Making Nice

James Sewell Ballet
"Anagrams," "Involution," "Guy Noir: The Ballet"
The Joyce Theater
April 5, 2006

by Lisa Rinehart
copyright 2006, Lisa Rinehart

James Sewell tries hard to make amusing, irreverent and meaningful dance, but with the three pieces on offer at the Joyce, he comes up short. His influences are a mixed bag of classical ballet, six years of contemporary dance with Feld Ballets/NY, and dabblings in yoga and Qigong. The result is work that's decently structured, professionally presented and essentially unremarkable—a virgin pina colada for the subscription set.

This is harsh criticism (better to be flat out bad than serviceable), but there's a method to the meanness. Sewell can do better. All three works show promising invention and wit, as well as the potential to push into darker emotional territory, but Sewell falls into the ballet dancer trap of believing a fluid torso and flexed feet are anachronistic enough to constitute a strong choreographic statement. Not so. What feels daring to a classically trained dancer is not always equally enthralling to watch and there's more to good choreography than placing appendages in surprising positions. I suspect Sewell is too much the dancer when creating his pieces and isn't able to get past the pleasing physical sensation of performing a movement. The result is ballets that are probably a lot of fun to dance, pleasing to look at, but lacking in vision.

A perfect example of this phenomenon is Sewell's most conventional offering, "Anagram," a chiffon and pointe shoe number for three women and four men set to Schubert's "Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano in A minor." The program states the piece can be set to other music so as to "produce distinct dances for different dance artists," but I'm not convinced a change of music would provide relief from the dance's terminal prettiness. Soft light filters down on cheerful men frolicking in fitted knickers and pseudo peasant shirts while the women flit among them. It's as cozy and cloying as a Martha Stewart kitchen set. Sewell adds some spice with unorthodox partnering such as when the men create striking human T's by suspending the women horizontally at waist level, and there are moments that defy expectation with a floppy, turned-in foot here and a hunched-back there, but Sewell never pushes too hard against contemporary balletic formula. "Anagram" is the perfect vehicle for a lithe, spirited dancer such as Sewell and he obliges with a tidy performance.

When Sewell moves away from his comfort zone, however, his work deepens and darkens. "Involution" is as obscure in meaning as the Wikipedia definition of the dance's moniker, but, at least in the first half, Sewell's work gets braver. In acid green unitards, the dancers convulse their way through a punishing series of solos and duets suggesting that Sewell can do more than just pretty. Grouped as a unit, the dancers writhe like wounded ants as they push and grab at one another in a sort of existential fury. But just as it's getting interesting, Sewell backs off and has the dancers calm down into sappy stylized yoga positions repeated to Thomas Newman's score which, at this point, is sounding like piped in mantra music from a day spa. Hey listen, some of my best spare time is spent doing yoga, but asanas don't make for riveting choreography. And when Sewell ends the piece by having the dancers turn their faces in unison to the audience in a placid I'm OK, you're OK moment, it's enough to make you want to hug a tree—then chop it down.

"Guy Noir: The Ballet" is equally silly, but has the advantage of Garrison Keillor's narration in his signature wry baritone. Believe it or not, the story manages to require several pas de deux with power tools and Sewell handles the challenge well. Martha Isadora (Penelope Freeh) has some excellent moves wielding a chain saw, and a hard-hatted Justin Leaf is convincingly dour in his "Soliloquy to Safety in the Workplace." The piece is charming and Sewell's time with Eliot Feld is evident with a light sense of play and the clever use of props, but it never gets quite as bubbly as it should. Once again, Sewell aims to please and plays it safe, but New York audiences deserve better than adequate regional theater and stakes are too high in this town to play nice.

First: "Anagrams"
Second: "Guy Noir: The Ballet"

Volume 4, No. 13
April 3, 2006

copyright ©2006 Lisa Rinehart



©2006 DanceView