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Review: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in Irvine; next stop, Temecula

April 29, 2009 | 12:30 pm

Red Sweet Aspen Santa Fe Ballet demonstrated Tuesday, in its second local visit in four years, that it aims to please and entertain, and it is unashamed of those ambitions.

In its three-part program at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, this young company of 10, with roots in both Colorado and New Mexico, showed an affinity for contemporary ensemble pieces that impress with agreeable visuals. The audience was asked to think, but no feathers were ruffled.

The ultimate example was a second helping of Moses Pendleton’s crowd-pleasing “Noir Blanc” (seen also in ’05 at the Laguna Dance Festival). It provoked an impressive number of “oohs” and “aahs,” thanks to optical illusions of anonymous dancers in glowing unitards who floated among oversized projections of trees and planets, while a trippy, New Age musical collage played in recording. 

The company does aim higher, even while indulging in such psychedelic, planetarium-style dances. Artistic director Tom Mossbrucker spent the majority of his career as a leading dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, and he has embraced the eclectic, something-for-everyone Joffrey model; one can see he believes in it. Mossbrucker has no resident choreographer, however, as Joffrey did, so there is no one to highlight his dancers as individuals, as personalities. That’s too bad, because the Aspen dancers are an engaging, potentially powerful lot. They project a youthful élan, but we never got to know them.

Sweet Fields ASFB doesn't lack for big-name choreographers in the repertory. One of them is Jorma Elo, the Finnish-born dance-maker who is a hot commodity but whose works are rarely seen in Southern California. In “Red Sweet,” an Aspen commission, Elo interpreted selections by Antonio Vivaldi and Heinrich Biber with classical steps hyped up with a surfeit of posing and semaphore gestures.

A multi-part work for eight, “Red Sweet” was a fast-paced, randomly pieced abstraction. Darkly lighted by Jordan Tuinman, “Red Sweet” melded ballet steps with robotic body isolations, then more mystery flailing. This was followed by a colliding array of styles and rhythms. Elo repeated some steps just enough to suggest themes. The women were carried about in an arabesque position with the front leg scooping at the floor. When all was over, the remaining after-image was of cleverness for its own sake, a piece built upon chilly, emotionless technique.

Happily, Twyla Tharp’s strikingly simple “Sweet Fields” left the opposite impression. Tharp made the 10-part work for her own dancers in 1996 to a cappella Shaker hymns and other spirituals. Bathed in Jennifer Tipton’s white lighting and Norma Kamali’s white costumes, it evoked a joyous quest for an inner life and an embrace of the outer world. This one is a keeper, for both Tharp and the Aspenites.        

-- Laura Bleiberg
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. Old Town Temecula Community Theater, 42051 Main St., Temecula; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; $15-$25; (866) 653-8696 or

Photos:  "Red Sweet," top, and "Sweet Fields," below. Credit: Jay Clendenin / Los Angeles Times.