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Dance Aspen looks toward 'New Horizons'

Two dancers rehearse a contemporary dance.
Kaya Williams
Aspen Public Radio
Matthew Gilmore and Sammy Altenau perform “The Lights We Didn’t See” at the Aspen Art Museum on Sept. 13. The piece, by Kaya Wolsey, is part of Dance Aspen’s “New Horizons,” a show that will debut at the Wheeler Opera House on Friday and Saturday.

When the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dissolved its local performance company in March, the prospects for contemporary ballet dancers in Aspen didn’t look great.

They could leave town and try to pursue dance somewhere else, or they could retire from dancing and stay here.

Neither option seemed very appealing.

So, they came up with their own solution, founding a new nonprofit called Dance Aspen in the middle of a pandemic that had cast a dark cloud over the world of performing arts.

Kaya Wolsey, one of the founding artists in Dance Aspen, said she sees a story of resilience in the artists’ desire to do what many thought couldn’t be done.

“In the pandemic, we were told that there were no performance opportunities, and we decided there were, and we made them happen,” she said. “We're making things happen in a different way, every time.”

Different as in, say, a performance on the rooftop of the Aspen Art Museum.

A cohort of Dance Aspen performers and choreographers were there Sept. 13 to workshop two pieces that will be featured in "New Horizons," Dance Aspen’s upcoming show at the Wheeler Opera House.

The show hits the Wheeler stage Friday and Saturday, one year and one week after the company debuted in the same space.

“We've only been around for one year, it's crazy to think,” said Laurel Jenny Winton, founder of Dance Aspen. “But ‘New Horizons’ is really about that next step in our identity and how we see ourselves and how we're growing.” 

Wolsey and fellow company member Matthew Gilmore worked on their “New Horizons” pieces with dancers at the art museum sneak peek.

People watched from cafe tables and benches, or sat on the floor, as the choreographers walked dancers through the motions for their pieces.

Wolsey said that it wasn’t a traditional, sit-in-your-seat kind of dance performance — and that it showed the company’s willingness to try something new and different.

“Our minds are open, and so we'll just continue to take each hurdle as it comes and evolve and break past it,” she said. “So, I think it's a testament to our resiliency and what we've already accomplished and the direction we’ll continue going.”

Dance Aspen is getting bigger and thinking longer term.

“We’ve been taking it month by month, day by day, and as you get to the new horizon, we've become more established, we've gained some more support, so now … instead of month by month, we're looking year by year,” Gilmore said, adding, "Our next horizon is our five-year plan. We're growing quickly, which is exciting. But it’s also … you have to plan for the future.”

So, as Dance Aspen grows, what does its identity look like?

Winton said it’s collaborative, trusting — everyone leans on everyone.

“We've all had our own paths to get here, but at the end of the day, we're working for the same thing,” Winton said. “And so our identity really is about supporting one another, about reaching for really the most innovative and new challenges in our industry.”

That comes through in pieces such as Wolsey’s, called “The Lights We Didn’t See.”

The work tells a personal story — one that she said she doesn’t want to reveal too much about because she hopes audiences will have their own interpretation.

She said it’s about “leaning in, leaning into what lifts you up, whether that's people or something you do in your life.” 

“It's looking outside the darkness into this moment,” she added.

She sees how that could translate to the story of Dance Aspen, too.

“And in some ways that … resonates with what our company is about too,” Wolsey said. “So it's not about the company — but being able to lean into the company, and to build this piece over this period of time has been really therapeutic for me personally.”

It’s also, in a way, about letting go.

“It's like, not being precious about the steps or being particular about things, and just letting the things that are happening in my life go in the studio,” Wolsey said. “And then I feel better when I go home. … It's been really nice to be free of it.”

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.