Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Preview; A Conversation with Choreographer Norbert De La Cruz lll

When the press release for the upcoming Aspen Santa Fe Ballet performance arrived in my inbox with the chance to interview up-and-coming choreographer Norbert De La Cruz lll, I leapt at the opportunity. There were so many questions that I could easily think of to ask; what was it like to work with such amazing dancers, how was he selected for the commission and subsequently inspired? I must have created a list a mile long. However, while actually speaking with Norbert, I didn’t look at the list once. The usual call-and-repsonse format of the interview morphed through the forms of gossip session, bold statement, poetic musings, and secrets on the subjects of backgrounds, aesthetics, and personal voice.

'Over Glow' photo by Sharen Bradford

I do not envy the famous that are stuck having to give interviews. Imagine how horrible it must be; some stranger from the press calls you up and asks you intimate questions about your life and your artistic mission and you’re expected to sum it up eloquently and spontaneously. I try to be a nice journalist and ask questions that interviewees might see coming; things like ‘how were you inspired for this commission’ or ‘what was your thought process’, questions that I assume they’ve probably already put a good deal of thought into anyways and can articulate. Answers are as diverse as the people behind them, but they are usually just that- an answer and not always something that spurs on further discussion or questions.

It is the role of the interviewer in writing a promotional piece to cover the basics; the who, what when, where and why. That’s pretty easy. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is a relatively young company, founded in 1996 by visionary Bebe Schweppe with current Artistic Director Tom Mossbrucker and Executive Director Jean-Philippe Malaty. The troupe of eleven dancers is comprised of graduates from programs and winners of awards that if you know the industry of dance, you know these names. Juilliard is one example. The list of choreographers who have contributed to their repertoire is equally impressive. With schools and youth programs in both Aspen and Santa Fe, the institution can boast both a dedication to education and cultural community outreach as well as all of the markers of a successful leading company in the dance scene.  You have to be a pretty impressive dancer just to get an audition with them as they don’t hold open calls and hopefuls must first send in a resume or video.  As one might imagine, the few selected are really the cream-of-the-crop.

Everything about the upcoming show promises to be first-rate. Beyond the reputation of the company, they bring repertoire from Jiri Kylian and Finnish choreographer, Jorma Elo. Kylian’s, ‘Stamping Ground’ was inspired by Australian aboriginal culture and the relationship between people, the earth, and spirituality. Elo’s ‘Over Glow’ was created specifically for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and marries contemporary movement with classics from Mendelssohn and Beethoven.

 The real talk of the program is the world premier of Norbert’s creation, ‘Square None’ with an original score and costumes from Project Runway All Star, Austin Scarlett. The piece was commissioned by St. Louisan Dr Dan Luedke as a birthday gift for his wife, Dr. Susan Luedke, a long-time lover of dance and Dance St. Louis Board Member. Norbert was first noticed by ASFB directors at the student choreography showcase in his final year at Juilliard but was not informed of the opportunity to create a new work on the company until he had graduated and was performing himself in Italy. Stepping in to work with ASFB dancers meant setting something on individuals who had been the upper classmen he had looked up to at Juilliard, a potentially awkward experience, but Norbert found mutual respect and personal connection with the performers.

He began his process of choreography by first observing technique class to see physical capabilities and then by giving the dancers questions about their lives and experiences to understand them. He says he spent time observing not only their lines and strength, but how they approached work, musicality, and each other. After all, it is often in the unseen moments that human beings truly present themselves. Hence the trouble with the interview, where truth is so often laced with whatever image the person being interviewed wants to present of themselves. A carefully posed question and answer is much like a classically posed stance in ballet or modern technique, where there is a correct desired way to present it. I can remember so many teachers saying, ‘you have to learn how to cheat your technique’ to present the line of the leg in a certain may if you don’t truly have the anatomy to execute it properly. Conducting an interview can feel like putting up a masquerade, shining a light on one dimension what we’re supposed to see. Listening to Norbert, it was easy to hook in to something he would say that would inspire a new thought or tangent, and I would ask him to explain further. Sometimes the best answers to questions just bring more questions.

I always think it is interesting talking to choreographers about their work, how the types of words can be so indicative of what to expect in their style. A person who uses many adjectives might have an embellished, decorous, highly emotional style. A sentence laden with verbs might be reflected with an aggressive piece. People tend to give themselves away in the answers, but not like you might think.

Norbert says he began dancing because he wanted to do commercial work, the backup dancer in the huge amphitheatre. Noticed by teachers for potential, he was thrown into ballet and jazz classes where a love of formal training began to develop. He admitted always loving to improvise, where he would go in his room and a family member would video whatever natural and unplanned movement came out. When asked about his own personal preferences in dancers and what he hopes to express in choreography, two words seemed to dominate our conversation; change and surprise. He described how choreography always came from an emotionally charged place from within himself, and how he loved seeing the arc of transformation as a fully realized piece takes shape, as if the emotion is the starting place, the choreography not a set answer but a pathway to something new. As for the quality he admired in dancers and particularly with ASFB dancers, he first addressed his hope to highlight their athleticism and classical training. Then he spoke of musicality, a shared understanding of the theories behind the work, and the ability to spring into action as if from nowhere.  He described a love of symmetry, and the overall picture created from way dancers are arranged on the stage which speaks of his highly intelligent and organized mind. Yet, I heard many words in his description of how he creates that spoke of human characteristics; things like gesture, emotion, and pedestrian. I will be very curious to see how these two contrasting ideals, the structure from formal training and the spontaneity and organic quality of improvisation, come out in his work.

I would imagine the worst thing to be asked is what is your overall mission or voice.  If you were to ask my sixteen year old self what I would be doing at this point in my life, I would probably say that I’d be a professional classical ballet dancer and everything else was unimaginably awful. Perspectives are allowed to change and take shape when fueled with the right questions and exploration. So when I posed this dreaded question to Norbert he very honestly responded that he didn’t have all the answers, that he was young in developing his voice, and was simply grateful for the opportunity to continue creating, to have time to be introspective and experimental. Questions of the self often deserve constant re-evaluation and rediscovery anyways. Take it from a ballet dancer turned writer. We rounded out of conversation with gossip on dancers we both knew, and naming off guilty pleasures that we both shared. I won’t be betraying any confidences so that’s one question not to bother asking.

In anticipation of the show, I am bubbling with more questions; will the work reflect the use of language that I found in talking with Norbert, how will I be surprised, what emotions will I guess were the jumping off point for creation. The only answer that I have is that I know it will be good. Actually scratch that. I wouldn’t swear by it. I reserve the right to change my opinion, but I’ll be surprised if I do.

Ask and you shall receive; Showtimes at the Blanch Touhill Performing Arts Center are Friday at 8 pm and Saturday at 2 pm and 8 pm. A pre-show talk with Dance St. Louis Artistic Director Michael Uthoff will take place in the Terrace Lobby on Friday at 7:15 and on Saturday at 1:15. A casual post-show discussion ‘Speak Easy’ also with Mr. Uthoff in the Terrace Lobby will follow the Friday evening and Saturday matinee performances.

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