Behind the observation glass of the studio of Alwin's School of Dance, eight dancers from the New Mexico Ballet Company glide through the air, articulating tiny gestures amid a flurry of footwork. They precisely and energetically execute Valse Fantaisie choreographed by George Balanchine, recently debuted at their last performance Springtime Dances.
The intensity inside the practice room shifts as the CD player finds the next track and UNM choreographer Vladimir Conde Reche takes his place in front of the dancers. Tense notes hang in the air as the feisty tremolo of strings seem to ravish the dancers, contorting their figures between anguish and languid freedom. His style couldn't be more different than Balanchine to a casual observer, but the dancers approach them with equal depth and skill. Their attitude is a testament to the professionalism and dedication of the New Mexican Ballet Company.
Gearing up for the upcoming Choreographer Invitational at the KiMo Theatre, on April 23, Conde Reche is one of several choreographers slated to present original work. The dancers are as flexible conceptually as they are physically. It certainly appears, from watching them practice, that the dancers possess an impressive range of abilities; floating out of pirouettes one minute and slithering into arm stands and back bends the next.
As deeply rooted as the company is in its classical heritage, it also has a tradition of embracing new, cutting edge forms. Hoping to expand audience interest beyond the stereotypes of women in tutus, they canvassed the best in dance across genres, creating a buzz-worthy roster of notable New-Mexican choreographers for the upcoming Invitational. The mixed repertoire spectacular will feature original work from major players of the local dance community Joaquin Encinias, Karen Price, Andrea Basile, Bill Evans, Curtis Uhlemann, Conde Reche and NMBC artistic director Jolie Sutton-Simballa.
Currently comprised of 23 contract dancers, a volunteer guild and an artistic team led by Sutton-Simballa, the company is excited for the opportunity to reinvent itself. The NMBC has a long and successful career in New Mexico, working with internationally acclaimed companies, executing a wide array of styles from classical, modern and story ballet, as well as contemporary styles of dance such as hip-hop and jazz. In addition to samples of the aforementioned styles, the Choreographer Invitational will also feature live performances by a vocal artist and poet.
“Those who are acquainted with our traditional productions, such as The Nutcracker, expect wholesome, family fun—it is comfortable and accessible to people who know a little about dance, yet can also be appreciated for its technical excellence,”says Sutton-Simballa in a phone interview. “They know about the girl in the tutu,” she goes on to say “But we want to encourage them to come to other shows that we put on throughout the season, where the material is more interdisciplinary, and not as straightforward as the classical works which they are used to.”
The company has been fortunate to have a wide array of professional influences, collaborating with some world-renowned choreographers and principal dancers from major companies such as the New York City Ballet. Sutton-Simballa acknowledges the challenges that NMBC faces as a small company of limited financial means. Crafting a season can be difficult because of budget restrictions, but like most underfunded creative programs in the area, it has spurred their artistic direction team to innovate. She explains that larger companies provide more opportunity and experience by having many rehearsals and performances. However working with professionals at the top of their field has rubbed off on the NMBC dancers, making them “step up to the plate,” she says
A challenge is to stretch the company's image, break down the stereotype that ballet is snooty and inaccessible. “You see it in films like Black Swan, and you're like ‘Oh my gosh, that is just a nightmare!' ” says Sutton-Simballa. NMBC remains committed to influencing the community at large through exposure and education. In addition to their professional dancers, they also support as a junior company which while unpaid, provides intensive grooming and experience for young dancers. They also go to local schools to present lecture demonstrations on dance and dance history, hoping to cultivate new generations of dance artists and audiences. Sutton-Simballa says “It's not only about appreciating ballet, but also emphasizing really good training and dancing. Albuquerque and N.M. at large have a reputation of being second-rate, but we have first-rate talent.”