In "Fusion," James Sewell Ballet and the Schubert Club travel back and forth in time to explore the cross-cultural impact of Indonesian gamelan music, known for its metal gongs, xylophones and bells. It's a bumpy journey. There's luminous revelation in the interplay between live musicians and Sewell's receptive dancers. And there are murkier moments when the Eastern and Western influences don't gel.
Gamelan-inspired composers from the 19th and 20th century inform the program's stronger first half. Sewell's "Fém," for example, is a study set to music by György Ligeti. The deconstructed choreography complements Ligeti's futurist fragments, interpreted with a light touch by pianist Jihye Chang.
In "Hypotenuse" Sewell pairs Maurice Ravel's composition "Trio" with movement that plays against expectations. Cory Goei, Nic Lincoln and Eve Schulte are like puppets without strings as their bodies contort, rise and fall with loose limbs. They contrast with the elegant music performed by Chang, Jill Olson (violin) and Andrey Tchekmazov (cello).
Company member Penelope Freeh's "Sight Reading," a duet for Leah Gallas and Chris Hannon set to compositions by Erik Satie, Alexandre Tansman and Claude Debussy, tenderly explores a relationship between artist and muse. Lincoln's solo "Interlapse" (also to Debussy) matches jazz-like movement with a restless mood. Chang ably accompanies both pieces.
Of all the composers featured, Colin McPhee most clearly integrates gamelan sounds into his music. In "Adjunct Fractal," Sewell subtly weaves in movement seemingly influenced by Javanese and Balinese dance.
This piece prepares us for the evening's second half, "Shadow's Light," featuring the International Novelty Gamelan ensemble. The multifaceted score composed by Tom Patterson, Elaine Evans and Kevin Cosgrove creatively blends hand clapping and clarinet with gamelan instrumentation. The work begins promisingly with clever partnering of Indonesian shadow puppetry and movement. The dancers assume the puppet's characteristics, a welcome theme throughout the work. But there's a garish quality to "Shadow's Light" that detracts from its better elements. The rainbow-colored lighting and excessively shiny costumes don't help, but it's the choreography's uneasy mix of Western and Eastern movement styles (including diffuse improvisation sections) that struggles to innovate in ways that don't seem obvious or forced.
Sewell boldly pushes ballet's aesthetic boundaries. But in this particular effort a comfort level with the ideas has yet to be fully achieved.
Caroline Palmer writes regularly about dance.