Seia Rassenti was boarding a van in Chico, Calif., last week, en route to Davis, the next stop on the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet tour.
"I'm just in my first year with the company, and I love it!" Rassenti said by cell phone as she took her seat among the dancers. "The base is ballet, but it has a contemporary focus. It's great for me."
The 22-year-old native of Tucson is one of just 10 dancers in the all-star/no-star company, a young, contemporary troupe that's won plenty of kudos in its short 14-year life.
Rassenti and company will stop in her hometown this Friday, when Aspen Santa Fe Ballet dances at UA Centennial Hall for the first time. Founded in 1996, the company is committed to showing the work of living choreographers. The only "historical" piece on the program of four dances is Twyla Tharp's "Sue's Leg"—and that was made in 1975.
The dark-haired Rassenti can be spotted in the first and last pieces, in works by Nicolo Fonte and Jorma Elo.
"I wasn't here when they learned the Twyla Tharp piece," she explained.
Rassenti hasn't lived in Tucson since eighth-grade—she went to St. Cyril's—but she's performed on Tucson stages many times. Her mother is Olivia Rojo, founder and artistic director of Tucson's Flamenco y Más, and Rassenti took her first dance steps in flamenco.
"As a small child, I always had fun with the music," she said. Her parents live in California now, but "my mom just had a show in February in Tucson. She's here quite often."
Rassenti started ballet at age 6 with Linda Walker of Tucson Regional Ballet, and danced many a Southwest Nutcracker. ("I was a chili a few times.") The family moved to Washington, D.C., when she was a teen, and she trained intensively at the well-regarded Kirov Academy, doing academics in the morning and ballet in the afternoon.
After graduation, she nabbed a place in the North Carolina Dance Theatre, where she danced for three years. "Half of what we did was classical repertory, and half was classical contemporary."
That proved to be good training for the eclectic Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. The company got its start when Bebe Schweppe, a former dancer who ran a ballet school in Aspen, talked two Joffrey Ballet dancers into coming out West to start a brand-new ballet troupe.
"We were at the peak of our careers," said executive director Jean-Philippe Malaty, speaking of himself and artistic director Tom Mossbrucker. "We were not interested. We were not choreographers. But Bebe was persistent."
The Joffrey was about to move to Chicago, and the two dancers began thinking of what an extraordinary opportunity it would be to start a company from scratch.
"We'd had the opportunity to observe how dance companies were run," Malaty said. "This was our opportunity to start a new model."
That included a smart plan that keeps the company operating in the black. The two-city troupe performs in Santa Fe as often as in its home base in Aspen. It tours often. ("We're on a 42-day tour," Rassenti said; after Tucson, the dancers will piqué and plié up and down the East Coast.) And the company helps pay the bills by presenting other dance companies, from Pilobolus to Paul Taylor.
The energetic young dancers have won praise for their "impressive technical facility." One reviewer noted that they're equally versed in "acrobatic turns" and "soaring grands jetés."
The Aspen Santa Fe is a "ballet" company only in the "broad sense, as in Europe," said Malaty, a native of France who recently became an American citizen. "This is not a museum of classical ballet. We are moving the dance form forward. We have commissioned close to 20 new ballets."
"In Hidden Seconds," on the Tucson program, is the seventh ballet Nicolo Fonte has set on the company, and the "only one we did not commission," Malaty said. A Brooklyn resident who dances in Spain, Fonte set the work on the Ballet Nacional de España in 1999.
"We loved it at the beginning, but we didn't have the dancers who could do it. We're finally ready to do it," Malaty explained. All 10 dancers perform.
"Sue's Leg" by Tharp is 35 years old. "To us, it's ancient history," Malaty said. "But if we want to look forward, we need to know what came before us. This is a quintessential example of what dance came to be: a mix of modern, ballet, tap, vaudeville."
Tharp herself "came and worked with our dancers for a couple of days. She was very generous." A dance for four, it's set to Fats Waller music.
"Slingerland," a pas de deux on pointe by William Forsythe, is "our most classical. He is one of the few dance geniuses of our generation, the Balanchine of our generation." Based in Frankurt, where he had his own company, the American-born Forsythe is known for his deconstructions of traditional movement.
Jorma Elo of Finland is "the hottest choreographer working today," Malaty said. "'Red Sweet' is the third ballet he's done on us. He knew our dancers by then. He captured the essence of the company. If we had to pick a piece to represent us, this is it."