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James Sewell Ballet

Pointe Shoes and Pink Power Drills: 'Anagram,' 'Involution,' 'Guy Noir: The Ballet'

by Cecly Placenti

April 8, 2005 -- Joyce Theatre, New York City

James Sewell, artistic director and choreographer of his own James Sewell Ballet, has the unique ability to embrace diverse forms of movement and infuse them with a fresh perspective. For his evening at the Joyce Theatre on April 8th, Sewell demonstrated exactly how classical ballet can be a mutable art form receptive to invention.

“Anagram” opened the evening with a seamless and pleasing fusion of luscious ballet movement and Sewell’s penchant for quirky surprises. Although it was danced to the music of Franz Schubert for the company’s run at the Joyce, “Anagram” has been designed in such a way that it can be re-set to different music in a matter of days. Displaying his creative intelligence and artistic risk-taking, Sewell designed the choreography in modules that can be sequenced in any order and connected by improvisational structures. The choreography abounds with severe lines that are suddenly softened and made more three-dimensional. Bodies go up in lifts that are linear and then become curved. Folk-influenced movements, small shoulder shrugs, and hip circles give the piece a very contemporary feel and combine effortlessly with classical lines to give it compelling momentum. The performers bring the magnitude of their unique and powerful personalities to this abstract work

“Involution” blends movements from the healing art of Qigong with abstract ballet to explore how individuals evolve from being fractured and isolated to unified and at ease. After a beginning of angular, jerky, abrupt solos coming downstage on the diagonal in a concentrated beam of light, the dancers’ sharp limbs and frenetic torsos begin to give way to fluidity and continuity. Their movements become longer and more luxurious, yet even as the dancers begin to pair up, their focus is still drawn inward. Improvisation, long a fascination of modern dancers, also interests Sewell. Minneapolis, where the company is located, is a center of one form of this dancing called Contact Improvisation.

In “Involution,” as the music turns twangy, the dancers come together in the center of the stage in a very Contact Improvisational moment. Their limbs and torsos intertwine in a large orgy-like mass, with the dancers crawling on and supporting each other, as one dancer walks the periphery alone. In another movement, a basic of the Contact Improvisation art form, the dancers lie on the floor and roll into a wave that bears Sally Rousse across the stage like a surfer. The movement continues to soften as Rousse activates each dancer rendered immobile in different positions on the stage. While a sudden flail of an arm or a jagged elbow still appears, like the muscle memory of a past event, the choreography becomes progressively more smooth, silky, and free. In a very powerful and affirming moment, “Involution” ends in stillness with some dancers alone, some leaning on each other in pairs, and as the music fades, all seven dancers slowly turn to look at the audience as if inviting us into this spiritual journey.

The surprise of the evening was the murder-mystery “Guy Noir: The Ballet,” inspired by the cigar-chomping radio detective character created by Garrison Keillor, who wrote the ballet’s script and narrated it on tape with the perfect amount of film-noir disengagement. Here Sewell employed his wit, humor, and comedic timing to deliver a laugh-out-loud, quirky ballet, while still filling it with creative choreography and interesting structure. The ballet begins with a late-night visit from a distressed and seductive blonde damsel, Allegsa Goodthing, danced by Peggy Seipp-Roy. Her life has been threatened during a dance contest at the Acme Tulle Company which offers $1 million for the best dance number featuring a tool. Benjamin Johnson embodies the title character in snappy choreography featuring a cigar, his hat, trench coat, and a folding metal handcart, but he is really just the straight man for a cast of highly colorful characters. In the studio, Igor, danced by Justin Leaf, is rehearsing diligently and with concentrated expressionism with a tape measure. A pair of German polka dancers, Nicolas Lincoln and Brittany Fridenstine is practicing with a very large double handled saw and modern dancer Martha Isadora (how witty!), danced by Penelope Freeh, is passionately handling a chain saw. Add in a pink power drill, safety goggles, hammers, and a screwdriver, and you have one silly ballet!

Short and too the point, this ballet had the audience laughing out loud at the characters’ antics, and applauding wildly for the varied talents of this fine company. Justin Leaf nearly stole the show with his goofy earnestness, calamity-prone ideas, and sharp acting skills. His long sinewy body and captivating style stood out all evening, even among this talented cast.

Sewell’s integration of that slightly oddball and very funny presence into a program made up of two purely-dance ballets was a refreshing surprise indicative of his distinctive gifts. This is a company definitely worth catching, whose reputation can only continue to rise.

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