James Sewell Ballet’s spring concert opens with a work by dancer and artistic associate Penelope Freeh. Freeh is one of the Twin Cities’ most underrated choreographers, and her “Table Waltz” compels viewing by its detailed exploration of flex and point, the awkward and lovely sides of sensuality, from a froggy jump of immature wanting to the breathtaking romance of a round-her-partner’s-shoulder twirl. Freeh is presenting her work in this summer’s Fringe Festival in early August; don’t miss her razor-edged but beautiful ballet explorations.
I wish I could like the evening’s new work, “Social Movements,” because James Sewell’s ballet, set to music and concept by Steve Heitzeg, comes with such a stock of good intentions. But good intentions, alas, often weigh down artistic work. With section titles such as “Protest,” “Green,” “Displacement,” and “Equality,” you know you’re in for some heavy-duty sincerity, and sure enough, with the exception of the playful “Green,” “Social Movements” sinks under its painful literalism. Sewell’s best technique here is playing his sleek, graceful dancers against encroaching forces of ugliness and constriction. The effect of this technique isn’t negated by its obviousness: When the dancers’ buoyant stage-leaps crash against a wall of dark-clad figures, you can’t help but feel something. Sewell also sneaks in some lovely little bits of courtship dance. But overall, “Social Movements” loses its artistic force in stale polemic.
A more unalloyed pleasure in the extraordinary JSB dancers comes with the live improvisation “If This Then What.” Sewell takes a few cues from the crowd (opening configuration, music on or off to begin with), and out come the dancers, with no preconceived idea of what they’re doing. But these dancers show the best of contemporary ballet training: weightless in jumps and swan-graceful, they’re also strong and unafraid to be awkward for effect, working their complex coordination for every last twist of a flow of energy through the body. Improvisation isn’t typical ballet territory (it’s much more common in modern dance), but JSB dancers take it on with humor and appetite. The night I saw it, “If This Then What” didn’t produce a dance masterwork, but it did bring the dancers closer to the audience, at the same time that their skills set them apart from most of the rest of us.
The last work in this concert, JSB dancer Sally Rousse’s “By the Gypsy River Banks,” is also concentrated on the dancers. In this somewhat internal work, the dancers search through blindness and sight, sometimes almost turning from the audience in their quest for a cure, a method, an answer. Hefted upside-down by the partners, legs over the men’s shoulders, the women trail one arm on the ground. An enigmatic ritual of death and healing goes awry; the dancers sit on the floor, lost. But one woman gets an inspiration: she arranges the rest in a circle around her, dances for them, and starts them dancing too. There is no answer or cure, only a path, a how. Their how is ecstasy, a free-flowing dance companionship that spreads from the stage over the audience in a felt release. What a lovely way to be returned to our own lives—with the energy of these beautiful dancers.
James Sewell Ballet’s spring concert runs at the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium through April 13