writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

A  Vivid, Musical Talent

James Sewell Ballet
Joyce Theater
New York, NY
January 20, 2004

by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2004 by Susan Reiter

The lasting impression I carried away from my initial look at James Sewell's choreography—his troupe's first New York appearance in 2001was that it is refreshingly unaffected and musically astute. Having missed the company's one-performance stop in Brooklyn last spring, the James Sewell Ballet's first week-long local run was a welcome chance to further investigate what he has been up to since relocating to Minneapolis in 1993.

Sewell was a prominent member of Eliot Feld's company during the 1980s, particularly at the time Feld frequently turned to Steve Reich scores and began creating works that were more gymnastic and impudently playful. Sewell, an elfin, effervescent dancer with a natural and communicative stage presence who had studied at the School of American Ballet, was often featured in Feld's increasingly quirky romps.

He had begun to choreograph during his SAB years, and first formed a company in New York in 1990. The works he brought to the Joyce represent nearly the entire life-span of the troupe, ranging from a 1991 duet to one of his 2003 premieres. Sewell clearly has faith in what he has made over the years, choosing to display the range and development of his choreography for this significant occasion, rather than just bringing what is newest.

There is a striking, vivid clarity to the opening moments of Moving Works, which began the program. Five dancers are revealed, in profile, one by one across the stage, each bathed in a color of the spectrum, and each creating angular yet supple shapes with their bodies. Their rapid, isolated movements overlap and accumulate power as they are more fully revealed. This first of five sections is set to the second movement from one of Bach' violin sonatas, and Sewell has used it with such sensitivity that the movement seems to grow spontaneously out of the music. As Sewell makes use of it, the Bach sounds assertively modern and gutsy, and the dancing, while it has the clean, crisp line of contemporary ballet, resonates with something ancient and deeply powerful.

Sewell's sense of form and craft in this work is highly impressive. He has a strong idea of the stage picture he wants to create at all times, yet as the dancing spills out into the space, it feels very natural, almost inevitable. So much contemporary choreography is messy around the edges, unclear about when (or why) it comes to a close, and lacking in structural integrity. Sewell is a breath of fresh air in this regard. Each section of Moving Works is artfully shaped, progressing through a beginning, middle and end, and each closes with a deft, confident touch, rather than petering out aimlessly in the manner one sees all too often. The simple square-cut leotards (with bare legs, although matching pants are added in two sections) employ a bright array of colors but allow the clean lines and intriguing shapes of Sewell's movement to register fully.

Each of these complete, satisfying chamber-scaled sections creates a vivid, full-developed movement study to its musical selection. To the gently funky beat and quirky chords of a selection by the group Combustible Edison, six dancers begin in a unison box step pattern, advancing form side to side, and break out into increasingly intricate patterns cued by vivid colors splashed on the upstage cyclorama. Bach returns (a prelude and fugue from one of the Cello Suites) as Sewell brings the focus close to the center of the stage, reaching and unfurling with muscular grace, exploring the full range of his body's suppleness and reach. Yoga-inspired movements are added to the mix as three couples take over the stage from him, but classical placement and clean line remain in the forefront of the choreography.

The fourth section, to a Monteverdi madrigal, sets the breathtakingly spontaneous and mesmerizing Penelope Freeh moving over, around and amid the other seven dancers, who offer support in an variety of unexpected ways. Again, Sewell has crafted a very complete and convincing stage picture, filling the space ingeniously and without forcing any effects.

The finale ventures into world music territory, blending the powerful rhythms of the Japanese Kodo drummers with the otherworldly vocals of Baaba Maal, from Senegal. The sounds, the vivid colors (again splashed across the stage and on the backdrop), the tautly shaped movement all combine to create a richly textured, complete statement.

Loves Remembered dates from 1991, and it has an earnest tone that suggests a more youthful dance, as do the somewhat heavy-handed titles given to each of the six sections. It is entirely different in style from either of the other two works on the program, in which the women are in pointe shoes. This heartfelt duet depicts a deeply romantic relationship as a memory, played out with impassioned intensity to romantic lieder (Schubert, Schumann, Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf). Sewell and Freeh are amazing in their abandon and mutual trust. At first seen yearning separately, they then come together for three duets portraying childlike wonder and delight; intense physical passion; and finally wistful, autumnal regret and loss. The coupling, for which both dancers artfully undress each other so that they perform in flesh-colored unitards, contains a few too many Macmillanesque poses of abandoned ecstasy, but Sewell does come up with some beautifully sculptured lifts and fluid shapes that breathe and sigh along with the music.

The most recent work was Barrage, which closed the program. This was filled with many (probably too many) ideas for which Sewell has not yet found a form. It begins teasingly: a decorous, pleasant if quite conventional ensemble dance to the refined strains of Handel is executed once without incident by dancers wearing neoclassical beige chiffon costumes but the has barely begun again when a large lighting fixture suddenly swings dangerously across the stage. The work then ventures further into the chaotic and unpredictable. Beige chiffon is eventually replaced by black, sporty, hip-looking contemporary outfits, and the pleasant isolation of the stage is intruded upon by video footage reflecting contemporary politics and conflicts. A musical collage featuring snippets of everything from Bach to Ravi Shankar to Lauryn Hill enhances the sense of frenzy and disconnection. The dancers progress through partnering and encounters that incorporate improvisation, further leaving behind the neat, orderly world in which Barrage began.

While it is understandable that Sewell was interested in venturing further afield (and incorporate some of the Contact Improvisation techniques he has recently been studying with an eye to how they may be applied to ballet), Barrage suffers from being propelled by a conceptual premise rather than by a musical impetus, which on this program proved to be the more successful inspiration for his special and most welcome gifts.

First:  James Sewell Ballet in Moving Works; photo by David Boxall
Second:  James Sewell Ballet Loves Remembered dancer: Penelope Freeh; photo by David Boxall

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 4
January 26, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Susan Reiter



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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on January 11, 2004