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.