James Sewell brings wit and imagination to ballet

Mix of classical and modern creates a vibrant dance idiom

By Lucy Komisar

Suddenly dancers in classical pose are transformed into modern angular shapes that twist and jump to the sounds of the baroque. The music becomes electronic as classical body language turns into erratic gyrations in “Anagram,” choreographed by James Sewell to the music of Franz Schubert.

In Sewell‘s “Involution,” figures in green tights crawl, fall, twist to the jazzy sounds of Andean flutes. Program notes explain that this depicts the flow of energy through the body. One senses a tension as the dancers turn. The piece is lush, imaginative.

James Sewell, who comes to New York every year or two, but performs frequently in the Midwest for luckier audiences, has created a visually luxurious dance idiom that is chock full of surprises and invention. His signature amalgam of classical and modern allows him to create complex, diverse seasonings. Sewell dances are never staid, never boring.

The fun part of this collection is “Guy Noir: the Ballet,” a clever spoof of the tough guy Sam Spade detective genre (danced with panache by Benjamin Johnson), based on the character by Garrison Keillor. It was choreographed by Sewell and written by Sewell and Sally Rousse, his wife and dancing partner.

This is a hokey mystery complete with a mugging and not only a chain saw, but an electric saw, a drill…..well, a whole tool shop. Or tulle shop. In fact, the tale that is told (by Keillor on tape) is about a contest run by the Acme Tulle Co. (Tulle/Tool, get it?) for the best dance commercial done by someone carrying a tool. (Or tulle?)

The arrival of a worried blonde lady elicits the comment of narrator Keillor: “A leg‘s a wonderful thing when it‘s attached to someone like her, and she had two of them.” The lady, a contest competitor, has been threatened!!! I won‘t reveal the mystery.

One dancer does her leaps while wielding a chain saw. And there‘s jazzy music by an electric saw. The charming, witty movements give a whole new meaning to “story ballet.” And the excellent, talented ensemble members are expert interpreters of the tale. There are, in fact, quite a few wonderful legs expressing the visions of the Sewell Ballet!

“James Sewell Ballet.” Dancers: Penelope Freeh, Brittany Fridenstine, Benjamin Johnson, Justin Leaf, Nicolas Lincoln, Sally Rousse, Peggy Seipp-Roy, James Sewell.

Performance seen at The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, April 2006. The Sewell Ballet performances for the rest of 2006 are at the Guthrie, Minneapolis, Oct 12-15; University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Nov 13; Saint Mary‘s University, Winona, Nov 16; Ritz Theater, Minneapolis, Nov 29-Dec 3; Schauer Arts Center, Hartford WI, Dec 8; Janesville Performing Arts Center, Janesville WI, Dec 9; Truman State University, Kirksville MO, Dec 12. For details and schedule for 2007: http://www.jsballet.org.

Photos by Erik Saulitis.

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