Surprise Party

After 15 years, James Sewell Ballet still thrives on the unexpected

It's late in the afternoon, and the members of James Sewell Ballet are nearing rehearsal's end at the Hennepin Center for the Arts. They're working on "Kinetic Head," which will premiere during the company's fall season in October, and it's a particularly tricky piece of choreography. Sewell watches closely as Penelope Freeh, Chris Hannon, Justin Leaf, Nicolas Lincoln, Emily Tyra, and newcomer Caroline Fermin try to solve what the choreographer has termed "body puzzles," a mind-bending array of rapid changes for the arms and legs. Along the way they swoop through fishtail turns and create subtle illusions as they travel across the floor, one following the other with rapt attention to physical detail and musical counts. During a pause, Tyra tries out a few breakdance moves, curling up her body and balancing on her hands. Finally, Sewell wants to review one more section, and reminds the group to be "small and relaxed" because "you're dead tired." Satisfied, he releases the dancers, acknowledging their hard work as "an investment in our future."

The atmosphere is calm yet intensely focused during the rehearsal, a reflection on Sewell's work ethic, organized direction, and unpretentious demeanor. The 46-year-old Minneapolis native, wiry and youthful in his loose-fitting clothes, rarely sits for long as he demonstrates a movement, cues up the music, or directs a correction toward one of the dancers. It's a role Sewell has embraced since 1990, when he and Sally Rousse (his wife since 1993) founded the company in New York. Now, as they prepare for their 15th season in Minnesota, it's time to take stock of how this small ensemble managed to beat the odds and keep going, even as so many others have folded along the way.

The James Sewell Ballet has been successful for many reasons, but chief among them is the company's willingness to innovate and challenge preconceptions about ballet. Anna Kisselgoff, the former New York Times chief dance critic, who was not one to lavish praise, called the company "a polished gem of a chamber dance troupe." No influence is left unexplored—Sewell and his dancers continually inject surprise into the work using different dance genres, challenging musical scores, or the occasional sight gag. This fearlessness is paying dividends—the company has been well received in its performances at the Joyce Theater in New York (another is scheduled for October), and locally it maintains an active season, including fall and spring programs and its popular holiday offering Amahl and the Night Visitors. It's a frequent partner with the Minnesota Orchestra, the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Guthrie Theater.

David Kern
David Kern

"I remember someone saying if a company makes it to seven years that's great," Sewell says a couple of days after the "Kinetic Head" rehearsal. "I'm thankful in this climate that we're able to grow and survive, and a big part of that was moving back to Minneapolis." Starting out, however, was tough. Sewell recalls telling Cora Cahan, the former executive director of Feld Ballets/NY, where he danced for six years, about his plans. "She said, 'You're crazy, don't do it.'" But the choreographer insisted he needed the opportunity to work consistently with a group of dancers in order to "move forward artistically," and she eventually agreed.

Sewell persuaded Rousse, who had performed with Ballet Chicago and the Royal Ballet of Flanders, to join him, and she soon took over all of the business of the company—writing grants, running the board of directors—while also performing and serving as muse. "Without Sally the company never would have gotten going," says Sewell.

Once settled in Minneapolis, Sewell and Rousse were eventually able to hire an executive director, bring their dancers on salary, and provide health benefits. With stability came the opportunity to tour (extensively throughout the state and the country, as well as overseas) and to work with artists from a variety of genres and viewpoints, including improvisation, which now plays a key role in developing new works. When Sewell saw Rousse collaborate with contact improviser Chris Aiken, something clicked. Contact improvisation's reliance on partners sharing weight and responding to subtle shifts in one another's movement opened up new ways of thinking about building ballets. "I had appreciated improv before, but had not seen it in a classical context," he says. "The contact part got my head spinning about the unexplored potential of improvisation within ballet. It changed my choreographic process, and now I've found after making 60-some ballets that if I know how a piece is going to come out when I start, it's too rudimentary. That's not interesting anymore. Now it's how I play with my process. I don't know what it's going to look like."

"Kinetic Head" is a good example of this aesthetic shift. The piece, built on the foundations of Sewell's early 2007 work "Proprio," relies heavily on polyrhythms, and Sewell blends improvisation and structured choreography into the mix. The dancers respond to these moments of uncertainty because they, like Sewell, have sought out the opportunity to push the boundaries of the form. The company, he says, "is for dancers who have gotten their classical fix." Rousse adds, however, that the troupe is still "incredibly grounded in classical ballet. We really have to sharpen our ballet chops in order to bend it. You have to define the line before you blur it."

The second work on the fall season, 2006's "Schoenberg Serenade," further illustrates this point. Set to Opus 24 for Chamber Ensemble and Brass, the piece explores the composer's groundbreaking 12-tone work from 1924. This presents yet another challenge because the aurally dissonant music is not easy to listen to. "Some people think it's hideous, and I've been in that camp," Sewell acknowledges, adding, "but it's fun to build structures out of that music" and create movement that is just as visually dissonant. During a recent rehearsal led by Rousse, the company often dispensed with usually lyrical ballet lines, their arms crooking into hard angles, the dancers climbing onto one another's backs and balancing precariously. The dance offers an accessible way to understand Arnold Schoenberg's composition, and many will appreciate the score's complexities by using the movement as both filter and magnifying lens.

Rounding out the program is "Excerpt from Raymonda," with choreography after Marius Petipa's 1898 classic. The focus is on the hand-slapping variation, and Rousse explains that it's a powerful solo for a woman. It was once her role, but now the 19-year-old Tyra will take over, and she has received coaching on the Vaganova style from Lirena Branitski, a local teacher at the Minnesota Dance Theatre and Dance Institute who was a first soloist with the Kiev State Theatre of Opera and Ballet. "It's very difficult, very strong and straightforward," Rousse continues. "Emily is a student of Lirena's, and it was special for me to pass the baton to her."

Even as Sewell and Rousse continue to develop in their own right as artists, it is also true that they have reached a point in their careers where they will experience more acutely their impact on a new generation of dancers. It's a bittersweet moment signaling both their accomplishments in a difficult field and the quick passage of time from struggling to make it in New York to building an institution in Minnesota. Such security is precious, but Sewell and Rousse do not take their good fortune for granted. "There's no big pond, small pond as far as I'm concerned," says Sewell. "This is a huge milestone, and I'm really thankful to be in this place."

The James Sewell Ballet performs October 26-28 at the O'Shaughnessy at College of St. Catherine, 2004 Randolph Ave., St. Paul; 651.690.6700

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