Zachary Lewis, The Plain Dealer | September 30, 2014
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet takes inspiration from former Cleveland San Jose Ballet
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Cleveland isn't just another city to Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. It's the place that inspired its founders.
Were it not for the experience and advice of the former Cleveland San Jose Ballet, in fact, the trailblazing troupe kicking off the DanceCleveland season Sunday might not even exist.
"I'm grateful we had people paving the way for us," said Jean-Philippe Malaty, the company's executive director. "The example of Cleveland Ballet gave us courage. Now it's integral to who we are."
Indeed, ASF didn't invent the concept of a two-city company. Long before Malaty and partner Tom Mossbrucker founded their company in Aspen in 1996, the Joffrey Ballet and Cleveland's former jewel were operating in two far-flung locales.
Neither did they set out to become the longest enduring. No, their original aim was not to demonstrate the benefits and potential of long-distance collaboration but rather to showcase cutting-edge choreography from Europe.
And yet here they are, in 2014, still standing as an national case study.
"I think we're getting the record," Malaty said. "We've had to be creative and find a way to sustain ourselves. We have a sense of permanence."
Much of that success Malaty attributes to Dennis Nahat, Cleveland's former artistic director. On an early trip to Cleveland to meet with the company, he said Nahat was "generous" with tips that proved invaluable.
First, Malaty said, Nahat told him to choose locations with similar tastes in dance, and whose profiles nationally are comparable. Otherwise one will come to feel like a "stepchild," Malaty said. Hence the partnership with Santa Fe, a fellow city small in size but mighty in terms of culture.
No less pivotal: choose cities within driving distance of each other, to keep down costs. "That made a big difference," Malaty explained, "especially in the early years. We didn't have to incur big expenses."
When it came to choreography, of course, Malaty and crew needed no advice. That they were already doing and continue to do exactly right, by showcasing work by some of biggest names in contemporary ballet.
Their program here, itself a co-presentation with the University of Akron, is a case in point. On tap are works by three high-level choreographers, whose work is rooted in classical ballet but also pushes the art in new directions.
"Over Glow," by Jorma Elo, is a 2011 setting of Mendelssohn and Beethoven, and Jiri Kylian's "Return to a Strange Land" is founded on Janacek. Norbert De La Cruz III, meanwhile, goes in several directions in his 2012 "Square None," taking off from music by such diverse composers as Handel, Sakamoto and Aphex Twin.
In the beginning, ASF was something of an experiment, a quest whose outcome was uncertain. Now it's something of a legend, a source of inspiration rather than a group in need of it.
"It's definitely high maintenance, and I'm not sure what we've done could be duplicated," Malaty said. "But we know we're actually going to be around for more than the next season."