Aspen Santa Fe Ballet: Articulate Company
Dance review by Bess J.M. Hochstein
Photos: Rosalie O’Connor
A well-composed program of work by three European choreographers, in performance by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet this week at Jacob’s Pillow, shows off the many skills of this company’s ten talented dancers: speed, strength, grace, presence, agility, and humor. Although the three dances that comprise the program skip around in time, from Spanish choreographer Cayetano Soto’s Uneven, commissioned by ASFB in 2010; to the great Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián’s 1983 work, Stamping Ground; to Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo’s Red Sweet, commissioned by ASFB in 2008, the viewer can spot a few through lines in both the big picture and the details that tie these works together.
The big picture is evident: largely asymmetric movement; daring lifts and swirls; fast-paced precision and keen articulation; and bold, contemporary choreography performed by self-possessed, classically trained dancers. As for the details, all three dances include quirky movements, such as intermittent tremors in the extremities; improbable holds in the partnering and lifts; extreme, unefforted extensions; and surprising moves (such one-handed handstands or cartwheels more expected in a hip-hop performance) that somehow seem right at home.
The evening begins with Uneven, and even before the dance begins we see that it is just that; a corner of white fabric spills off the stage and into the audience. The curtain opens, revealing that the fabric forms a diagonal swath across the stage; the opposite corner has been lifted to create a triangular frame for cellist Kimberly Patterson, dressed in black, who plays the live part of a score by David Lang, accompanied by recorded music and voice. The dancers wear black-and-white leotards. Thanks to evocative lighting and a subtle fog effect, the dancers emerge from the back curtain as if materializing.
Like the set and costumes, there are no gray areas in this dance; solo, coupled, or in small groups, the dancers snap from one off-center pose to the next in a disjointed manner, limbs articulating from their hip, knee, shoulder and elbow joints. Transitions happen in a blink, as the dancers pop into angular position after position. They hit their marks, stop-and-go style – for the women, often while being lifted and whirled by the male dancers. This is the dance equivalent of atonal music – which is not to say it’s inharmonious; just complex and unpredictable, going off in unexpected directions.
Stamping Ground provides comedy to balance the seriousness of Uneven. The audience gasps when what seemed like a black-curtain background is revealed to be hanging strips of a shiny, mylar-ish material, through which the dancers make dramatic and often funny entrances and exits. The work begins in silence, with a series of solos in which the dancers perform low-to-the-ground animal-like movements – here a chicken, with that characteristic sharp jutting of the head or chest; there a monkey, elongated arms trailing as the dancer travels in deep squats and lunges, popping up every so often to look over their shoulders. Periodic stomps, thuds, and body slaps provide the soundscape as one dancer after the other takes a solo, sometimes chasing the previous beast off the stage.
Ensemble work begins along with the percussive score by Carlos Chavez, a fly-by series of witty and wonderful vignettes among groupings of dancers: two men holding a woman suspended to a tick-tock section of music as her legs match the beat like a pendulum; what looks like a game of leap frog that results in a chain of collapse; one man breaking free of two others, who fall flat on their backs, limbs stiffly splayed, later to be pulled quickly, in their rigid forms, offstage through the shiny strips by unseen hands.
The dancers bounce off the floor with no apparent muscle effort, as if the stage were a trampoline, or as if they were being jerked upward by marionette strings. Every interaction between and among dancers touches off an unexpected, laugh-inducing, reaction. They move like cartoon characters, maintaining mock-serious facial expressions. It’s a delightful work by a rightfully legendary choreographer, masterfully performed.
The evening ends with Red Sweet, which manages to combine the best of the two preceding works. Full of humor and grace in asymmetry, the work is characterized by angular positions, innovative partnering, and sophisticated patterning that matches the balletic score of string music by Vivaldi and Biber with lush cannons and cascades of movement. While the structure is traditional, the forms created by the dancers’ bodies are anything but, and therein lies the humor. It’s the perfect culmination for an evening of surprising choreography performed by well trained dancers willing to give it their all.
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet at the Ted Shawn Theatre
Now through August 21
Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival