If Aspen Santa Fe Ballet is a classical company, where's their Swan Lake? "That's like asking a grocery store why they don't sell automobiles," says Artistic Director Tom Mossbrucker. "It's not what we do."
What the company does do—stage contemporary work with classically trained dancers in two hometowns—sets them apart in the artistic and business worlds. When Mossbrucker and Executive Director Jean-Philippe Malaty created the company in Aspen in 1995, founder Bebe Schweppe gave them no template, no mandate and just enough money to last them two years. Their solution to staying solvent was twofold: set work from some of modern dance's biggest names on bunheads, and partner with a presenting group in New Mexico to pool resources and viewers.
The 10-member company now presents three mixed-rep programs and a Nutcracker in each town annually; the rest of the year it's on the road. Making this model work requires a heightened cost consciousness: "Aspen and Santa Fe are close—it's a five-hour drive in good weather," Mossbrucker says. "We don't fly, we don't use live music, we have minimal sets and costumes, and we use a nonunion crew."
With the exception of the almighty Nutcracker (which brings many companies about half their annual revenue), the company doesn't offer big, showy story ballets like Swan Lake or Dracula, which cost more to produce but are easier to sell. Still, viewers have warmed to the company's innovative repertory and athletic delivery. And the dancers (chosen for what Mossbrucker calls "clean, strong classical technique and open minds") like the ongoing artistic challenge of mastering new styles.
Aspen Santa Fe's Portland program will show off that range with Dominique Dumais' sans detour, a piece on pointe about the darker reaches of women's psyches, and choreographer-of-the-moment Jorma Elo's Pointeoff, an abstract and structurally complex work that "keeps unfolding and unfolding until the end," Mossbrucker says. In between is Sweet Fields, Twyla Tharp's movement mediation on faith, set to Shaker hymns. Getting such disparate ideas to hang together is tricky, but it seems to be working so far: Says Mossbrucker, "The key to our success is that we didn't know what we were doing."

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, 790-2787. 7:30 pm Thursday, May 10. $19-$43.