Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dissolves company amid coronavirus losses

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, one of the country’s most acclaimed mid-sized dance companies, is permanently shuttering its performance and touring company, officials said Monday.

“Like every dance company in the country, we were already facing challenges pre-COVID,” said Jean-Philippe Malaty, executive director of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. “And then of course COVID made things worse. But this decision was really made from a place of strength, because it’s in our DNA to evolve.”

After earning $6.1 million in revenue in 2019, the company was forced to slash its budget by 64% in 2020 due to pandemic restrictions, from a planned $4.2 million to $1.6 million, according to publicly available tax documents.

Instead of attempting to stay in business — and potentially deplete its roughly $10 million endowment during an otherwise fallow time — leaders decided it was time to end the company’s in-house productions, said artistic director Tom Mussbrucker.

“We faced the reality that the company had been inactive already for a year, and we were looking for the possibility of two years, at best, before things would maybe return to normal,” he said. “And even that’s uncertain at this point.”

That’s clear in the company’s schedule, which included a performance at the University of Denver’s Newman Center this month. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet was also scheduled to perform at the prestigious Jacob’s Pillow festival this summer, prior to that event’s recent cancellation.

Dancers who had not performed publicly since March 2020, and who had been furloughed since September, were let go last week. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s five dance schools, however, have continued to operate online and in hybrid digital/in-person classes.

“It just became clear that we needed to reinvent,” said Mossbrucker, who along with Malaty is a former Joffrey Ballet dancer who was hired to move west from New York City in 1996 to lead the organization. “We’re lucky to have an incredible, long-serving board that’s always kept an eye on the future, and which always knew what our strengths and weaknesses were. We’d already done our homework for this.”

Founded by Bebe Shweppe in 1990 as Aspen Ballet Co., the nonprofit brought classical dance offerings to Aspen before partnering with another small dance company, in Santa Fe, to form Aspen Santa Fe Ballet in 2000. The unique, hybrid approach — presenting and producing works for Colorado and New Mexico while also touring them internationally — led to recognition, imitators, and major festival appearances for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, as well as stops in Tel Aviv, Israel, Venice, Italy, Moscow and other cities for its 10 to 12 full-time dancers (depending on the production).

In the last 25 years, the company has performed nearly 100 original works by choreographers and commissioned another 40 original ballets that were set on its dancers, Mossbrucker said. Touring income from the dozen or so international stops each year supported performers and staff, while income from schools, a healthy endowment, and other fundraising kept the company stable amid otherwise tough times for nonprofit arts companies, Malaty said.

“The first review we got in The Denver Post called us, ‘The little company that could,’ ” Malaty remembered. “And we were pioneers in a different way with our Mexican folk-dance outreach, where we performed at the Dia de los Ninos (often seen at the Denver Art Museum) many times.”

As a presenter, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet produced the annual Aspen Dance Festival, and in 2014 collaborated with New Mexico’s Juan Siddi Flamenco Santa Fe. That project led to “artistic heights at Jacob’s Pillow and New York’s Joyce Theater,” according to the company’s website. The company also re-popularized the idea of a dance company not led by a single artistic visionary (i.e. acclaimed choreographer), but rather a fresh take on classical repertory that resonated loudly with American and European audiences.

But without the ability to perform or tour, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s revenues plummeted in 2020. Now, the company will focus on its newly launched Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Fund for Innovation in Dance, which organizers describe as “the first entity of its kind in the dance community.” Its goal is to share knowledge, forge connections, and provide resources and support to artists and organizations within “this most fragile” field of dance, Malaty said.

Even as Malaty, Mossbrucker and their colleagues cannot present their own works, they’ll use their experience and skills to support the field at-large while drawing upon their hybrid model to solve entrenched problems for the community — whether COVID-related or in general. Their $10 million endowment gives them a running start.

“We will be very careful in not trying to predict the future, and we have a lot to learn because this is going to be a new venture for us,” Malaty said. “But we feel very fortunate and grateful to be in that position. This is not a story of bankruptcy, which is usually fate of dance companies that can’t make it. We didn’t do this out of panic, but as a way to protect our assets, like the schools and the Mexican folk-dance program (Folklórico). And when it’s possible, we will be bringing great dance back to Colorado and New Mexico.”

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