There's a popular saying that dancer Tadej Brdnik grew up hearing in Slovenia that's oft-repeated in Vail as well.
"We have a joke there - we learn how to ski before we learn how to walk," he said.
It could also be said that after learning how to ski, Brdnik skipped the walking part and went straight to dancing. Brdnik, a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, grew up near a ski resort, so he's well-versed in how altitude affects athletes. The 39-year-old dancer is in town for the Vail International Dance Festival. Dancers from the company - the oldest dance troupe in America - premiered a piece at the festival on Monday, at the NOW Premieres evening, but the company's official debut is tonight.
Though Brdnik has been to Vail before, this is his first time dancing here and his first time attending the festival. As far as first impressions go, the Vail dance festival has made a good one thus far. For one thing, Vail is one of the very few dance festivals where dancers from different companies have a chance to interact, he said.
"(Here) you can have a real connection with other companies and dancers," Brdnik said. "It's really wonderful being among friends from other companies and seeing what other choreographers and companies are doing."
On Monday evening, Martha Graham dancers premiered Doug Verone's "Lamentation Variation." Choreographed in 1930, "Lamentation" is one of Graham's groundbreaking solo pieces, known for its somber tone: "It is a piece that deals with grief," Brdnik said. In recent years, the company's artistic director has asked modern choreographers to re-imagine the piece.
"We were curious to see how the audience would respond," Brdnik said, "especially knowing how enthusiastic people are about ballet up here. The piece is very modern, but as our colleagues told us, the audience was completely quiet. The reception was wonderful. We could feel the energy from the audience and that really helped make it a better experience."
On Wednesday morning, when the Vail Daily caught up with Brdnik, he was preparing for a full technical rehearsal at the Ford Amphitheater, which he said would be the true test of how or if the altitude will effect him tonight when he takes the stage. Three of Martha Graham's master works will be performed tonight. Brdnik will dance in two of the three pieces, including "Appalachian Spring" and "Embattled Garden." The third and final piece includes the politically-charged "Chronicle," an all-female piece that "addresses the war (WWII) itself and what war leaves in its wake." Brdnik said it's not only his favorite dance of the evening, but his connection to it made him want to be a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company in the first place.
"The sheer power of women's bodies and the determination to make a difference is what really attracted me to join this company," he said. "And I'm well aware that I will never actually perform in it."
For people who have yet to see the Martha Graham Dance Company perform, Brdnik describes it as "classical modern dance," he said.
Graham, who danced and choreographed for more than 70 years, was ahead of her time in many ways.
"She created a language that is now being adopted by the newer crop of choreographers," he said.
While the purpose of ballet "was to create a layer between the floor and the air," according to Brdnik, Martha Graham was very interested in how dancers connect with the floor.
"She was also interested in how the body responds ... to the emotional content we carry," he said. "The movement in Graham's works is not pretty, it's really visceral and presents what we feel. So the audience is not only satisfied visually, as it's very athletic, but it also touches on emotional content."
Even though the three dances being presented tonight are classic Martha Graham, the feelings they evoke each time they are performed never get old, even for dancers like Brdnik.