Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Executive Director Jean-Philippe Malaty and Artistic Director Tom Mossbrucker announced Monday the 25-year-old arts staple will eliminate its centerpiece: the professional performing arm of the company.
The ballet schools and youth Folklórico programs in Santa Fe and Aspen, Colo., will continue to operate, but Aspen Santa Fe Ballet will shift its post-pandemic focus to creating and producing, as well as consulting other companies on their strategies for successful touring.
“COVID wiped out everything,” Malaty said, adding, “we’re not afraid to evolve.”
In 1990, Bebe Schweppe founded the ballet school in Aspen, Colo. Six years later, former Joffrey Ballet dancers Malaty and Mossbrucker were recruited to develop a professional performing company. By 2000, the company had partnered with Santa Fe, making it the first company in the United States calling two cities home. Most years, they traveled to between 12 and 20 locations to perform, Mossbrucker said.
Over its life, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet commissioned 40 new ballets, performed 100 ballets by 46 different choreographers, and performed in Venice, Italy; Moscow; Tel Aviv, Israel; at the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow International Dance Festival; and the Joyce Theater in New York.
Malaty was deep in the planning for the lauded company’s anniversary tour when presenters started pulling the plug.
“There was a lot of unknowns,” he said. “We made a lot of decisions in the dark.”
The company’s last performance was in Aspen in March 2020. Dancers were paid through August and then furloughed.
“We wanted the dancers to be able to get on with their lives,” Mossbrucker said. “It may be two years before theaters start booking dance again.”
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Fund for Innovation in Dance is Mossbrucker and Malaty’s way to somehow carry on. The pair hope to mentor new dance companies, using their contacts, touring experience and stable of choreographers to create new opportunities in a changed arts world.
They plan to continue bringing other traveling dance companies to the Lensic Performing Arts Center.
“You could always count on seeing three to five of the world’s most interesting choreographers represented,” said Thor Steingraber, executive director of the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts, in Northridge, Calif., where Aspen Santa Fe Ballet had been the company-in-residence for the past five years.
“One of the distinguishing things about Aspen Santa Fe was the fact that they employed dancers year-round. They were always in tip-top shape, and they were used to working together every day as an ensemble. That showed up on stage.”
But it also was expensive. Going forward, the Santa Fe Opera’s arrangement could be a model for performing, Malaty said. The opera brings creatives together for a short time every year, and then frees them to work elsewhere. For instance, Malaty said, an annual production of the holiday season Nutcracker could be cast with young dancers from the school as usual and augmented by guest professionals.
“The hardest chapter for many of these small and midsized dance companies is what will happen in the first years after COVID,” Steingraber said. “They operate on razor-thin margins. With all the day-in and day-out work of being a dance company, and being a dancer — with all that interrupted — those who survive will basically be starting all over again.”
Looking into the future is “bittersweet,” for Leigh Moiola, who has served on the company’s board of trustees for 15 years. The board had been discussing the future of the company for three or four years, but the pandemic was the catalyst for major change.
“We’ve always had to reinvent what we look like,” she said. “For the organization to move forward, there were some very challenging decisions to make.”
The curtailing of regular performances is not the final chapter, she said. “The story will be what happens in the next few years.”
For Mossbrucker, a year with no routine has already taken a toll. He and Malaty will be happy to start a new chapter.
“We want people to carry with them an image of what was. We had an amazing 25 years,” he said. “And we never took a moment for granted. We will have dance in Santa Fe again.”