Dante's Inferno, Marriage Equality & Minnesotan Ballet

James Sewell Ballet is a tiny, but mighty gem of the Twin Cities arts scene. This year marks the contemporary ballet troupe's 20th anniversary season, and highlights include the men’s duet from Lar Lubovitch’s Concerto Six Twenty-Two, as well as Inferno, a piece that Sewell has been dreaming of since before he even launched the company. Pointe recently asked Sewell about where his company's come from and what it's up to now.

 

What was your initial vision for James Sewell Ballet?

The idea was to be a touring ballet company: small and structured like a modern company but doing contemporary ballet and taking our work to communities and colleges. But colleges had their dance budgets slashed, and we've ended up focusing more on building relationships with communities across the country. The challenge now is transitioning into more of an institution, welcoming other choreographers.

 

Why did you decide to move from New York to the Twin Cities?

At the time we were in New York, there were around 600 dance companies competing aggressively for space, dancers and audiences. I was putting probably 40 percent of my energy into simply surviving NYC. I always thought, If only I could focus all of my energies into the work. Moving to the Twin Cities allowed us to get my dancers on salary and offer health benefits. Plus it’s a fantastic creative landscape that I knew really well from my childhood—I grew up in south Minneapolis where my father was a violinist and my mother a singer as well as the head of development for Minnesota Public Radio.

 

You just hired three new dancers. What makes a James Sewell Ballet dancer?

Someone who has strong ballet technique but is willing to improvise. I don’t expect dancers to be great improvisers right away. But they need to be very open, to throw themselves into it, to be willing to take risks. Because that’s something you can’t teach.

 

You've billed the Lar Lubovitch duet as a celebration of Minnesota's marriage equality act. Did you specifically select it in response? 

I always wanted to do a piece by Lar, and I love this duet. When we saw what was going on with Minnesota's marriage amendment, it just seemed perfect. The piece was a great way to honor the state getting this done.

 

Inferno seems like a massive project—what inspired it?

The second piece I ever choreographed back in 1981 was based on Dante’s first work, The Vita Nuova. As I was doing that piece, I got a vision of The Divine Comedy that I wanted to do with holograms and all kinds of amazing technology. I waited for technology to catch up, but it never did. Yet I decided recently the company was strong enough to tackle the work. We're using an immersive, layered video environment instead of the holograms I originally envisioned. For me, ballet is always a base and a departure from which I can push myself and my dancers toward new boundaries.

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Angela Sterling, Courtesy of Pacific Northwest Ballet

Clear your schedule now for Monday, January 29th, 2:45PM (EST)/ 11:45AM (PST). Pacific Northwest Ballet will be live-streaming rehearsal from Kent Stowell's Swan Lake, straight from their Seattle, WA-based studios. To psych us up for their on stage performances February 2nd - 11th, PNB is letting us in on their Act II rehearsal.

From the corps of swans to Odette and Prince Siegfried's pas de deux, and the infamous four swans, this rehearsal is not to be missed. You can sign up now for a live-stream reminder on their site. In the meantime, we'll be brushing up on our Cygnets with this PNB sneak peek.

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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Summer Study Advice
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Videos are a great alternative when auditioning in person isn't possible. Here are some general guidelines for making a good impression.

1. Follow directions. Before filming, research what each school you're interested in requires. "It demonstrates your ability to follow instructions, and schools pay attention to that," says Kate Lydon, artistic director of American Ballet Theatre's summer intensives and the ABT Studio Company. "If the guidelines haven't been followed, your video might not be watched the whole way through." You may need to make multiple versions to accommodate different schools.

2. Videos should be no longer than 10 minutes. "Keep it short, simple and direct," advises Philip Neal, dance department chair at The Patel Conservatory and artistic director of Next Generation Ballet. "You have to be sensitive to how much time the director has to sit down and look at it." Barre can be abbreviated, showing only one side per exercise, alternating. Directors will be looking at fundamentals—placement, turnout, leg lines, stability—but don't ignore musicality or movement quality. Make sure music choices match combinations and are correctly synced in the footage.

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Career
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I want to be a professional dancer, but my parents won't listen. They either don't think I can do it (contrary to what my teachers have said) or they won't let me take the necessary steps to become a professional. Please help. —Audrey

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Videos

They say that pigeons mate for life—perhaps that's why these birds naturally symbolize the young lovers in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Two Pigeons. In these two clips from a 1987 performance in Pisa, Alessandra Ferri and Robert LaFosse—then stars with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, respectively—dance a rapturous pas de deux at the end of Act II. With tiny pricks of her feet and bird-like flaps of her elbows in Part 1, Ferri marks her anguish, thinking she's been abandoned for another woman. Later, both she and LaFosse grow more and more entangled as they reconcile, Ferri dancing with the passionate abandon she's famous for. I love how in Part 2 (0:20), they can't seem to get enough of each other as their necks arch and intertwine. At the end of the ballet, two pigeons fly in to perch symbolically on the chair—er, there's supposed to be two. It looks like one missed its cue at this performance! No matter—Ferri and LaFosse's dancing make it clear that these young lovers are meant to be together for life. Happy #TBT!

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Summer Study Advice
The author at 13, rehearsing at her home studio, Ballet Arts Theater, in Endicott, NY. Courtesy McGuire.

This story originally appeared in the December 2010/January 2011 issue of Pointe.

As a young student at a small ballet school in upstate New York, I was obsessed with getting into the School of American Ballet. From the age of 10, I entered class each day with the ultimate goal of studying at SAB dangling before me like a carrot on a stick. Every effort I made, every extra class I took was for the sole purpose of getting into what I thought was the only ballet school that really mattered.

I auditioned for SAB's summer program for the first time when I was 12. In the weeks that followed, I became a vulture hovering over my family's mail, squawking at my mother if the day's letters were not presented for my inspection when I walked through the door. The day the letter finally arrived, it was thin and limp. I cried for a week as I dealt with the crushing feeling of rejection for one of the first times in my life.

My mind filled with questions and self-doubt. What was wrong with me? Why wasn't I good enough? I figured I must be too fat, too slow, my feet too flat. I had worked so hard. I had wished on every fallen eyelash and dead dandelion in pursuit of my single goal, just to have a three-paragraph form letter conclude that I was a failure. For a while, I let myself wallow in the comfort of my resentment, content to believe that success should have come easily, and that to fall was the same as to fail.

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