Katie Dehler, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet's exquisite and treasured lead dancer for 13 seasons and 22 ballets, leaves an indelible impression not only on audiences. The soon-to-retire dancer, both muse and work horse, similarly sparked a trio of choreographers.
Alejandro Cerrudo, Jorma Elo and Nicolo Fonte, all in-demand global dance makers, moved their Aspen Santa Fe Ballet creations to the finish line with Dehler in the room. The men rhapsodize about their collaborations with the petite, brown-haired dancer.
Fonte professes a relationship that is particularly profound and that operates on a different plane: "The exchange isn't so much verbal," says Fonte. "She's not a talker."
Instead, "We goof around in the studio. She suggests things in a non-verbal way. We meet on an imaginative level."
Following these work sessions, says Fonte, "We don't talk about what we are doing in the studio; it's a physical thing. It comes to life - it births - in the studio."
The Brooklyn-based Fonte takes pride in having "discovered" Dehler in 2000. She was then a fresh graduate of the dance program at University of Utah. It's a real-life Cinderella story: "They commissioned me, the very first new work for the company. I arrived in Aspen and watched company class. I asked, 'Who's that girl?'
"She kind of helps out in the office,' they told me. 'Well, she's the best dancer in the company, so, yes, I want to use her.' After they saw her perform [Fonte work] Every Day Incarnation, they realized what she could do."
"She is uber-talented, extremely musical and physically capable," says Fonte, assessing Dehler's qualities. "When I encountered her she was beginning to be an artist, to invest deeply in the work, with integrity. But she knew it was very hard to be a great dancer, a lot of work. Watching that was very inspiring for me."
Dehler always received Fonte's special consideration: "If they take an existing work of mine, the first person I think of is her," he says, adding: "She brings out the best in me."
"What is she going to do in the piece? How am I going to work with her?" are Fonte's first thoughts. "I start imagining what I could do for her, but it changes. When we are physically working together, it morphs in the studio; it becomes a collaborative thing.
"Everybody should work like she does. She has an extreme conscientiousness about trying to tap into what I am looking for. She will stay 10-15 minutes extra, she won't take her breaks, just because she's trying to help me bring out ideas I am looking for.
"She found her right place. She grew and blossomed there. Every choreographer who passes through has accolades for her," he says.
"She is really nice to work with. She's very easy. She lets the choreographer mold or shape her, and she is not a dancer who does everything the same way. She listens to what the choreographer wants and adapts. Her attitude is very humble. She wants to take everything you have to give her."
Cerrudo reflects on his process and how a dancer like Dehler can make a difference: "Sometimes I give steps and they don't look as good as I thought," he admits. "It's a back and forth. What makes a dancer a greater dancer is to keep working and researching."
For Cerrudo it's also a quality thing: "I like to show the strength of the woman. She can be very sensual; she has a quality of femininity, but she is not a fragile female. There is a long duet at the end of Last. The women are partnered and they partner as well; it's not just the man carrying the woman. She is a strong woman, and I think that is beautiful. I think it is very sexy too."
Jorma Elo noticed this as well. Speaking by cellphone from Logan Airport (he is Boston Ballet's resident choreographer) Elo admits with a laugh, "I am in love with Katie."
Elo, whose thorny choreography has advanced the technical skills of the female dancers, enthuses about a dancer for whom he has choreographed multiple times, in 1st Flash, Over Glow, Red Sweet, Pointeoff.
"The performance is always a creative moment for her," says Elo. "I'm like, wow, okay, that's what she did in this performance! It never ends for her, and that's a dream for a choreographer.
"And I understand her way of thinking."
Asked to describe what Dehler does best, Elo replies: "I think it is the play with different dynamics of the moment, her general physicality, how she throws herself in the movement. Sometimes you have to go, hey Katie, a little easier. It's good when you don't have to push someone; instead you have to tone her down."
Also: "With dancers it is hard to change the dynamic, you go slow or medium and you cannot change the dynamic. That's another thing Katie is good at."
But taken in totality, "I love her tenderness and the female warmth she brings to her stage presence. That's tricky to illustrate, but one example is her very generous way of touching her partner. For a lot of dancers, modern or classical, sometimes it is difficult to touch each other without it being strange. Katie has a feminine way of touching on the shoulders, or the head. In a lot of my creations, she guides her partner. I think it is a genuinely lovely female quality she has."
"I can see her very clearly in all my ballets," says Elo. "I think of Overglow -- the latest creation I made with her. There are so many moments that I feel like she really created those moments, and especially the dances with her partner Sam [Chittenden].
Chittenden, who retired last season, will return to the stage to partner Dehler in her final showcases in Aspen and Santa Fe. "Dancing with Katie has meant everything to me, surely the highlight of my career," he says. Asked whether the notoriously inventive Dehler ever surprised him with new interpretations on stage, Chittenden replies with a laugh, "Every performance!"
Fonte puts it succinctly: "She has been touched by the muse of dance for sure."
One of her two bosses, and a close friend, Tom Mossbrucker, the company's artistic director, says, "Katie is completely committed to the movement, she has a purity of movement and a clarity of movement. She is incredibly articulate and honest in her movement and it is uncluttered by pretention. To watch her dance is to look through something. It's clear, like water or glass."
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The Katie Dehler tribute performance takes place August 24, 2013 in Aspen and August 31, 2013 in Santa Fe. The program features three pieces created on Dehler. She will be partnered in performance by Sam Chittenden.
Debra Levine is a Los Angeles dance critic blogging about dance, film, music and urban culture on arts•meme.