What is it about Aspen Santa Fe Ballet that has made it one of the hottest tickets in ballet?
The 10-member chamber ballet company -- which has home seasons in both Aspen, Colo., and Santa Fe, N.M. -- has come seemingly out of nowhere in recent years to capture the national spotlight. It has even eclipsed such larger ballet companies as Denver's Colorado Ballet, a fellow Rocky Mountain troupe.
ASFB artistic director Tom Mossbrucker says the secret of the company's success can be traced directly to its choice of repertory.
"We had the suspicion that if we brought in good work for the dancers to consume, that they would grow into great dancers and artists, and that turned out to be true," says Mossbrucker, by phone from Aspen. "We found that every time we had a new choreographer come in, the company went up a notch."
Founded in 1996 by Bebe Schweppe, who hired Mossbrucker and executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty to run the company, ASFB started out like many small regional ballet companies: It was just trying to build a local following.
"We didn't have any preconceived notion of what the company would be, or a long-range vision, when we started it," says Mossbrucker. "We just kind of let it grow on its own."
Many regional ballet companies of similar size end up as small footnotes in the history of American ballet. But while it hasn't grown much in size in its 14-year history, ASFB significantly grew in stature, impressing audiences and dance critics alike with its eclectic mix of contemporary ballet works and dancer virtuosity.
It's a formula some have likened to the ballet company Mossbrucker formerly danced for: Joffrey Ballet. But while he sees some similarities in the two companies' approach to diverse programming, Mossbrucker himself feels ASFB is closer in overall style and approach to Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, only with a stronger ballet component.
"Joffrey has a focus on historical works and full-length narrative ballets, which we don't," says Mossbrucker. "The company right now has a strong focus on abstract contemporary work. We do the works of only living choreographers, and we are really trying to look forward to see how ballet is evolving and who the new choreographers are."
The company's Pittsburgh premiere arrives Fri., Feb. 26, in a Pittsburgh Dance Council show at the Byham Theater. ASFB will show off its popular style in four works including a reconstruction of choreographer Twyla Tharp's loose-limbed "Sue's Leg," from 1975.
The 90-minute program will begin with "In Hidden Seconds," a work choreographer Nicolo Fonte originally created for Spain's Compañia Nacional de Danza, in 1999. Set to the music of composer John Tavener, the piece for all 10 dancers "has a Zen-like quality to it that belies its extreme physicality and technical difficulty," says Mossbrucker
Unlike Fonte's work, the rarely performed "Sue's Leg" -- set to songs by Thomas "Fats" Waller -- is anything but Zen-like. Tharp's nine-part modern-dance suite for two men and two women is said to be wildly fun, and shows off its dancers as individuals.
Also on the program is William Forsythe's "Slingerland" (2000). "It's a takeoff on a classical ballet pas de deux," says Mossbrucker. Set to music by composer Gavin Bryars, the contemporary-ballet duet bends, twists and distorts the classical movement vernacular.
Closing out ASFB's program is Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo's "Red Sweet" (2008). Set to music by Vivaldi and Biber, the commissioned work for eight dancers, says Mossbrucker, "really reflects the personality of company."
Aspen Santa Fe Ballet 8 p.m. Fri., Feb. 26. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. $19.50-42.50. 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org.