By Lawrence Budmen

In 1931 modern dance pioneer Ted Shawn bought a mountain top farm in the rural Berkshire community of Becket, Massachusetts, USA. At first serving as a retreat and rehearsal facility for the Denishawn Company (which Shawn directed with his wife – the celebrated modern dancer Ruth St. Dennis), the property soon became a performance space for Shawn’s new all male company. When war time conscription caused a cessation of the troupe’s activities, Shawn and community activists dreamed of converting the property into a mecca for international dance. Thus was born the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the first and oldest continuing event of its kind in North America. In 1942, the 640 seat Ted Shawn Theater, the first hall designed specifically for dance in the nation, was inaugurated. During the ensuing years, Shaw presented dance companies (both balletic and contemporary) from around the globe, spotlighting the American debuts of many prominent choreographers. Today Shawn’s legacy burns brightly under the direction of Ella Baff, who has tuned Jacob’s Pillow into a year round center for dance education and research in addition to the summer mega event. 

Continuing Shawn’s tradition of presenting important up and coming dance companies, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet took the Ted Shawn Theater stage on August 13-17, 2008. Founded by Bebe Schweppe in 1996, the company is under the artistic direction of Tom Mossbrucker, a former principal dancer with the Joffrey Ballet. This brilliantly gifted troupe teems with outstanding dancers. The eclectic, multi-faceted repertoire chosen by Schweppe and Mossbrucker for this exclusive engagement provided the kind of genre bending, envelope pushing evening that spells Jacob’s Pillow at its best. 

The program opened with Petal, choreographed Helen Pickett, a former member of William Forsyth’s Ballet Frankfurt. Set to the appealing, rhythmically vital but surprisingly elegant music of Philip Glass (from Les Enfants Terrible) and the hard driving title sequence from the film Little Children by Thomas Newman, Pickett has created a lively but overly repetitive ensemble piece. The female dancers are prominently featured in Pickett’s kinetic choreography. Lauren Alzamora, Katie Dehler, Samantha Klanac and Emily Proctor exhibited speed and agility in an exhilarating display of modern dance technique. 

The Israeli born, Netherlands based choreographer Itzik Galili brought a quirky, witty sensibility to Chameleon, a vivacious setting of an eclectic, tongue in cheek piano etude by modernist provocateur John Cage. (Just imagine Cage sounding like Rachmaninoff.) With sexy costumes designed by Natasja Lansen, Alzamora, Dehler, Klanac, Proctor and Elizabeth Martinez were simply terrific, alternating balletic movement and mime.

Slingerland, a stunning pas de deux by European based, American master William Forsythe was nothing short of a masterpiece. Forsyth’s great choreography channels moving, balletic neo-romanticism through a 21st century perspective. Gavin Byars’ String Quartet No.1 (Between the National and the Bristol) provided a romantic, emotional musical component. Forsyth has reinvented a 19th century balletic form with the brilliance of creative genius. Katherine Eberle and Sam Chittenden were the stunning, speedily breezy and agile duo in the performance I attended on August 14. After more than three decades, Forsyth continues to astound! 

Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo, now Resident Choreographer of the Boston Ballet, has gained the reputation of a super gifted wunderkind. It was easy to see why from his wild, powerful, passionately breath taking 1st Flash (set to the second and third movements of Sibelius’ Violin Concerto). Jordan Tuinman’s evocative lighting reflected the music’s dark, moody allure. Elo’s highly creative post modernist brand of neo-classicism is an imaginative deconstruction of Balanchine for a new era. Lauren Alzamora was nimble and elegant in the taxing protagonist lead with Eric Chase, Chittenden and the ensemble spelling expressive magic. Elo’s impressive choreography is exactly the sort of new vistas for dance that has made Jacob’s Pillow a center of choreographic ingenuity. The Pillow continues to honor the vision of its founder Ted Shawn by presenting the best and brightest of ballet and modern dances companies and creators. The Aspen Santa Fe was a gleaming constellation at this dance mecca.   


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