Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s Wednesday evening performance at Merrill Auditorium included four contemporary works, two commissioned just for this company.

“Red Sweet,” by Jorma Elo for Aspen Santa Fe, was an abstract piece to music by Vivaldi and Biber. In minimalist black costumes, bathed in purple light, the dancers brought elegance to alternating mechanistic and undulating movement. Varying groups and partnerships kept in almost constant, often contrasting, motion, with recurrent themes of windmill shapes (including rotating arms, barrel turns and even a cartwheel) and shaking or wiggling hands.

Vignettes of pantomime were physically articulate but with meanings frustratingly just out of reach. More effective were many interesting lifts and dramatic moments — such as a wedge of dancers with subtle in-unison undulation.

“Sue’s Leg” is a characteristically sleek, sprightly and sophisticated Twyla Tharp, which premiered in 1975. To music by Thomas “Fats” Waller, a single female dancer (Samantha Klanac) in brown-toned practice clothing was joined by another woman (Emily Proctor) and two men (Seth DelGrasso and Nolan DeMarco McGahan) in glossy, pale costumes hinting of urban 1920s style. These costumes, by Santo Loquasto, gave the impression of a 1970s dancer joined by the spirits of those gone before.

Tharp’s choreography was on target musically, but delightfully unexpected. It’s never a sure thing where she is going to move her dancers next, what’s going to happen in the next beat. A grand battement ends in a core contraction; social dancing segues into a quicksilver circle of pique turns straight out of classical ballet. The rhythm of the movement seems to catch hidden rhythmic underpinnings in the music.

These dancers performed the choreography very musically and with the playfulness that has mastery as a prerequisite. They seemed to understand both the weight-shifting, fancy-footwork technique of the piece and its ethos, which is very cosmopolitan, tied to its era yet timeless. They hit the mark with both the subtle humor and the more obvious jokes, such as the male dancer tap-synching to the tap dancing recorded with the music, and then looking surprised when his feet stop but the tapping continues.

William Forsythe, one of the world’s most popular current choreographers, choreographed “Slingerland” for his own company, Ballet Frankfurt. Aspen Santa Fe’s Katherine Bolanos and Sam Chittenden performed this short piece with outstanding strength and control. To the piercing, often discordant, violin music of Gavin Bryars’ String Quartet No. 1, Bolanos and Chittenden danced an almost-classical pas de deux. Their yellowish costumes, with the shadowy lighting (both designed by Forsythe), gave an almost-naked effect, except for a tutu parody around Bolanos’ waist.

The evening closed with a magical, mysterious and mesmerizing piece by Moses Pendleton (Momix, Pilobolus). “Noir Blanc” was commissioned by Aspen Santa Fe, which assisted in its choreography along with Nutmeg Ballet and Momix.

“Noir Blanc” means “black white,” explaining the simple concept behind this piece’s illusionary (perhaps extraterrestrial) effects. Behind a scrim with changing images (planets, cat’s eyes, rippling water, microscopic biology), dancers in white, hooded unitards glowed in black-light lighting. They bent forward, impossibly far. They rose weightlessly, horizontally suspended or sitting on the air in a lotus position.

In fact, the unitards were half black and half white, with swirling or jagged lines between. Only very infrequently could we glimpse the black, supporting limbs that allowed the white limbs to appear to float.

More effects came from different combinations of black and white. In one of the most beautiful — as opposed to merely fascinating — sequences, dancers in white soared, apparently flying but really lifted by dancers in black. In another, eight dancers formed a cluster of white, while a soloist in black created exquisite shadow shapes in front.

“Noir Blanc” was an engaging end to an evening of fine, varied performances by a company of dancers whose physical prowess is well matched by their artistic strength. 

Jennifer Brewer is a freelance writer, teacher, musician and dancer who lives in Saco.


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