James Sewell is smart as a choreographer and smart to have moved out of New York in 1993 after years of studying, performing (most memorably with Eliot Feld), and struggling to show his work. He developed his successful chamber ballet company in his native Minneapolis, a city with a long history of modern dance, and forged a contemporary style aligned with the classical tradition.
Legibility of design is a major component of his choreography. In Moving Works (1996), with music ranging from Monteverdi and Bach to Combustible Edison and Kodo drummers, his eight dancers print their every position on the space. The first section (with Kevin A. Jones’s color-saturated lighting) isolates each of five performers as they stand hunched over in a line, facing the wings and building patterns as if swimming eccentrically in place. The second section rings changes on glissades that trace loops as well as sideways paths. In imaginative duets that become trios, the dancers use one another’s limbs like turnstiles; and to a ravishing Monteverdi madrigal, lying on their backs, they reach up to provide momentary support and resting places for the restless Penelope Freeh.
Loves Remembered (1991) recycles a duet theme we’ve seen many times before: Two searching people meet, mate, feel bad, and part. But Sewell avoids the festival-of-lifts metaphor for copulation and gives the scenario some refreshingly sensitive and understated touches (Freeh reaches as if to unbutton Sewell’s pants, then doesn’t—until a few minutes later). A scratchy record of a Hugo Wolf song suggests that memory is filtering this affair, but there’s nothing veiled about Freeh’s terrific solo with its raging folk dance steps and wild turns.
Sewell has become interested in improvisation, and uses it to produce chaos in his new Barrage, riskily equating a disintegrating dance order with the besieged world order, mixing Tchaikovsky into a rumbling stew that includes Fatboy Slim and traditional Armenian music. Lusty, clever, occasionally sophomoric or heavy-handed, overlong, and not always tasteful. the aptly titled dance is a crowd-pleaser. A polonaise spreads its dignified patterns; it’s a while before you notice that the ribbons on one of Peggy Seipp’s pointe shoes have come undone and are flapping in her wake. Then an overhead light falls, swinging on its cable. Dancers get injured, embark on bizarre lifts, try new choreography, keep the polonaise alive, bow. In an uncomfortable no-joke joke, Seipp follows a classical pas de deux with Benjamin Johnson by dancing with a plastic bag over her head and expiring in front of us. Finally, in a video projection, Sewell’s very pregnant wife, Sally Rousse, does a belly dance worthy of the name, while the screen fills with marching soldiers and Saddam Hussein; in a terrifying moment, a separately filmed rioting crowd seems to be pushing and engulfing Rousse and the future life she bears.
The great Canadian solo dancer Margie Gillis brings to mind the story that Eleanora Duse could (did?) bring spectators to tears while reciting the telephone directory. I say this not to denigrate Gillis’s choreography but to praise her expressiveness. As she celebrates a 30-year career, her timing, her gestures, and her focus are fine-tuned to a perfect pitch—both in her older solos and in new ones that make more use of her sensitivity than of her physical prowess.
As with most soloists, transformation is integral to her performances. In Blue (1998), to a Leonard Cohen song, her long hair in a braid and only one strap of her overalls hooked, she’s confined in and around a chair, her unquiet body erupting in small, uneasy moves. While Tom Waits’s rusty voice sings his anguished “Waltzing Matilda,” Gillis in her eponymous 1978 work comes apart—staggering, clubbing her feet, falling, waltzing clumsily. On the other hand, when she dances in What the Wind Whispers to Jessye Norman’s glorious voice singing Brahms, we see a glowing beauty in a red gown, bending, gesturing subtly, and letting her hair fall loose. Like Norman alighting on a note, she knows just how to render shades of feeling. The woman who, in Gillis’s new Elimination, moves in gentle staccato increments, segmenting her body in response to spare sounds by Doreen Bray and Josée Dandurand, exhibits hardly a trace of sharpness in Irene Dowd’s also new Viridian, in which she flows beside Rosalyn Tureck’s taped playing of a densely rippling Bach piece. Her body becomes expansive, somehow noble, even in playful moments when she fits chains of little backward steps to an seemingly infinite cadenza. A past mistress of friskiness and breath-caught suspensions, she also shows this soft side—and a desperately passionate one—in her 2003 A Complex Simplicity of Love, accompanied in part by the soaring voice of a Handelian countertenor.
The most complex and fascinating work, the 2003 Breathing in Bird Bone to music by Gaétan Leboeuf, evokes shore images. Sometimes this wandering woman is ungainly—dithering, flapping, and distracted. Her hands beat the air beside her ears, beat over her heart, become birds. She emits gaspy laughs. Something in her is struggling to take flight.
What moves me most about Gillis, though, is not just her gifts as a performer, but the joy she radiates over and beyond each work’s message. She performs as if the stage were her home, and there is no place she’d rather be.