Saturday, May 02, 2009

Three Choreographers, Two Cities, and One Eclectic Dance Company: Quick Chat with Jean-Philippe Malaty of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in Twyla Tharp's Sweet Fields
Photos by Rosalie O'Connor

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, the little gem of a dance company based in the mountains of Colorado, heads for the flat lands of Houston to perform work by three contemporary masters, including Twyla Tharp, Jorma Elo and Moses Pendleton. Executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty tells us about the show and his troupe.

Dance Source Houston: If you had to describe Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in one idea, what would you say?

Jean-Philippe Malaty: We want to be ambassadors of contemporary dance, and we try to advance the dance form into the future.

DSH: Technically, that's two ideas, but then again, you are a two-city dance company. What's the secret to running a double city troupe?

JM: Hard work. I wish there was a secret. Both Tom (Mossbrucker) and I were dancers with the Joffrey when it was based in New York and Los Angeles, so we had hands-on experience with this kind of company. And, in our generation there were several two-city companies. It was a fashion in the 90s. All of the them failed. We tried to learn from their mistakes and find a way to make it work. First, we found two cities that are geographically close, so we did not have much in the way of traveling expenses. And both Aspen and Santa Fe have similar cultures in terms of anesthetics and interests. There is a famous opera festival in Santa Fe and a large music festival in Aspen, so both cities have a strong history of supporting the arts.

DSH: I saw your company dance Sweet Fields at ADF last summer. It's one of Tharp's more lyrical pieces, a bit different for her.

JM: Everyone is doing Tharp these days, but this piece is more unusual for her. Her style is still very much there, but this piece uses choral music, and you don't find that much in contemporary dance. We will be adding Sue's Leg, another rarely seen Tharp piece, to our rep soon. We also have the pas de deux version of Nine Sinatra Songs.

DSH: Houston sampled their first taste of Jorma Elo's work last month at Dance Salad. He's such a rising talent. How would you describe his mark on ballet?

JM: Within three minutes of watching his work you know it's a Jorma ballet. He has his own vocabulary and aesthetic. It's not rehashed Balanchine. For me, his work is very musical and poetic. Since we do not have a resident choreographer, we try to develop relationships with guest choreographers. This is his third work for us and it's very personal and intimate to us. We were only the second ballet company in the US to work with him. We may be the smallest company he works with now. He knows the dancers so well so he developed it especially for us. The dancers have really grown from the experience.

DSH: You close the show with Moses Pendleton's Noir Blanc, a large step away from Elo.

JM: He created this piece for us seven years ago and it has become our signature piece. Everyone wants to see it. It's very theatrical and based in illusion.

DSH: How did this stretch the company?

JM: They had to learn without ballet steps. Also, his work is more image-based than about movement or energy.

DSH: How do you see the synergy between all three pieces?

JM: No synergy. The whole idea is that these three choreographers are all so different. We are an eclectic dance company. We showcase what dance is today and break the misconception of what a ballet is or should be.

DSH: Your company has had a high visibility year with rave reviews, large venues and expansive touring. What gives?

JM: I think we have been building steadily and carefully in small steps. Maybe we started out being in the shadow here in the mountains, but we have be developing for 13 years now. We have a unique identity and style. The word is out.

Society for the Performing Arts presents Aspen Santa Fe Ballet on May 8th at 8 PM at Wortham Center's Cullen Theater. Call 713-2274SPA or visit

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston.