Review: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet pays a welcome visit at Pepperdine

The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet performs "Over Glow" in 2011 in this photo from the Columbia Artist Management Inc. website.
(Sharen Bradford / Dancing Image)

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, for the last 17 years a key purveyor of contemporary ballet, rarely has been seen in Los Angeles, even though the wonderful repertory dance troupe is based in the western U.S.

Regularly venturing from its home base in two artistic cities, the company performs at New York’s Joyce Theater, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Wolf Trap and, next summer, at the critical ballet outpost of Saratoga Springs. So it was an occasion on Thursday when 11 classically trained dancers (they skew modern) showed their stuff at Pepperdine University’s hilltop Smothers Theatre. The company repeats the same program at Long Beach’s Carpenter Performing Arts Center on Saturday.

Aspen Santa Fe’s personable stable of dancers is the love child of founding co-directors Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty, both former Joffrey men. The tight touring troupe radiates professionalism. On stage, the excellent dancers eyeball one another and move like it matters. Broad smiles erupt during well-staged curtain calls.

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First up, ironically, was “Last,” the modestly titled honey of a new work by Alejandro Cerrudo, a gifted Spaniard who is resident choreographer of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Cerrudo set his slightly sad, visually arresting dance to an intriguing score by Henryk Górecki, honoring the Polish composer who died in 2010.

“Last” hit its stride immediately. Nine dancers, superb in Branimira Ivanova’s smart gray-mesh overshirts with blue peeping through, stood in profile aided by Seah Johnson’s striking light design. A single arm extended, and the cool creatures dissolved into simple shifts of weight. To Górecki’s musical mix of piano with peeling church bells, Cerrudo had the men whoosh their partners in low circles, the women’s legs open, toes lightly skimming the ground. Dancers airplaned; simple supported lifts suggested gray birds circling the town square. A male bird, fallen, pivoted on one strong arm; a girl oozed through the narrow space below his hovering body — a quiet miracle.

“Stamping Ground” stems from the early career of influential Nederlands Dans Theater choreographer Ji¿í Kylián. Inspired by Australian Aborigines, the work’s brazen solos, danced in silence, gave way to group gyrations to Carlos Chávez’s cacophonous percussive score. Six dancers, spines undulating, pelvises pumping and long arms draping, echoed monkeys. A shimmering shower curtain stretched across the back wall lent humor and mystery. Kids in the audience giggled.

The program closed with Jorma Elo’s “Over Glow,” to music by Mendelssohn and Beethoven. Lively production design — neon green mini-dresses for the ladies, blue trousers for the men, splashing yellow backdrop — promised colorful interplay. Elo, a frequent Aspen Santa Fe Ballet collaborator, took a gamble, and lost, by mashing twee movement — hand twitters, lots of stops and starts, action at the extremities not engaging the full body — to major symphonic music. Normally a musical choreographer, Elo fussily scratched the surface. Only during one romantic section, where he dimmed the lights and imparted tenderness, did “Over Glow” not underwhelm.



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