Artstyles of the rich and, er, rich

  • Aspen Santa Fe Ballet: Orpheum Theater, Omaha, February 19, 2015.
  • Photographs by Andrew Borowiec: Riley CAP Gallery, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, through 5/17/2015.

The Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, which I saw last night, reminds me of a luxury suite in a five-star hotel: impeccably designed, sumptuously furnished with exquisite taste, and completely lacking in personality.

I’m guessing that’s no accident: Aspen (Colorado) and Santa Fe (New Mexico), after all, owe their places on the cultural map to their status as playgrounds for artsy One Percenters. For those pampered souls whose lives are an endless, effortless glide – from the private jet to the chauffeured Range Rover to the luxury suite to, presumably, the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet performance – individuality is not seen as something to be squandered on the serving classes. They like for their amusements to be decorative and decorous; it’s the job of Tom Mossbrucker and Jean-Philippe Malaty, ASFB’s artistic director and executive director, see to it that their wishes are fulfilled.

That’s not to knock the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet itself, which – like one of those luxury suites – is a thoroughly pleasant place to spend a couple of hours. The company’s eleven dancers combine exceptional physical attractiveness, effortless technical skill, and a charming eagerness to please. Their appearances onstage are simply yet beautifully costumed, and bathed in evocative light. And the choreography they perform…

…Oops. Aspen, we have a problem.

In a post-performance Q&A session with remnants of the audience, Mossbrucker and Malaty bragged at some length about how ASFB has no resident choreographer and, instead, relies on a steady stream of newly-commissioned works to feed its active repertory (which, they explained, typically consists of about ten ballets in inventory at any given time.)

This commission system strikes me as a potentially smart idea on two counts. (1) it gives individual donors something specific to which to attach their names, giving them a more rewarding sense of participation; (2) it creates the potential for the company to challenge its dancers and audiences with a more varied, more diverse body of work.

ASFB scores big on #1: We knew that we had Drs. Dan and Susan Leudke, Sherry and Eddie Wachs, and Kelli and Allen Questrom to thank (or not thank, as the case may be) for the program we saw.

On #2, though, it takes a pass. The three works – Norbert De La Cruz III’s Square None, Jiri Kylián’s Return to a Strange Land, and Nicolo Fonte’s The Heart(s)pace – all clearly came out of the same contemporary-ballet parts bin, with varying degrees of skill applied to the final assembly.

Here’s a peril of modern life that Bournonville, Petipa, and Balanchine never had to worry about: Before curtain I pulled out my iPhone and unleashed a search engine on Square One, the program’s leadoff work. I unearthed a sparklingly acerbic 2012 review by the New York Times’ Brian Seibert (I suggest you take a moment to read the whole thing; it’s a brilliant bit of knife work.)

Seibert wrote that “…the mannered Square None had no ideas to bind it, and its mishmash soundtrack (Handel, electronica) didn’t help.” Normally I’m not swayed by critics – but after seeing the work, I concluded that Seibert had nailed it here. When a critic calls something “mannered,” s/he usually means that its style is artificial and overstated; rather than proceeding from a genuine creative impulse, the artist is trying to work “in the manner of” something. In this case, De La Cruz ( in all fairness, Mossbrucker/Malaty did note that this was his first commissioned work ever) seems to be saying nothing more than, “Hey, you know all those contemporary ballets? Well, here’s another one just like them!”

Yes, there were things to like about Square None – all of my dancegoer friends liked it better than I did – but I couldn’t help thinking that I would rather have seen De La Cruz’s third, or tenth, or twenty-fifth commission rather than this one. Oh, well, I guess somebody has to be first.

The quality level took a leap with Return to a Strange Land. Returning briefly to my strange parts-bin metaphor: If De La Cruz is a promising but green apprentice, Kylián is the master mechanic. Mossbrucker and Malaty said afterward that they had chosen these works, in part, to show how influential Kylián has been on later contemporary choreographers – and they also showed, perhaps inadvertently, how difficult he is to match. The structure of Strange Land is simple enough – a series of duets, trios and small-group dances to piano works by Leos Janacek, all characterized by flowing turns, gentle lifts, and not-quite-balletic but still graceful arm gestures. Yet Kylián managed to imbue these restrained ingredients with a poignant, elegiac quality that’s difficult to define, giving the work an emotional resonance that had eluded De La Cruz.

Still, another thing that was clear from seeing it was that a lot of water has gone under the contemporary-ballet bridge since 1975, when Strange Land premiered at the Stuttgart Ballet, and although I enjoyed it, I admit that I was glad that it ended when it did.

That set me up nicely for Fonte’s The Heart(s)pace, a livelier variation on the same contemporary-ballet theme. Fonte’s dancers did pretty much the same kinds of things they had done in De La Cruz’s and Kylián’s works – hey, let’s bend this girl into an interesting position! And now let’s all lift her into the air! – but Fonte gave their movements more oomph and dynamic variety. He even allowed them to smile at the audience occasionally, something neither Kylián nor De La Cruz had dared.

On the minus side, Fonte seems a bit too fond of contrived-looking hand gestures. And the high overall energy level and Valentine-red costumes (it’s surely no accident that the work had premiered on February 14, 2014) tempted me to see The Heart(s)pace as a work that had been crafted to be a formulaically upbeat “closer.” If that was true, though, it was a job well done.

So, what’s not to like? Frankly, although all of the works individually had their strong points, the sameness and safeness of the overall program depressed me a bit.

Of course, I realize I was seeing just one ASFB program. Maybe, locked up in a fire-resistant box somewhere in the company’s 10-ballet-repertory closet, there’s an edgy, explosive work that makes Mossbrucker sweat a bit when he pulls it out… something that makes Malaty say, “Gee, Tom, we’re reeeeealy pushing the envelope here – what if the big donors get up and walk out again, like last time?” Something that challenges ASFB’s oh-so-comfortably-upscale audience rather than cosseting it; something that questions their privilege rather than kowtowing to it; something that, eschewing the gracefully deferential bow, kicks some butt instead.

Maybe it’s there somewhere. But I’m skeptical. They’d have to show it to me.

Even before the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet performance, I had been brooding over the art world’s growing willingness to play lap dog to the super-rich. My previous trigger point had been a viewing of Andrew Borowiec’s exhibit of large color photographs of the American “Rust Belt,” seen in Joslyn’s new contemporary-art exhibition space, the Riley CAP Gallery.

(“CAP” stands for Contemporary Artists Project, and refers to the fact that this compact gallery is intended to showcase the work of artists who may not have enough time or inventory to fill a larger space – an ideal format for getting a quick look at rising stars of the art scene.)

Like the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Borowiec’s crisp, vivid prints are pleasant things to see. Following the currently-approved fashion for contemporary photography, he presents each image as an essentially flat picture space, encrusted with a planar array of small, story-telling details.

His subjects – the decaying downtown blocks and vacant factory lots of a fading industrial America – might sound depressing. But unlike the dour and judgmental New Topographics photographers of the 1970s, Borowiec makes deeply colorful prints with a rich palette and occasional sparks of brightness throughout the scene. As Joslyn’s information page says, “Borowiec presents a portrait of a quintessentially American landscape that is at once sobering and hopeful.”

Which is great, right? Sure – but on seeing it, I found myself thinking of something unexpected: the “trophy rooms” of English milords and American magnates of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Back then, one of the ways that the wealthy and powerful displayed their wealth and power was to go on safari to Africa, where – with a huge entourage of guides, bearers and beaters to do the heavy work, of course – they would pursue and shoot exotic specimens of wildlife. Then they’d have the animals’ heads lopped off, stuffed by a taxidermist, and mounted on plaques so they could display them in their homes to remind themselves of their conquests.

And today? Instead of an animal head, the 21st-century investment banker or venture capitalist can display a tasteful archival print as a memento of the jobs, communities, and way of life he has destroyed in the name of Global Capitalism. New century, same message: “Hey, look what I killed!”

Are artists okay with this? Do they feel it should be exempt from scrutiny or comment? Apparently.

I recall hearing that back in the late 1940s, when America was establishing itself as the world’s center of contemporary art, someone – it may have been Jackson Pollock – used to say: “What is sold uptown will be judged downtown.”

What that saying meant was that commercial success was all very well – but if you were achieving it by fawning or sucking up or slacking off, your fellow artists would not let you off the hook about it.

Today, that’s over. The art market is surging with more and more money controlled by fewer and fewer people – just like everything else – and artists are more concerned about scrambling aboard the gravy train than with judging their fellow scramblers. As for the critics and academics who once might have called them out – well, they’re all moonlighting as “art consultants,” advising Mister Gottbucks on what contemporary offerings would be the best fit for his growing collection.

We now live in a society where the world’s 80 richest people can economically “outvote” its 3-½ billion poorest people – a disparity that’s driving a rising tide of disaster, from the destructiveness of climate change to the growing appeal of violent extremist movements.

Until quite recently, that would have been the sort of issue that artists would feel called to explore and challenge. Now? Not so much. Hey, there’s money to be made…