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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.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Brave New Torch Bearers

When a dancer sets out to redefine him or herself, my heart skips a beat in empathy.

I just returned from Dance USA in beautiful, sunny Portland, Oregon, and this is in my thoughts as the cream of the conference rises to the top.

I am thinking specifically about Peter Boal, Atristic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. He is at the end of his first season in this position after twenty two years dancing with New York City Ballet. He impresses me with his quiet, passionate articulation. It came as a surprise to find him so committed to a sense of political responsibility. His modest roots beget a leftist American perspective, and it will be interesting to witness how that might manifest in his new position at the top of one of our country’s major ballet companies.

During the last several years of his tenure with City Ballet he founded Peter Boal and Dancers, and I caught one of his programs a few years ago at the Joyce. It was a solo venture. He commissioned three choreographers to create three new solos for him that would fit nicely together as a complete program. The thought of seeing Peter Boal in the intimate setting of that “downtown” venue was almost like contemplating seeing a fish escape its water. Perhaps the reality was a little true. And perhaps because of that, the performance came across as very brave. I wonder what he would cite as the more intimidating: his first performance of a major role at the State Theater or this, at the Joyce? My guess is the latter. This is his bright idea; he soley is responsible, and he could fall flat.

He did not fall flat though the evening was flawed. The three works did not particularly speak to one another as was his hope. What I took away was a sense of pride in a fellow dancer (whose many friends were clearly supporting him in the audience) who dared to break out of his indidgenous environment.

(“Fellow dancer”- how presumptuous of me to say, but actually it’s true. Although our statuses and experiences are remarkably different, we are the same animal, cut from the same cloth; a dancer is a dancer.)

I think too about Christopher Stowell, Artistic Director of Oregon Ballet Theatre. When he retired from San Francisco Ballet after sixteen years, he initially wanted to get out of the field. He explored possibilities in the opera world, and I can imagine his generous curiousity taking him far. Awhile into that exploration the opportunity arose which led to his current position. Again, a brave and individual choice to break out, to redefine. It led back to dance, to directing a company, but perhaps that opportunity wouldn’t have arisen had he not distanced himself. He made room so that he could return.

As I heard him tell anecdotes about his work with his dancers, it became clear that he is most respectful and sensitive. It was disarming to hear how his feelings were hurt when a dancer began treating him differently after his casting choice for a particular role didn’t include her. I suspect his well-rounded sense of self keeps him grounded and able to negotiate the rocky terrain of inter-personal dynamics.

And I think about my own Artistic Director, James Sewell. After six years with Feld Ballets NY he broke away, daring to found his then pick-up company James Sewell Dance in the unstable (at best) environment that young companies are up against. I remember hearing about his maverick choreography. I knew of him through a mutual friend, and when an audition came along I jumped. Something about him and his work spoke to me that day, and this dialogue continues as I embark on my thirteenth season with the company, now James Sewell Ballet. I know him as a human and feel an affinity as a dancer. That break-away spirit continues, and I do my utmost as a dancer to encourage it, to be present in the moment when that spark ignites. What an honor to be choreographed upon by someone who wears his struggles on his sleeve.

It strikes me that these men are torch bearers. Dancers are following them into this next dance moment of the ballet world specifically. I am heartened that they wear their mantles of leadership out of a sense of rising to the occasion and not out of any egomaniacal motivation. I know with James this translates as a sense of collaborative respect in the room. We are all working toward the same goal and through that, we grapple with satisfying our individual ones. I hopefully suspect that an akin dymanic exists at PNB and OBT.

Finally, I think about my own urges to break out, to roll around on the floor instead of turning up on my toes. I am inexpressibly lucky that I have been able to do both these things and more. I am a self divided: a practicioner and lover of ballet (the definition of “amateur” is: lover of), an identifier with modern dance, a choreographer, a teacher and recently, a writer. How will this all ultimately fit together?

This conference got me thinking, and as yet I don’t know where it will lead. I am glad I went, though I am dissatisfied. I walked around Portland and I felt half present, half capable, like my brain couldn’t settle on the appropriate word for something. On the tip of my tongue. This is how it begins I know. Soon I will break away again, and I have many examples paving the way.


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