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Jack Anderson

Fresh Air at Aspen Santa Fe

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet
Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street, Chelsea
February 17-22, 2009, Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; $19-45
Tickets: (212) 242-0800 or www.joyce.org
Reviewed by Jack Anderson, February 21, 2009

Slingerland by William Forsythe. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

The air must be fresh in Aspen, and in Santa Fe as well. Something out West has given Aspen Santa Fe Ballet remarkable brio. Directed by Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty, this company of twelve spirited dancers has a diverse and somewhat offbeat repertory, and it's managed to thrive in two home towns, succeeding in the sort of dual-city scheme that has defeated other companies with similar ambitions (remember Cleveland/San Jose, Cincinnati/New Orleans, Philadelphia/Milwaukee?).

The dancers brought a sense of adventure to every ballet they showed in this engagement, which they dedicated to the memory of Clive Barnes. Most of their works celebrated energy, and it was exciting to seem them danced with abandon. Yet the most stimulating piece was not a virtuoso display, although it was a ballet about being on display.

Chameleon by Itzik Galili Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

In Itzik Galili's "Chameleon," five women sat in a row of chairs facing downstage, knees quivering nervously as the curtain rose. Then they displayed themselves in various emotional states. They sometimes preened, as if gazing into mirrors. They might have been fashion models. Or, perhaps, they were trying to attract the attention of an employer, a casting director, or a potential date. Or maybe they were amusing themselves by contemplating their own chameleon-like self-images, for they made funny and grotesque faces. But they also occasionally appeared panic-stricken. And as we in the audience beheld their changes, we became voyeurs of these characters deftly portrayed by Lauren Alzamora, Katie Dehler, Samantha Klanac, Elizabeth Martinez, and Emily Proctor.

Galili made the women amusing. But as they kept posing to quiet music by John Cage, their actions grew poignant as well as comic, and Galili implied that we are all obsessed with the way we appear both to others and to ourselves. "How do we look?" these women seemed perpetually to be asking, as if dreading to lose self-confidence. And before the ballet ended, we in the audience may have wanted to assure them, "You look perfectly fine, my dears."

High energy dominated the other ballets. Given the extraordinary athleticism of today's dancers, energy, for better or worse, has become the theme of many, perhaps too many, ballets. William Forsythe's "Slingerland Pas de Deux," to music by Gavin Bryars, began by looking as if it might be a traditional pas de deux. But it soon became more than that, for Katherine Eberle and Sam Chittenden emphasized Forsythe's contrasts between harmony and tension, pushing and pulling at each other, not in a spirit of aggressive competition, but to suggest an interplay of strong forces.

Chameleon by Itzik Galili. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

Helen Pickett, who has worked with Forsythe in Frankfurt, contributed "Petal," in which four couples kept regrouping to music by Philip Glass and Thomas Montgomery Newman, kicking briskly and letting their arms thrust into space. There was a great sense of outwardness about "Petal," and its finale sent dancers running off, perhaps into new worlds. The production was visually enhanced by its set of white walls which, thanks to Todd Elmer's lighting, kept changing gorgeously flamboyant shades of yellow, orange, red, and pink. "Petal" flowered.

One of today's most controversial energy specialists is Jorma Elo, notorious for shattering and pulverizing classical steps. He did it again in "1st Flash," to his own taped splintering of parts of the Sibelius violin concerto. Elo's athletic choreography often arouses groans of annoyance as well as gasps of amazement. Here, his taxing steps appeared to be dismantling his dancers' skeletons, scattering bones and limbs hither and thither.

Elo can possibly cite artistic precedents for his procedures. So he's pinching, twisting,. and tweaking classicism? All sorts of choreographers do that, including Forsythe. So he lets music and dance be apparently unrelated? Why, that's nothing new: consider what Merce Cunningham has been doing for decades. But Elo suggests no rationale for his disjunctions, and his phrases form and disintegrate so relentlessly that watching them grows tiresome. "1st Flash" made its dancers unattractively jittery, as if overdosing on choreographic caffeine.

Fortunately, the energy in Aspen Santa Fe's other offerings proved more invigorating, and Galili's piece suggested that the dancers had lyrical, comic, and dramatic gifts worth further development.

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