James Sewell danced for six years with Eliot Feld’s company on the stage of the Joyce. That may have been when he got the idea that a ballet company could be structured like most modern dance companies—that is, to present choreography by the artistic director, who is also usually on hand as a performer. His small group (currently eight dancers including him) has flourished in Minneapolis, and it’s easy to see why. His work may not be trendy, but it’s musical, well made, often witty, and varied in terms of subject matter. For instance, last year the James Sewell Ballet came to the Joyce with a farcical piece based on the adventures of Garrison Keillor’s radio detective, Guy Noir, while Sewell’s 2007 Turf dealt very explicitly with torture.
This year’s Joyce program focused more on dancing to music, which this choreographer manages adroitly. He comes from a musical family, studied violin for nine years, and composed the scores for a number of his ballets. His 11-section Opera Moves, revised and expanded last spring from the 1991 original, shows that he’s wise in the ways of heart-ripping singing, operatic melodrama, and diva behavior. In semi-darkness, to Wagner’s “Liebestod,” the dancers become both a human bier and a mystical force to lift Penelope Freeh toward the light, while Justin Leaf (Tristan to her Isolde) attempts to merge with her. Since Claudio Monteverdi wrote the roles of Nero and his bride Poppea in the 1642 Coronation of Poppea for two women’s voices, Sewell sets Freeh and Sally Rousse cavorting amorously, with tunics and head wreaths added to Fritz Masten’s basic red-trimmed tan leotards. The choreographer himself depicts the tragic clown of Pagliacci, while a great tenor (Jussi Björling surely) sings the aria “Vesti La Giubba.” Dancer Emily Tyra delivers Kurt Weill’s “Lonely House” herself, live, while moving minimally and sensitively. A few scenes later, Tyra’s playing the ballerina equivalent to the coloratura diva trilling “Una Voce Poco Fa” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, shooing her cavalier (Chris Hannon) offstage every time he offers to partner her. It’s a huge cliché of course, but deliciously staged and performed.
Sewell’s Schoenberg Serenade is more imaginative in terms of steps. Wearing tunics resembling Roman armor over velvet pants (the handsome costumes are by Mary Hansmeyer), the dancers converge in passages that have a spiky, antic elegance in keeping with Arnold Schoenberg’s Serenade, Opus 24, for Chamber Ensemble and Brass. The effect is small-scale and plain. The dancers perform on a bare stage, nicely lit by Kevin A. Jones. There’s a tricky pas de deux for Sewell and Rousse, then a duet for Rousse and Tyra, which Leaf invades. His ensuing duet with Tyra moves from the jungle (navigating on hands and feet) to the ballet academy (bourées and the like). There’s a long solo for Freeh, and a final lively group wrap-up.
The choreographer is on view as a solo dancer in Kinetic Head to music by Bach. The three-movement work brings to mind Feld’s love affair with repetition. For a long time, Sewell stands in one spot, creating boxy designs with his arms, gradually augmenting the moves, expanding them in space, and combining them with other gestures. It’s a fascinating piece, and Sewell performs it with a winning combination of cool concentration and pleasure.
One thing about this attractive company puzzles me. All the dancers (including Nicolas Lincoln and Caroline Fermin) throw themselves into “performing” when that’s called for, as it is in Opera Moves. But in a straightforward ballet that’s not meant to involve acting, like Schoenberg Serenade, they seem to hold back. They dance very well, but don’t appear fully present in a way that would make the steps breathe and glow and the space around them come alive. Wary perhaps, of letting “personality” get in the way of the choreography, they don’t always give it the color it needs and deserves.