A much-needed salvo aimed at creating a “more sustainable ecosystem” arrives at a perilous moment in American dance history. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Fund for Innovation in Dance may not have happened in the absence of COVID-19. But the pandemic that hit the dance world with the force of rolling black-outs accelerated its creation. For the last 25 years, Jean-Philippe Malaty and Tom Mossbrucker, two of the nation’s leading lights as executive and artistic directors, respectively, have run a multi-faceted arts organization that has been in constant evolution. Their latest endeavor, a newly announced Fund, draws on their deep experience directing a boutique ballet company—a high-profile touring troupe.
The Fund’s objective is to add firepower to shore up American dance companies in their return to the stage, post-pandemic.
In March 2020, at the onset of COVID-19, the vibrant and artful Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, having performed in Moscow, Venice, Los Angeles and New York—with multiple visits to Jacob’s Pillow, The Joyce Theater, and Wolf Trap—was coming off a magical five-year residency at The Soraya, Los Angeles’s hottest performing-arts center. The troupe, a pioneer in the ‘contemporary-classical ballet’ space, was on the cusp of celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Then came COVID. The ballet business closed down. As theaters went dark, refunded tickets, laid off staff, and canceled seasons, Malaty and Mossbrucker, like all dance directors around the world, were left scrambling. All four of the organization’s bustling ‘legs,’ in operation in two home cities, Aspen and Santa Fe, simultaneously hit a wall: a network of ballet schools; a Mexican Folkloric children’s dance program; a dance presentation series; and the jewel in the crown, the Aspen-based performance troupe.
In adapting to new realities, Malaty and Mossbrucker hewed to the organization’s core mission of education. The community ‘legs,’ deemed essential, were given priority: ballet classes safely restarted along CDC guidelines and Folkloric students learned to dance with masks. An annual fundraiser relocated to Zoom. The clock ticked; the pandemic worsened and spread. The ASFB development team launched a “Campaign for Resilience.” The company’s sleek, best-in-class professional dancers were kept on salary as long as possible.
Ideas began to flow. ASFB’s forward-thinking board brainstormed about the prospects of restarting Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. They identified problems inherent in the dance field, and structural obstacles to efficient practices for a touring company of their size. They pondered how to fulfill their mission of preserving dance in two home cities that had spawned avid dance appreciation over decades of steady ASFB performances augmented by visiting shows, ranging from MOMIX to Alonso King LINES Ballet. “We are faced with how to keep dance alive in Aspen and Santa Fe, while putting our hard-earned national brand to a new use,” says Mossbrucker. While the organization’s network of schools, Folklorico outreach program, and live performances by visiting dance companies will continue, the tough decision was made to “sunset” what Mossbrucker calls “a labor of love for 25 years for myself and Jean-Philippe”: the noble performance troupe, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.
In its stead comes the new venture, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Fund for Innovation in Dance, putting to work not only a wealth of accrued knowledge and experience, but networks, relationships, and freed-up funding. It constitutes a ‘giving-back’ by two career dance professionals and their highly supportive Board of Trustees, who have always kept a keen eye on their organization’s future by choosing evolution over survival. If the Fund’s process requires re-envisioning the status quo, Mossbrucker, 61, and Malaty, 50, are ready to take that on too.
They bring much to this dance party: “We have a large network of colleagues in the field,” says the steady Mossbrucker, who enjoyed a twenty-year career as a principal dancer with The Joffrey Ballet. As artistic director of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, he has overseen the staging of nearly 100 ballets by 46 choreographers, 40 of which were original commissions. Since, as Mossbrucker says, “we have performed in nearly every major U.S. dance venue over the past 25 years,” it’s feasible for the pair to lead a dialogue between presenters, companies, agents, and funders with whom they have worked. The outcome, it is hoped, will be a more agreeable post-pandemic life for American dance. “We plan to listen and learn—and offer pragmatic solutions,” says Malaty, a highly regarded French-born arts administrator whose hybrid business model for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet includes one of the largest dance-only presentation series in the West.
During their discourse, Malaty and Mossbrucker grew convinced that reallocating ASFB’s assets and resources was the right thing to do. It comes at a cost, and that cost is dear; it is the closure of a unique and beloved dance company. Says Mossbrucker, “It’s been very important for us to find a way to honor the legacy of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet—and the pioneering spirit that sits at its heart. We stand on the shoulders of 25 years of live performance, and everything that went into it. We want to capture the special spirit of a dance company that belongs to so many, and that was nurtured by the love of two communities. That spirit may now be expressed in a new way.”
As a management style, nearly an ethos, Malaty and Mossbrucker did not fear change. “We hold a deep belief that a dance company has a natural cycle,” says Malaty. “Dance is ephemeral; we did not expect it to last forever. We always knew how fragile it was—and never took it for granted. When the pandemic hit, we knew where we were in the cycle of this dance company, in terms of its achievement and potential. We were at an artistic high.” Pausing to consider that statement, he reframed. “ASFB has always been about innovation. The question for us was not, ‘How can we salvage what we were?’ It was instead, ‘What can this become?’”
Los Angeles dance writer Debra Levine has been published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, South China Morning Post, DANCE Magazine, EMMY magazine. It has been her true joy to cover Aspen Santa Fe Ballet over the past decade.