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DanceAspen performs women-choreographed show for Women’s History Month as the new group takes off

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Beau Pearson
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DanceAspen
DanceAspen's "Elevated" includes new works that poke fun at social media and explore "erosion."

Dance Aspen is a young nonprofit, but the group is making waves even as the pandemic continues to reverberate through the performing arts sector.

There was a buzz in the air at the Bad Harriet bar in downtown Aspen on Friday night.

It was opening night for DanceAspen’s “Elevated,” performed at the Wheeler Opera House. At nearby Bad Harriet, benefactors, board members, dancers and choreographers filled the tiny room for a sold-out VIP cocktail reception and dinner.

Friday's performance marked the seven-month-old dance company’s second show. DanceAspen's debut, also at the Wheeler, in September also sold out.

“We're really lucky the community that we're in is so supportive and open-hearted when it comes to dance,” said JJ Singh, a board member with DanceAspen.

The organization was founded by former members of the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, a company founded in 1996 that ceased performances last year, citing the pandemic.

“I think anytime you're starting a brand-new organization, donors have a little bit of skepticism or hesitancy like, ‘Well, is this organization really going to make it? What are they going to do? What are they going to become?’" Singh said. “And I think, after their first performances, people now see, ‘Oh, OK, this is this is a real thing.’”

John Sarpa, who is on the advisory board, said there were some doubts about the ability of DanceAspen to make it, given the massive disruption that COVID-19 brought to the performing arts.

“Sure, sure, there was lots of doubt,” he said. “But when everybody heard how committed the dancers were to staying here, to continue to make a life here, to make a living here. And these are fantastic professionals. The community stepped up unbelievably quickly. So within nine months, we raised enough money for the entire first season.”

DanceAspen's debut several months ago was well received.

“That was our first show,” said executive director Laurel Winton, formerly of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. “And so we realized that the community really did want us to stick around and keep dancing. So, we put together another production, and this production is in honor of National Women's month. We brought some of the best female choreographers in our industry out to Aspen to create some world premieres on our artists.”

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Beau Pearson
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DanceAspen
"Elevated" is, at times, serious, but it still leaves room for play.

“Elevated” aimed to “break the glass slipper.” The entire performance was choreographed by women: New York-based Romanian Ana Maria Lucaciu and San Francisco-based Australian Danielle Rowe.

“I have a new work called 'Everyone's in St. Barts,' and it is a bit of a quirky number that looks at social media, and how it has influenced the way that we communicate with each other,” Rowe said. “And also in the midst of the piece, it has this sense of home and a genuine connection and how refreshing that is when we actually encounter that. But really, it's kind of poking fun at the whole land of social media.”

Rowe created the piece in real time with the dancers through conversations about social media. Lucaciu created her work through a similar process.

“Oh, absolutely. We started with zero,” she said. “And I just planted the seed and then watched it grow and morph.”

Lucaciu’s piece explores the process of “erosion.”

“Emotional erosion, but also natural erosion,” she said. “And I tried to physicalize that — again, we also started with tasks, and I had the dancers sit down and write what their thoughts were around just that simple word, which can be obviously very charged. And then I sort of tried to build imagery — images and imagery from that.

“I was sort of inspired by being around mountains, and we spoke a lot about what erosion looks like, in nature — it's often invisible, obviously, what it looks like in time lapse — and then just erosion between people, relationships.”

DanceAspen — which shares the name of a now-defunct, unconnected organization from the 1990s — doesn’t have the typical five- or 10-year plan of a well-established performing-arts nonprofit.

The outlook is short-term but bright, with a spring and summer busy with events — some already announced, including a collaboration with Aspen Skiing Co. and Pop-Up Magazine for the Aspen 75 anniversary show. Other events are still under wraps.

“Without giving away too much, I would say that the summer looks really exciting,” Singh said. “There's a lot of things being planned for the summer that I think will be really sort of new and entertaining events that will bring the community together. And, of course, we're looking forward to the next year.

“Funding is a big part of that, right? So tonight, hopefully, we will raise a little bit of money that will then fund the next six months, then the next six months. This is a very new organization, right? We're only six months old. So we're still looking to kind of go from a one-year, two-year view to a five-year, 10-year view. That's where we are right now.”

Winton feels confident about the future.

“Our dream is to really sustain a local dance company in Aspen, which takes a lot of money and time, and we're only seven months old,” she said. “We still have a long way to go before we're really sustaining ourselves and making sure that the artists themselves don't have to work other jobs, so they can really focus on their art — which initially was the reason why they had moved to Aspen. So, that's our goal.”

DanceAspen is in a good place, with a handful of sold-out events in the bag and powerful collaborations on the horizon.

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Dominic joined the Edlis Neeson arts and culture desk at Aspen Public Radio in Jan. 2022.