Tom Mossbrucker danced with the Joffrey Ballet for 20 years, at a time when the company was changing the definition of dance.
"It was a wonderful time," he said. Founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino were changing the ballet formula in the 1970s and '80s, inviting new modern masters of the likes of Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp to create work on the company.
"No one had ever brought in modern dance to ballet before."
When Mossbrucker left the Joffrey in the mid-90s to co-create a new company with Jean-Philippe Malaty—now known as Aspen Santa Fe Ballet—they determined to do the same thing.
"It's all contemporary dance," said Mossbrucker, who serves as artistic director. "The vocabulary is drawn from classical ballet," but mixed with fresh modern movement.
From the beginning, Mossbrucker invited in guest choreographers who were at the forefront of ballet innovation, particularly artists from Europe. And he selected athletic, versatile dancers with an easy mastery of the new style. Case in point is company dancer Seia Rassenti, who grew up in Tucson performing in Flamenco y Mas and Tucson Regional Ballet, before moving on to train at the rigorous Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, D.C.
The genre-jumping formula has won the troupe acclaim (the Boston Globe called its dancers "shape-shifters") and invitations to perform nationally and internationally.
"We tour quite a lot, in 20 to 25 cities a year," Mossbrucker said, while still performing regularly in their home base in Aspen and sister city, Santa Fe.
Aspen Santa Fe gave an exhilarating performance in Tucson five years ago and returns next week for one night only at Centennial Hall. The program of three dances showcases contemporary ballet by "a brand-new up-and-coming choreographer, an almost-resident choreographer and a renowned choreographer."
The opening dance is by a young dancemaker barely out of Juilliard. Mossbruck and Malaty spotted Norbert de la Cruz III at a senior student showcase at the school. They were looking for new dancers but they were happily "surprised by his choreography. We were the first company to commission him."
"Square None," de la Cruz's 2012 work for seven dancers, "is beautiful," Mossbrucker said. Set to a musical collage of operatic vocals, folkloric and contemporary sounds, it has "a beautiful light design. It's become a popular ballet for us."
The middle dance, "Return to a Strange Land," is the oldest of the works, a 1975 sextet by the renowned Czech choreographer Jií Kylián.
Born in 1947, "Kylián is credited as a pioneer of contemporary dance, combining classical ballet and modern dance," Mossbrucker said. The Joffrey championed Kylián's works. Mossbrucker danced in many of them and he since incorporated four Kylián dances into the Aspen Santa Fe repertoire.
"Return" is "almost a narrative, more than in contemporary work today, about death, rebirth, life. It has beautiful imagery and choreography that's architectural and sparse," set to a solo piano composition by Czech composer Leos Janacek.
The concert finale, "The Heart(s)pace," is by Nicolo Fonte. With nine commissioned works for Aspen Santa Fe so far, Fonte is practically the company choreographer.
"He was born and raised in Brooklyn but he worked so long in Spain that he brought a European look to our company," Mossbrucker said.
At Compañia Nacional de Danza in Madrid, where Fonte danced for seven years, he created three groundbreaking works. In 2000, he turned to choreography full time, and has since made dances for European, American, Canadian and Australian companies.
Fonte composed his latest for Aspen Santa Fe, a dance for eight, while his father was dying.
"A dance of love and life came out of that experience," Mossbrucker said. "There's lots of movement with dancers helping each other, touching each other."
Debuting on Valentine's Day 2014, it has dancers in red and backdrops all in white.. "It's very melodic, exuberant and upbeat. I really love that ballet."