Pete Leo Walker throws his hat up in the air during his giddy performance as “Happiness” in “Eudeamonia.”
Photo Courtesy of Rosalie O’Connor.

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s latest work, Eudaemonia, tackles the unsettling theme of searching for stability with a blend of Broadway-inspired and contemporary choreography. The result is a bittersweet conclusion that questions the convoluted approach most of us take toward achieving happiness.

The piece was co-commissioned during the second of the company’s four-year residency at Valley Performing Arts Center. It had its world premiere on March 3. Created by Los Angeles–based choreographer Cherice Barton, Eudaemonia explores the ease with which one’s sense of harmony is gained and lost during different stages of life and people’s unwillingness to fully enjoy the pleasant feeling once it returns.

Pete Leo Walker delivers a standout performance as the muse-like personification of happiness. His solos are a contemporary variation of 1930s hat-and-cane dances to songs like Jimmy Durante’s rendition of “Make Someone Happy,” an old-timey melody meant to cheer the listener up instantly. Likewise, Walker’s appearance throughout the narrative and his bouncy stage presence marks brief periods of light-hearted tranquility within the work.

Each time Walker leaves a scene, effectively taking happiness with him, there is an immediate musical transition to scratchy string compositions as the segments unfold into failed attempts at attaining the sense of comfort his character represents. Eight remaining dancers, ironically clad in calming blues and neutral colors, reflect these drastic changes in mood with contemporary arrangements that convey extreme reactions to his absence. Group therapy is represented through manic, nonstop movement that propels the ensemble upward as they leap onto a circle of chairs gathered around a burning light bulb. Each member reaches outward, flaunting nervous jazz hands while twisting their faces in expressions of desperation. In a later section, a trio of women perform a melancholy dance in dim light to low-toned hums and vocalizations. Gentle dips and sudden side tilts draw them close to the ground as they subside to sorrow.

Craig Black jumps high above his fellow sufferers during the group therapy scene in “Eudaemonia.”
Photo Courtesy of Rosalie O’Connor.

Eudaemonia’s tagline: “Happiness is simple. The way in which we seek it is complicated,” is felt most strongly in the penultimate scene as a duet between Walker and Emily Proctor, whose character most persistently searches for his presence throughout the evening. He starts by leading her through elaborate twirls from which she initially emerges strongly. The flow, however, is interrupted once her turns lead to falls. Even though he catches her successfully every time, she eventually pulls away, rejecting his advances with a pained look suggesting that she believes she does not deserve him. He succeeds in coaxing her back to their routine through sheer tenacity, and the show anticlimactically concludes with the entire troupe taking turns stepping forward on stage and slowly beaming, as if on command, to Durante’s “Smile.” This time, however, the ditty has lost its charm. The viewer is left guessing as to this final moment’s authenticity. Is achieving happiness something really simple once we learn to let go, or is it something we do as a way of proving to society that we’re stable?

Although Eudaemonia was the evening’s focus performance, the show was bookended by two other previously composed pieces that also deal with themes of unknown possibilities and imbalanced realities.

The first body of work, Jiří Kylián’s Sleepless which premiered in 2004, explores the uncertainties that lie between dreams and life. Set to a dark background that plays upon shadows of varying intensities on white, sheet-like fixtures (also designed by Kylián) that stand vertically upward, the creepy set up offers an exploration into subconscious fears. Three pairs of dancers take turns slinking in and out of slits separating parts of the veil-like sheets, performing solo or in entangled duets to a soundscape that resembles shattering glass and eventually elevates to a Mozart-inspired lullaby-like tune. The climax occurs when the sheets lift uniting two previously separated partners and a subdued whisper grows stronger until it is barely loud enough to be deciphered as part of a Spanish poem by Antonio Machado. It translates to:

Wanderer, there is no path,
the path is made by walking.
Walking makes the path,
and on glancing back
one sees the path…

Emily Proctor briefly finds happiness in “Eudaemonia” after placing Walker’s hat upon her head like a crown of confidence.
Photo Courtesy of Rosalie O’Connor.

The final show, Alejandro Cerrudo’s Little Mortal Jump, is the most fast-paced and conclusively tragic. Originally composed for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in 2012, it starts off cheerfully, with a vibrant street-dance feel that grows darker as the four on-stage couples’ relationships complicate in the wake of their unity. Choreography takes a fast-slow approach to the evolution of movement with each duet. Turns increase in speed when performers grow closer, but slow down to angular movements with jutting elbows and boxy frames when they pull apart. Props help to highlight the final pair’s fate when they are comically Velcro-fastened onto two giant, separate squares which are pushed together to represent their feeling forced into staying with one another. After peeling themselves off, the duo begins twirling madly, moving farther back on stage until more squares are spun on either side of their silhouettes and pushed in front of the couple to obstruct them from the audience’s view. When all is pulled back it is revealed that they have vanished, losing themselves in the love they’ve created.

Eudaemonia better establishes itself as the evening’s centerpiece through its definition: “human flourishing” rather than plain “happiness.” Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s brilliant choices for opening and closing shows enhance this concept by suggesting that balance and contentment are possible when one starts making their own path. The night’s performances unravel the deeper, darker side of being human and in doing so highlight awareness as the hopeful road toward working for something better. It is through maturity and development that we can really allow ourselves to flourish.