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Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

I am a dancer with Minneapolis based James Sewell Ballet, a small, contemporary ballet company. I also choreograph independently.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

"Serenade" and a Solo

February 22, 2006

Last weekend James Sewell Ballet premiered a new ballet, “Serenade”, to Schoenberg’s music of the same name. We performed it at the Ordway in Saint Paul with the magnificent Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

This is a good ballet. It is one of James’ most technical with many multiple turns following many more and at top speed. It is something to sink ones teeth into; we as a company are just beginning to investigate this one.

And yet there is something magical about the raw reality of a brand new piece. I think it’s very special, seeing all the edges and vulnerabilities. Our task is usually to make it look easy and yet there’s a rough-and-tumble quality to a premiere that’s endearing. At least, that’s how I choose to look at it. (I give other performers this leeway too.)

Indeed, on Friday night the piece was rough yet ready and it was a thrill to perform to a sold out Ordway. One of the most beautiful venues in the Midwest, it has hosted several highlights of my career: MN Opera’s “Nixon in China” last June is foremost in my mind.

“Serenade” is largely an ensemble piece. Nine of us negotiate the stage in strict formation, defining our respective roles in any given yet particular pattern so as to bring to light a certain something in the score. Oh what music! This piece has surely grown on me. It is exacting and masterful. My naïve ear witnesses history as I listen to the a-tonal perfection. James rose to and met this choreographic challenge. The ballet invents as many steps as it exploits standard ones. In the same breath we are doing those recognizable multiple turns then lumbering on the floor on the way to crouch between another dancer’s legs, our feet inelegantly yet brilliantly ginched.

This choreography, perhaps more than James’ other work, pays homage to Balanchine. I see this especially in the pas de deux for him and Sally. They flow in and out of irregularity and classicism with precision and clarity. It is en pointe and totally in control. It is funny and respectful. It is deadpan with an inner secret.

I have a solo. A SOLO. It is very special to me and I look forward to delving deeper into it even as I sit now in relative satisfaction at the recent memory of performing it. Sally likens it to Paul Taylor dancing in Balanchine’s “Episodes-Part II”. Here’s what happened…In 1959 Balanchine and Martha Graham were slated to collaborate on a new work with music by Anton Webern. In fact the choreographers worked entirely independently of one another. Each created a section: she Part I, and he Part II. The “collaboration” came into play in that she used three City Ballet dancers and he used Paul Taylor who was in her company at the time. Paul had a solo, created in four one-hour rehearsals. (Paul did a lot of homework.)

So Sally makes this comparison and my heart thrills: I knew my solo was important. Home I go to refer to my books; I remember reading about the incident in PT’s autobiography “Private Domain”. There it was again. The way-with-words PT has is old-fashioned, charming, I am drawn right in to his history and somehow feel that I am extending it’s life through my solo.

I enter the space cross fading with Justin and Brittany. He is carrying her off in a slumped-over lift and so James instructed me to enter slumped over too. (One of the many references to evolution in the piece.) My step quickens as I straighten up toward center stage, hoping the conductor won’t start til I’m placed and stilled. I stand on one leg (not a forte) and gesture coolly. Yet here is where I open my heart to the audience. Perhaps I can give them a way in to this perplexing music and these esoteric steps. Thus the dance begins and I am at once balletic and modern. In my pointe shoes I am doubled over and distorted. I attempt to channel PT as I strike a balance. Never having seen “Episodes”, I instead conjure his solo from “Aureole”, that brilliant use of stillness as he balanced in second position releve for a whole phrase of music. James threw one of those in for me too: a crouched stare at the audience, stillness while the music ends a phrase.

PT writes about his feeling the need to dutifully represent the modern dance community in 1959. Then the ballet and modern camps were distinct and separate. Now those lines are blessedly blurred and I stand in the vortex. That is my goal, my reason for dancing and expressing. To me dance is dance and ballet is as every day as my legs are low. I am unconventional and yet, in the words of Lincoln Kirsten to PT, I hope to have a “maverick talent for oddball dancing”.


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