Aspen Santa Fe Ballet rehearsing in its studio in pre-pandemic times (Aspen Times file)
An Aspen Santa Fe Ballet rehearsal in pre-pandemic times (Aspen Times file)
A dress rehearsal for the premiere of a Cherice Barton ballet in 2017 (Aspen Times file)
Aspen Santa Fe executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty and executive director Tom Mossbrucker (Michele Cardamone/Courtesy photo)
The School of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet (Sharen Bradford/courtesy photo)
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet has dissolved its locally based dance company and will not return after the pandemic, ending a 25-year run during which the organization toured the world to wide acclaim and became an unlikely trendsetter for contemporary dance both on-stage and off.
The nonprofit’s directors cited the novel coronavirus pandemic’s shutdown of the performing arts over the past year and pre-existing concerns about the economic sustainability of mid-sized touring companies as reasons for the decision.
The nonprofit will continue to operate the School of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet at its five Roaring Fork Valley locations and its popular Folklorico program, with plans to host and present visiting dance companies for performances in summer and winter seasons when public health restrictions allow.
As it closes the full-time, year-round 11-dancer company, the organization will begin a new chapter through the launch of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Fund for Innovation in Dance. This new initiative, backed by the nonprofit’s existing $10 million endowment, will seek to provide resources and support for artists and dance organizations. The fund will aim to lead performing companies out of the COVID-19 crisis and support new models to create a more sustainable future for dance.
“We wanted to find a two-fold solution that will preserve what we’ve built for 25 years in our community, and also honor the legacy of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet,” said executive director Jean Philippe-Malaty.
An announcement is expected from the company Monday morning. It is likely to make waves in the dance world and to shake the arts community in Aspen, both facing a long road to post-pandemic recovery.
“We were very proud to be home-grown, we were very proud to be ambassadors for Aspen, but we were the only one doing this,” added Malaty, referring to operating a year-round company when most Aspen cultural institutions depend on outside talent. “We went the hard way for 25 years and, now facing COVID, we feel that this format of being a presenter rather than a producer will set us up better for recovery.”
Malaty and artistic director Tom Mossbrucker told dancers individually about the decision last week after the ballet’s board of trustees approved the directors’ proposal to dissolve the company and launch the fund.
The company last performed in February 2020. When the pandemic hit Colorado in March 2020, dancers were deep into rehearsals for the summer debut of a new commissioned Manuel Vignoulle work for Aspen Santa Fe — one of two new pieces that had been set to debut in the canceled summer. The company was unable to salvage its international 25th anniversary tour for 2021 as the pandemic has persisted.
Dancers had been on furlough since September.
“They knew this was a possibility, but it was difficult for each one of them,” Mossbrucker said.
The national and international dance community recognized Aspen Santa Fe for its elegance and its ambitions, both on-stage and as an organization.
The company’s legacy includes commissioning 40 original ballets and performing more than 100 by 46 choreographers. Its modest basement studio at Colorado Mountain College became an incubator for emerging choreographers and the birthplace of award-winning contemporary dance pieces.
Aspen Santa Fe earned a reputation for scouting talent, both in dancers and choreographers. In 2012, for instance, the company commissioned and premiered a new piece by 23-year-old Norbert de la Cruz III — his first — titled “Square None,” which won the 2012 Princess Grace Foundation Award for Choreography.
The company performed for loyal audiences at dance Meccas like Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts and the Joyce Theatre in Manhattan (which gave Malaty and Mossbrucker its Joyce Theater Award in 2010, recognizing them for the innovative business model and performances) and in recent years held a residency at Valley Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles and made appearances in Moscow, Venice, across Europe and at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
The organization was founded as the Aspen Ballet Co. by Bebe Schweppe in 1990 and became Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in 1996 when she brought Malaty and Mossbrucker on board. Over the past quarter century, the pair crafted a unique dual headquarter model, with bases and dance schools in both Aspen and Santa Fe.
Pamela Tatge, executive and artistic director at Jacob’s Pillow — the longest-running dance festival in the U.S., where Aspen Santa Fe has performed regularly since 2003 — expressed admiration for Aspen Santa Fe’s pivot to be of service to the contemporary dance world through its Fund for Innovation in Dance.
“It didn’t surprise me that these two leaders in our field, that have been so inventive and entrepreneurial, did this level of self-reflection as an organization to determine that this was the time to dissolve the company and create something new,” Tatge said in an interview Friday. “The fact that they realized the ballet company was no longer sustainable, but that they wanted to invest in these other parts of the organization, is a testament to their skill and adaptive capacity.”
Her admiration for the company’s commitment to leading the industry toward new post-COVID business models was bittersweet, though, as she will miss seeing the company on-stage.
“My god, Jacob’s Pillow audiences adore Aspen Sana Fe Ballet and have for many years,” she said. “There are few companies in this country that have the level of high artistic standards as it related to the nimbleness and virtuosity of their dancers alongside a really rigorous examination of the choreographers they bring into the company.”
For Malaty, Mossbrucker and their board, the decision was part of a deliberative strategic planning process that preceded the pandemic.
“It was not reactive, it was not panicked, it was not desperate at any point,” Malaty said. “Change is in the DNA of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.”
Touring and maintaining the company, he added, “was the most vulnerable part of what we do, though it was the crown jewel.”
Nearly half of the company’s operating budget had been funded by earned income like tickets and touring fees and school tuition — not from donations. So losing all revenue since last spring posed as steep a challenge as the company could face.
Since the fall the company has been operating in “hibernation mode,” operating with a fraction of its staff, which had been 32 full-timers, and operating its dance schools with severely limited capacity due to public health restrictions.
With an operating budget of roughly $1.5 million — cut from about $4.2 million pre-pandemic — the organization is focusing on its education and outreach efforts.
“We decided to look at our core mission and that’s what made us want to increase our focus on education, outreach and our presentation series,” Mossbrucker explained. “We said, ‘How can we fulfill our mission in a meaningful and relevant way at home while still maintaining a presence nationally?’”
The Fund for Innovation’s immediate goals are to create sustainable business strategies for mid-sized dance companies in a post-pandemic world and to support residencies for choreographers to develop and perform new work in Aspen and Santa Fe.
The directors noted that the pivot to supporting other dance companies through the new fund is just the latest evolution for an organization that has embraced change and adopted groundbreaking business models through its history. The fund is believed to be the first of its kind focused on dance.
“Nobody has done that before,” Malaty said. “We were in the trenches, we did the work, we built it and had robust audiences right up until COVID.”
The commissioned works in the company repertoire will no longer have a group of dancers dedicated to preserving and performing them. As the company did not retain licenses for its commissions — instead, granting them to the choreographer — many of its signature works already have had lives with other companies.
Signature commissioned works of recent years like Cherice Barton’s “Eudaemonia,” Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Silent Ghost,” Jorma Elo’s “Over Glow” and Cayetano Soto’s “Huma Rojo” may continue to have a life in Aspen, however, as the Fund’s residency program could include guest companies performing Aspen Santa Fe repertoire. It also could include new commissions, the directors suggested.
Those details are still developing, though, as Malaty, Mossbrucker and the board refine the fund and attempt to remain nimble responding to the needs of the ongoing pandemic-wrought crisis in the arts.
The Fund for Innovation will chart new territory in the dance world, the directors believe. And they’re proud that the organization isn’t going the way of many arts organizations that end in crisis.
“This is not a closure, it’s not a bankruptcy, we are not shutting down,” Malaty said. “We wanted to see how a dance company could evolve. We feel fortunate to have this option. All we can do is be more innovative.”
This idea of transforming into a new kind of entity to support the wider dance world, the directors hope, will honor the legacy of the company and the community that supported it passionately for 25 years.
“It’s bittersweet and there’s a grieving time,” Malaty said. “We would be proud of honoring Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in that way so that it has not been in vain — it has not been in vain for the donors, has not been in vain for the 40 dancers we had over the years and gave blood, sweat and tears. We want to honor that. … Deep down, it was the right thing to do. We find comfort in that.”