims. So much so that when one of them died, and her denim-man mourned her with such unglamorous, anti-panache, I was indescribably sad. His bare arms were like useless things, shaking and quaking in their confusion, when they did not have the job of holding her. He tried to drag her from the stage, and when it did not work, he stood next to her in his ignoble grief, like an animal mother over the lifeless body of a cub. Not understanding, not calling out, not transcending his grief—he simply stood. I thought it could have ended there, and I would have believed that this incredible turn of events signaled a brave departure from the typical narrative arc.
It did not end, but continued, and more movement followed. The story was absorbed back into compositionally-based ensemble dancing, and when the two lovers found each other again at the very end, I didn’t know what to think anymore. I guess it was perfect for the audience that wants pure-dance, a heart-breaking love story, and then pure-dance again.
This piece was followed by "Stamping Ground," the Aborigine-inspired Jiri Kylian classic. The piece, the dancers, and the set were all beautiful. The structure relies on sinewy and percussive solos and duets. Lines are stretched and distorted, pelvises are thrusted, dancers are forever eyeballing us with the curious stares of roadside wildlife. If you think we are odd, they seem to say, then why are you watching? The rippling, metallic curtains at the back of the stage allow for sudden and surprising entrances and exits; At one point, two collapsed dancers are pulled by invisible hands, sliding through the curtains as though disappearing into the next life. It seems that the boundary between worlds is both permeable and mysterious, and the dancers play with that tension, passing with ease to where we would fear to go.
Ultimately, Kylian’s piece is haunted by the racial overtones of a project that he documented in the film Road to the Stamping Ground. In the film, he describes his creative process in culturally-sensitive terms, taking care to impart that his piece, which takes inspiration from the movement observed in an Australian Aboriginal community gathering, is not cultural appropriation because he does not copy the specific dance movements of the Aborigines. He simply uses their ideas, which he admits are “surprisingly sophisticated” choreographically, to inspire a movement language all of his own. It is “his take” on their culture. I maintain the position that, in exchange, the community that welcomed him into their midst should also be allowed to comment choreographically on Western European culture. Perhaps a two week visit to a ballet camp in the Netherlands would suffice, and then they could present a work of choreography that is inspired by Europe. This seems ridiculous, but it would mirror Kylian’s intentions. I think that it could generate some interesting revelations and discussion, if undertaken sincerely.
Although this choice in repertory brought some heat to my mind, it was a welcome controversy. Certainly it sparked a lively dialogue post-show, whereas the final piece, the relatively lackluster "Where we left off" did not. In the interest of closing this already-lengthy review, I will simply conclude with my current mantra: See dance, talk about it! Be nice when you can and honest all the time! I hope you make it to a dance concert soon, and when you do, I will see you there.
Kitty Sailer is pretty much done with her MFA (thank goodness). Before living in SLC she went to Vassar and danced/made dances in Montana.