ASFB opens its studios as it prepares for winter season

by Damien Williamson, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

As the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet began preparations for its upcoming winter season, Executive Director Jean-Philippe Malaty and Artistic Director Tom Mossbrucker decided to do something a little different.

The troupe’s rehearsals, normally closed to the public, were opened to a few dozen patrons, ASFB ballet students, and media last week, offering an up-close-and-personal view of the fluid movement and seemingly effortless strength of a company known equally well for its classical technique as for its contemporary innovation.                

And though the Aspen season doesn’t officially kick off until the Dec. 5 and 6 performances of, perhaps, the single most popular ballet of all time — Tchaikovsky’s fanciful two-act, three-scene “The Nutcracker” — last Friday’s behind-the-scenes look at the company offered a preview of a new piece set to be performed Feb. 12 and 13. The group performed an as-yet-untitled work by ASFB returning choreographer Helen Pickett, slated to hit the stage this winter at the District Theatre as well as next summer on the Benedict Music Tent stage accompanied by students from the Aspen Music Festival and School. To add to the one-time event, “Project Runway” season one finalist Austin Scarlett was on hand to discuss the costume designs he was commissioned to craft for the new ballet.                

“I knew I wanted something heavier, sumptuous and sensual,” Pickett said, contrasting the new piece with “Petal,” the ballet she created two years ago for ASFB. “But not just sensual in terms of sexual, but instead sensual as in ‘of the senses.’”                

Toward that end, Pickett started her artistic process not with movement, but with music.                

“I always start with the music,” she said. “And for this piece, which was very inspired by film noir, I already had Rachmaninov in mind.”                

The Russian pianist, composer and conductor is best known for his
brutal gestures and powerful expression on the piano, instantly lending the 20-minute piece a ominous tone. But the fluidity and athleticism of the dancers — just 11 days into practicing the piece — provided a roundness to the performance that juxtaposed quite nicely with the much moodier music.

 Heather Rousseau/Aspen Daily News
Samantha Klanac dancing an untitled piece by Helen Pickett.

“I love physicality,” Pickett said, “and I especially love examining the movement and rotation of a single limb or even a single muscle. The body is one of the greatest palettes an artist can have.”        

It was a point with which Scarlett, who has spent most of his time since “Project Runway” working at a fashion house designing Oscar de la Renta-style wedding dresses, wholeheartedly agreed.        

“The physical beauty of the dancers inspired me as a designer,” he said. “I instantly loved the heavier, darker tone Helen wanted to convey with this piece, and even the colors of purple and black went together really well with what I envisioned for the costumes. I’ve really loved moving toward one-of-a-kind pieces like those for the stage; it’s just so much more exciting to work with.”                

Though the costumes, and the ballet for that matter, will continue to be edited up until the February debut, the end result of the collaboration between Pickett and Scarlett was nothing short of breathtaking. Pickett’s use of duets interrupted by moments where the entire cast moved as parts of one body captivated the audience, even bringing one onlooker to tears. And the long, flowing dress (there will be dresses of varying lengths for the actual production) with its vertical lines perfectly complimented the movement and the flow of the dancer’s body.                 

Before the preview performance Pickett emphasized that she’s not “striving for comfort or accessibility, but I’m also not trying to alienate the audience.” But while some may not quite grasp the totality of her message, the mood and the aesthetic value of the piece and the costumes will be relatable to just about anyone.                 

“What’s great about dance is that it encompasses all emotion,” she said. “It’s not a literal art form, which means everyone can get something out of it.”                

In addition to “The Nutcracker” and its own performances in February, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet will bring dance troupe Pilobolous back Jan. 19 and 20. The group, which blends modern dance, drama and comedy into their routines, has performed at the opening ceremonies at three different Olympics as well as the 2007 Academy Awards