It’s hard to imagine an Aspen Santa Fe Ballet performance without Katie Dehler in it.
Her on-stage magnetism, athleticism and expressive movement have helped define the company and made Dehler a muse to many a choreographer.
In her 13 years in the company, 20 ballets have been created based around her, according to Aspen Santa Fe Executive Director Jean-Philippe Malaty.
“She’s really embodied what an Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dancer is,” says Malaty.
Dehler is retiring at the end of this summer’s season, and gives her final local performance on Saturday night. For her farewell program, Aspen Santa Fe has chosen three signature works that showcase Dehler: Jorma Elo’s “Over Glow,” Nicolo Fonte’s “Where We Left Off” and Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Last.”
While Dehler’s prominent presence in Aspen Santa Fe shows now seems like a given, it began as a surprise.
Born and raised in Minnesota, Dehler danced at the University of Utah, and moved here with boyfriend Sam Chittenden, after graduation in the summer of 1999. He’d been hired as a dancer in the company, and she came to Aspen to be with him.
She worked briefly as a waitress in town, then was hired to work in the ballet office. She took classes with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet for exercise, filled in as an extra for 1999’s production of “The Nutcracker” but was not pursuing a career in dance.
The trajectory of Dehler’s life changed unexpectedly, when famed Brooklyn-based choreographer Nicolo Fonte came to town to create a new work — “Everyday Incarnation” — for the summer 2000 season and saw Dehler in the studio.
“He said, ‘I want that girl,’” recalls Malaty. “And we said, ‘Well, she really just works in the office. But OK.’”
After Fonte took a chance on Dehler and used her as a lead dancer for “Everyday Incarnation,” Malaty and artistic director Tom Mossbrucker saw her potential and hired her for the company. She soon became a stand-out performer, earning a reputation as an intuitive dancer and hard worker in the studio. She’d been trained in classical ballet, but her work came alive in the modern creations of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. Without Fonte, those talents may have gone undiscovered.
“I joke that I must have done something really great for him in another life,” says Dehler. “Because in this life he helped me, he engaged me, he gave me opportunity, and he showed that I could dance with the company.”
Aspen Santa Fe has commissioned Fonte to create six original works for the company since then, including Dehler as his muse. “Where We Left Off,” his piece in Saturday’s program, was their last collaboration. Dehler said Fonte’s continued belief in her was instrumental in her artistic development.
“He definitely inspired me from the beginning to become the artist and dancer that I am today,” she says.
The company commissions new work from an ever-evolving stable of international choreographers. Their presenting style, like this weekend’s performance, normally includes three separate works by three different choreographers. The method demands a rare versatility from the company dancers.
“It’s one of the challenging things and also one of the great things about this company,” she says. “Every choreographer has their own style and way of working and you can’t always just do them how you want.”
For example, she recalled that when working with Elo on “Over Glow,” the Finnish choreographer would give the dancers prompts that had nothing to do with steps or movement — memories of his grandmother from childhood and moods from different periods of his life, for example. The style helped the dancers to internalize his compositions and add depth to their performance. Such deeply felt expression has been a signature of Dehler’s work.
“Even if it has nothing to do with what’s on stage, the audience sees it,” she says. “That’s something beyond choreography.”
Asked about highlights of her career, Dehler points to a tour performance on the outdoor stage of Virginia’s Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts and one on a hole-pocked stage in Italy that doubled as a fish market. She’s been keeping a journal over the last year. She says the memories that have stood out — and that she’ll miss most — are quiet and silly moments backstage with her fellow dancers.
“I will miss hanging out with my friends all day, because that’s basically what I get to do now,” she says. “It’s obviously very hard, and it’s challenging physically and you want to be better than you are most of the time. But we get to hang out all day together. I’ll miss my friends.”
Dehler is the last of three long-time company members to retire over the last year. Seth Delgrasso, the last of the founding dancers with the company since 1996, retired at the end of last summer. Chittenden retired last winter, though Aspen Santa Fe is bringing him back to duet with Dehler during her farewell.
While that trio helped define the company’s modern style and athleticism, and set the bar for the upstart company, the new dancers are aiming to carry on the standard they set. Dehler says it’s a testament to Aspen Santa Fe that dancers have chosen to stick around.
“There are a lot of companies where people don’t want to stay for their whole careers,” she says. “Here they do.”
Dehler will tour with the company this fall, with a final performance in Chicago. After that, she and Chittenden are settling in Carbondale, where they recently purchased a home. From there, she’s waiting for the next surprise.
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet
Saturday, Aug. 24
Aspen District Theatre • 8 p.m.