This fall marks the start of James Sewell Ballet’s fifteenth season in the Twin Cities. (The company was established three years before that in New York City.) In honor of the anniversary, JSB put on an ambitious concert, more rigorous and less sentimental than any I’ve seen previously, and more clearly marking the origins and current direction of Sewell’s talent.
The evening began with two dances from the 1898 Petipa ballet Raymonda—a short, elegant pas de trios and the famous wedding variation. While the guest dancers of the pas de trios performed well, it was Emily Tyra’s wedding variation that clearly showed the appeal of the classical. A variation is a short dance, generally a solo, in which a character—in this case a vain and beautiful princess—is developed through a few characteristic steps (here, light hand claps and a vivacious pose with one hand supporting the back of the head), the rest of the dance being classical (and difficult enough to command applause). The variation gives us a brief glimpse into a world of nobility, beauty, wit, and eternal youth; this view into a higher world is the endless appeal of classical ballet. Tyra’s only flaw is in her musicality, but as she showed spot-on timing elsewhere in the concert, this seems more a matter of confidence than of ability. In a brief greeting after the piece, Sewell promised to give us our “tutu fix” regularly; I hope we’ll see Tyra try on more variations in the future.
From this beginning, Sewell took two different directions in the other two pieces (both his own choreography). In Schoenberg Serenade, Sewell pursues the steps and positions of classical ballet but takes, as a variation does, a few liberties in order to show character and reflect the music. The music is all-important here: Schoenberg Serenade is the type of dance known as “music visualization,” in which the choreographer recreates the music through the dance (rather than using the music as backdrop for a story or theme). “Music visualization” is generally a derogative term, but there’s no shame here; we must all be grateful to a choreographer who will illustrate Schoenberg’s formidable composition, bringing out both its overall form and its wit. I loved Sewell’s inventions here—particularly an arabesque that begins ecstatically but then crumples, just as the music does.
Kinetic Head, the only premiere of the evening, goes after a more technical concern (the inside of ballet): complex coordination, which is what allows you to pat your head and rub your belly (if you can), or play the piano with different rhythms for each hand, or (in dance) execute slow and generous arm movements over rapid footwork. Sewell pushes this in various directions in Kinetic Head—a crazy difficult solo for himself, two duets involving video doubles of the dancers, and complex ensemble work, sometimes in the dark with lit-up costumes. All of this doesn’t quite add up to one ballet. I enjoyed the two duets the most; the rest of Kinetic Head feels more like an exercise than an emotional experience. I find it a little hard to appreciate complex coordination from the audience. I know that it’s difficult to jump and drop your arms down at the same time, but the knowledge doesn’t translate to feeling. Still, I admire the dancers’ abilities and Sewell’s willingness to explore this strange territory.
Throughout, the dancers shine. Distinct—from Tyra’s long elegant lines to Penelope Freeh’s uncompromisingly sharp edges to Chris Hannon’s easy flow and more—yet uniformly excellent, Sewell’s dancers make a diverse, fun, and knowable company; by the end of the concert I felt attached to them all. From the company and dances he’s created, I see Sewell as a humanist, a lover of humanity and human possibility. We are lucky to have him here in the Twin Cities.
James Sewell Ballet performs at The O'Shaughnessy through October 28.