Ballet Careers

Creation is King at the Dual-City Aspen Santa Fe Ballet

ASFB in rehearsal with director Tom Mossbrucker. Jessica Moore, Courtesy ASFB.

In 1996, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet artistic director Tom Mossbrucker was a veteran Joffrey Ballet dancer with no aspirations to direct a company. But while visiting a Colorado music festival with his partner, Jean-Philippe Malaty, also a dancer, a chance encounter changed his mind. "We met Bebe Schweppe, who ran a ballet school in Aspen but always dreamt that the city could have its own resident company," Mossbrucker recalls. "We thought she was crazy and said, 'Good luck with that!' But she thought we were the ones who could do it." After a few weeks of discussion, the pair moved to Colorado and a company was born.


Nicolo Fonte's The Heart(s)pace

Sharen Bradford, Courtesy ASFB

Twenty-three years later, it's clear that Schweppe's intuition was spot-on. The troupe, which started as Aspen Ballet Company, grew into Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, a conceptually groundbreaking contemporary ballet company led by Mossbrucker and Malaty, who became its executive director. With 10 dancers on 52-week contracts (including full health, dental and retirement benefits), two home cities and flourishing schools serving the communities of Aspen and Santa Fe, ASFB has developed a reputation for bringing fledgling choreographic talent to national attention.

"We had no preconceived notions of what sort of company it should be," Mossbrucker says. "But the fact that we were both still dancers and had seen a lot of dysfunction in ballet companies was really our starting-off point. We thought there had to be a better way." They decided to approach the company from a dancer's point of view and create a healthy, nurturing environment.


Today their dual mission is to develop the careers of both dancers and choreographers. ASFB currently only performs work by living choreographers, most of which it commissions. Mossbrucker notes that Nicolo Fonte, Cayetano Soto and Jorma Elo, who were emerging dancemakers when ASFB first commissioned them, are still major players in the repertoire. "By their third or fourth commission, the work got deeper, the dancers understood it better and the choreographers left an indelible mark on the company," says Mossbrucker. In addition to new creations, works by Jiří Kylián and Alejandro Cerrudo have had a significant impact on defining the company's look, which combines classical lines and balletic ability with clean, contemporary versatility.

ASFB's seasons include one to two new works, plus revivals and an annual Nutcracker. The most recognizably classical ballet in the repertoire, its Nutcracker blends pointework and tutus with authentic traditional folk dances in the Act 2 divertissements.

Company class is designed to help the dancers move from one dancemaker's style to another. "I emphasize simplicity and clarity with no affectations, so the choreographers have a clean slate to work with," says Mossbrucker. "Everyone is very focused, but it's also about coming together as a team." The familial environment may be one reason why dancer turnover is so low. It's not unusual for performers to stay with the company for a decade or more. Fifteen-year veteran Katherine Bolaños says Mossbrucker's demeanor keeps the dancers motivated. "Something I love about Tom is how funny he is—his temperament is typically jovial and lighthearted, but when we're working on a hard show and need to focus on technique, he's more serious."

ASFB's Katherine Bolaños in Beautiful Mistake

Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy ASFB

While the company's base of operations remains in Aspen, in 2000, its board created a dual-city partnership with Santa Fe, New Mexico, to support its growing quality and ambition. ASFB presents the same programs in both cities and spends roughly a third of each year touring regionally and internationally. They recently performed in France and will appear in New York City and Israel during March and April.

Bolaños says that traveling bonds the dancers. "Working through issues when you're together so much helps us innately understand each other," she says. "Learning to connect with your peers onstage is an important skill, and the times we're most cohesive is when we're touring and performing more."

Since fitting into the fabric of the small group is crucial, auditions involve spending at least two days in Aspen learning rep with ASFB. "Part of our idea was to have a company of stars," Mossbrucker says. "Our dancers have an engaging, charismatic quality that makes them stand out onstage. I want each one to add a unique piece to the bouquet."

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet At a Glance

Number of dancers: 10

Length of contract: 52 weeks

Starting salary: Undisclosed

Union signatory: No

Performances per year: About 40

Website: aspensantafeballet.com

Audition Advice

Mossbrucker looks for dancers with maturity and experience: "I need them to step right into the group, and also be able to portray an open and honest quality onstage."

Audition is by invitation only. To be considered for a private audition, email your cover letter, headshot, dance photos, resumé and links to performance footage and a video of rehearsal or class to auditions@aspensantafeballet.com.

Ballet Careers
Lenai Alexis Wilkerson. Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Michelle Tabnick Public Relations.

This is one of a series of stories on recent graduates' on-campus experiences—and the connections they made that jump-started their dance careers. Lenai Alexis Wilkerson graduated from University of Southern California with a BFA in dance (dance performance concentration) and a political science minor in 2019.

As Lenai Alexis Wilkerson looked at colleges, she wanted a school that would prepare her for two totally different professions: dancing and law. "I knew, pretty much when I was 16, that I wanted to go to law school," she says. "So I wanted the opportunity to have a dual college experience, where I could have a conservatory training style within a university and I could focus equally on my academics." When she auditioned for the inaugural class of University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, she knew it was the right fit.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored by Ballet Arizona
Tzu Chia Huang, Courtesy Ballet Arizona

These days, ballet dancers are asked to do more than they ever have—whether that's tackling versatile rep, taking on intense cross-training regimens or managing everything from their Instagram pages to their summer layoff gigs.

Without proper training, these demands can take a toll on both the mind and the body. But students can start preparing for them early—with the right summer intensive program.

The School of Ballet Arizona's summer intensive takes a well-rounded approach to training—not just focusing on technique and facility but nurturing overall dancer growth. "You cannot make a dancer just by screaming at them like they used to," says master ballet teacher Roberto Muñoz, who guests at the program every summer. "You have to take care of the person as well."

Keep reading... Show less
News
Nicolas Pelletier in Carmina Burana. Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Last week, Colorado Ballet interrupted Nutcracker rehearsals for an exciting announcement: Four dancers were being promoted. Though all made the jump from the company's corps de ballet, Nicolas Pelletier ascended directly to the rank of soloist, while Sean Omandam, Emily Speed and Melissa Zoebisch were promoted to demi-soloist. This news comes hot on the heels of last August's promotion of Francisco Estevez to principal.

Keep reading... Show less
Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

While many of us are deep in Nutcracker duties, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director James Payne has been looking further ahead, finalizing preparations for the school's summer intensive programs. In January, he and his staff will embark on a 24-city audition tour to scour the country for the best young dancers, deciding whether or not to offer them a spot—maybe even a scholarship—in the school's rigorous 5-week intensive focused on high-caliber ballet instruction. Though he'll be evaluating aspirants, he urges that as a student, you should be equally selective in choosing programs that could galvanize your training—and possibly even your career.

We got Payne's advice on strategizing your summer intensive plan before the audition cycle kicks in:

Keep reading... Show less