DanceAspen delivers a captivating debut at Vail Dance Festival
The press release came to my inbox with the headline: “Two ski town rivals come together through dance,” which nailed the truth of the Vail Dance Festival: It’s all about collaboration. Any “rivalry” between the two towns is completely set aside as dancers create together, learn and inspire each other to take dance to its highest level.
And that’s exactly what DanceAspen accomplished Sunday night at the Vilar Performing Arts Center in Beaver Creek. The newly formed company, founded in 2021 after the devastation of the pandemic led the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet to disband its professional performing company, embodies the spirit of resilience, passion and immense talent. As Vail Dance Festival artistic director Damian Woetzel pointed out, DanceAspen is “reinventing how ballet companies can work and prioritize dancers … with a small but mighty company.”
Though just nine dancers make up DanceAspen, their evening performance was full and rich, embodying the ideal beauty, grace and strength of dance.
“DanceAspen speaks to everything we’re about (as a festival). It’s enterprising, dynamic and creative. It’s fearless — it will not say no,” Woetzel said. “Just as the Aspen community has embraced the newly born company, so, too, has the community in Vail.”
Sunday’s performance started with the aptly named “Begin Again,” as shadow and light emphasized the muscular control the choreography — built upon repeating arm patterns, undulations and gorgeous, extended holds and lifts — demanded. As the piece evolved, an innovatively shaped trio formed and morphed. Choreographed (and danced) by Matthew Gilmore, DanceAspen artist and Juilliard alumnus, the piece showcased Gilmore’s, Sammy Altenau’s and Katherine Bolaños’ technical skills and grace.
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While also beautiful, “Next To” could have benefitted from a bit more precise unison between the two dancers.
Kaya Wolsey and Myles Woolstenhulme were stunning and moving in the duet, “For Pixie,” which captured the dramatic emotion of love relationships with Wolsey’s staccato arms racing, as well as the duo’s extended, romantic flow.
After just a half hour of dance, intermission came too soon, but the evening ramped up again with “Press Play,” which DanceAspen also performed at the festival’s opening night, July 29.
Caili Quan originally created the piece for BalletX as a Zoom film during the pandemic to portray the “feeling of coming together to dance the night away,” she said on opening night. It depicts initial loneliness, as a solo dancer in black undulates her body alone, in silence, punctuating the control and balance the difficult movements require.
Then, suddenly — “right about now” (as the funky lyrics rang in) — a second dancer in white joins in precise and innovative choreography. The four outstanding dancers — Altenau, Wolsey, Madeleine Scott and Marian Faustino — transported the audience to a festive place, where it’s fun to be alive and groove to the beat — together. It’s no wonder the piece elicited intense applause and cheering from the audience.
Violinist Min Tze Wu accompanied Bolaños and Blake Krapels on stage for Gilmore’s choreographed work, “in the end.” As Bolaños’ retirement performance after dancing with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet for 18 years and becoming the founding artist of DanceAspen, she masterfully highlighted the beauty, intimacy and technical prowess of two bodies intertwining, moving viscerally as one in this stirring piece.
It may have seemed more natural for DanceAspen to screen its short film, which introduced the company and underscored the dancers’ determination to stay in Aspen after Aspen Santa Fe Ballet restructured, at the beginning of the evening, to introduce the audience to the company, which debuted at the Wheeler Opera House on Sept. 17, 2021. The film seemed to interrupt the mesmerizing trance the dancers brought us into, but listening to the passionate artists was still enjoyable and informative.
After a bit of an awkward pause, two small spotlights searched the closed curtain in a circus-esque fashion, until its opening revealed six dancers, slumped in a group. The last piece of the evening, “Everyone’s in St. Barth’s,” highlighted the humor the dancers share, in addition to their resilience and determination. The spoof on social media lifestyles was hilarious, as each character stepped forward, introducing themselves by their social name (“@Live_Your_Best_Life” or “@Me_Myself_Mine”) while simultaneously slumping over in complete exhaustion, as a result of responding to everyone, all the time, because “people need to know (their) every thought.”
The unique choreography ranged from uniform, puppet-like movements with spots of zany individualism to lyrical duets and visually pleasing group shapes and forms. The piece ended with a big group sigh — and a hearty, well-deserved standing ovation by the audience.
The performance proved that, just as DanceAspen executive director Laurel Winton intends, the company is delivering works “that push the boundaries of the physical and artistic standards of dance today.”