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.
I had grown up watching Kyra Nichols and Wendy Whelan dancing "Diamonds," and it was my absolute dream to dance it, too. I immediately connected to "Diamonds." It's big, dramatic movement, nothing small, and I don't think there's anything small about my dancing. I have to reach deep down in my soul to do this ballet, to rise to the level of the choreography, the costumes..."Diamonds" is just on another level from anything else I've done. It takes everything out of you, if you're willing to put that much into it.
Monday morning class after a three-day weekend? Stiff. After eight weeks off? Agonizing.
For most professional dancers on their summer layoff, a break from the daily grind is simultaneously exciting and unnerving. These months are often reserved for recovery and rest—a necessary opportunity to let the body repair and recharge. How dancers spend their summer break is mixed: some teach at summer intensives; some take the extended time to travel, visiting family or exploring internationally; some choose not to pause, performing at galas or festivals; and some just want to stay home, feet up, movies on. Depending on where you dance, the break might span a couple weeks or a couple months. Regardless of length, it involves a physical wind down, as well as a build back up. While it's never going to feel entirely easy, here are a few pro tips to help smooth the transition between 1 and 100 percent.
The soloist in "Rubies" has been one of my favorite roles since the first time I danced it. I was in the corps then and it was one of my first big parts. It's so powerful and freeing. My favorite moment is when I come straight down center towards the audience, doing these sort of strutting walks on pointe. You're not playing to anyone else onstage. You're playing straight to the house. And the section with the four boys is really unusual; it's not often that a woman is onstage with four men, but she's still the one in charge. When I'm doing the penchés going offstage at the end of the first movement, I try to be calm and hope that the audience can't tell I'm trembling inside, or that my supporting leg is wobbling.
Maura Bell was determined to have a ballet career. But as a high school senior, she didn't feel ready to audition for companies yet. “I knew I had more maturing to do, both technically and as a young woman," she remembers. Bell started researching collegiate options and discovered that Indiana University's ballet department hosted a two-week summer intensive for pre-college students. “The reputation of IU spoke for itself, so I decided to do the summer intensive to get a feel for what it would be like to go there."
The deciding moment came at the end of her second week, when department chair Michael Vernon led her and fellow students on a tour of IU's Musical Arts Center. “I remember standing on that stage—it's the size of the Met— and it just clicked: This was where I wanted to be, my dream school," she recalls. Bell auditioned for the ballet department that fall. Four years later, she credits the training and connections she made at IU with her ultimate post-graduation success: a contract with Saint Louis Ballet.
College summer programs offer students a chance to experience what life would be like as a dance major, and introduce them to a wide range of possibilities for their training and future career. Even those on the fence about going to school could benefit from spending a few weeks on campus—along with the strong focus on individual development, collegiate summer intensives allow students to meet year-round faculty and current dance majors, scope out the dorms and dance facilities, and do some major networking.
I think "Emeralds" is more of an acquired taste than "Rubies" or "Diamonds." There aren't really any difficult steps, but it's extremely hard to pull off because of its simplicity. You can't just "sell it." But the musicality and simplicity come together so perfectly to make it dramatic and sweeping, and just so much fun to dance.
Former New York City Ballet principal Suzanne Farrell is famous as George Balanchine's muse, yet Balanchine wasn't the only choreographer whom she inspired. In 1984 her then-husband, Paul Mejia, also a former NYCB dancer, created a piece for her called Eight by Adler, a jazzy ballet set to the music of Richard Adler. Beginning at 0:45 after a short intro, Farrell performs the first movement in this clip from the ballet's premiere with the Chicago City Ballet.The slender, long-limbed Farrell saunters across the stage, at moments giving the audience playful smiles and sideways glances. The choreography feels improvisational, befitting Farrell's proclivity for off-balance, suspended movement. With a full jazz band onstage, the music is equally the star in this solo. Even though the slow and sultry piece is a far cry from Balanchine's fast footwork, Farrell's mesmerizing performance in Eight by Adler is a stunning example of Mr. B's famous slogan: "See the music, hear the dance." Happy #ThrowbackThursday!
"I'm kind of a collector of clothes," says Natalie Varnum. The Houston Ballet corps member turned a spare room in her home into a walk-in closet and fills it with eccentric pieces. "I love big, clear oversized sunglasses; or a high-waisted pant, socks and loafers; or a newsboy hat," she says. Varnum is inspired by icons from the '60s and '70s—Jimi Hendrix, Jane Birkin, Elton John—and she finds endless ideas on social media. She'll search Pinterest for photos, follow up-and-coming stylists on Instagram or update her own blog with "outfit of the day" posts. It was through Instagram that she recently met South Korea–based designer Sandra Meynier Kang, who reached out in hopes of collaborating and sent her a sample from her new leotard line. "It's the best way to make faraway friends now," Varnum says.
In the studio, Varnum takes a more conventional approach—sometimes. "I like a classic ballerina look, like light pink, long sleeves," she says, "or I go for something completely crazy." She commissions fun patterned leotards from her friend, former company dancer Jordan Reed, who now runs Lone Reed Designs. Her collection includes leos printed with pizza and doughnuts. Whatever she's wearing, Varnum is not afraid to stand out. "There's a time and place for a classic little black dress," she says, "but I tend to go for the more out-there pieces and colors."