Ballet may be codified, but to stay alive choreographers must push boundaries. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet made that point clear Saturday night at the Winspear Opera House, opening the dance season for TITAS. The company eschewed not only toe shoes, tutus, tiaras and tours en l'air, but more radically, grace.
Instead, we were inundated by a barrage of quirky, amusing, sometimes deliberately clumsy movements that indicated the company's ballet heritage only in the clarity and fullness of attack.
Jorma Elo's Over Glow set the tone for two-thirds of the program. The delicate music of Felix Mendelssohn was at odds with the chicken-scratching, neck-bobbing, torso-twisting action. Limbs were flying everywhere, sometimes suggesting woodland creatures if not the woods themselves. Three bare-chested men fanned out for outbursts of turns, duck walks and angled arabesques, occasionally lifting and turning women wearing the briefest of pale blue dresses.
Later, to the music of Beethoven, the dancers resembled insects. Except for one striking pose in which five dancers were lying upside down, legs forming perfect V shapes, and the sixth gently toppled the dancer closest to her, there was little to no sense of structure. The dance was amusing in its detail, but pointless in the larger picture.
Jirí Kylián's Stamping Ground is even odder, but fortunately, fares much better in organization. Half the dance is performed only to the sounds of slapping hands to knees and waist, and the emphatic thud of feet. Dancers emerge in silence from a shiny black paneled backdrop. They are alert and focused, and move with deliberate strides, often bending legs so low as to create a perfect 90 degree angle at the knees—in effect, a human bench. Bodies fold and unfold, arms shoot out. Dancers play leapfrog, knock one another over, and leave one woman splayed out on the ground. The man who comes to investigate tries in vain to drag her listless body.
Then the tone turns comic and the music percussive. Dancers crawl, swing each other like pendulums or place a hand on someone's head to make it bounce. The sequences are clever without being literal.
I exaggerated when I said the company abandoned grace, because there was no lack of it in Nicolo Fonte's Where We Left Off. At stage left, the pianist (unidentified) gave Philip Glass's Mad Rush, Metamorphosis No. 2 a plaintive, almost somber air. The ballet took advantage of the repetitive, eventually mesmerizing strains, repeating lifts and turns and leaps with slight embellishments.
In one breathtaking section, a tall, burly man leaned forward, one leg shooting out and the other bent very low. Slowly, slowly, he changed angles, while at the other end of the stage a couple engaged in slow lifts and slower descents. The soloist and duo complemented each other in a striking example of architectural clarity. This attention to structure and clarity surfaced throughout the ballet, not to mention how gracefully it was performed.
With a work like Where We Left Off, we need not worry about the future of ballet. The title says it all.
◊ Margaret Putnam has been writing about dance since 1980, with works published by D Magazine, The Dallas Observer, The Dallas Times Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Times, Playbill, Stagebill, Pointe Magazine and Dance Magazine.