As is often the case, music is very much on choreographer James Sewell's mind. Beethoven's "Opus 131" is a piece he's studied over the years since first setting movement to it in 1995 -- and he remains captivated by its complexity. The work leads off James Sewell Ballet's spring season at the Cowles Center, with a sparkling live performance by the Grammy award-winning Parker Quartet (presented in partnership with the Schubert Club). The dance readily responds to the composition's shifting moods.

With "Opus 131" Sewell explores several recurring movement ideas. Partnering is not bound by gender, the dancers' movements imitate the rounds in the music, and circles serve as gathering points throughout the work. There are elements of Sewell's trademark playfulness -- such as a nifty ballet equivalent of musical chairs where someone is always left out. But at times the gamesmanship is too much, as if the dancers are naughty kids mugging behind the backs of musicians Daniel Chong (violin), Karen Kim (violin), Jessica Bodner (viola) and Kee-Hyun Kim (cello) seated below the stage.

Sewell's choreography connects when dancers Nicky Coelho, Leah Gallas, Cory Goei, Chris Hannon, Nic Lincoln, Sally Rousse and Eve Schulte locate counterpoints within the music. Illusions of floating successfully contrast with a composition that might demand more sharpness. Rousse and Lincoln extend their arms and flex their backs as if to stretch out the movement with the notes, realizing the dramatic possibilities within the music's intricacies.

The evening includes the world premiere of "A Sound Embrace," choreographed by Sewell, Sabine Ibes and the dancers. It's an interesting experiment in deconstructing the tango that works best when we see how the parts can combine into something new that still retains the fiery essence of its source -- the elegant stance, the seductive spirit, the elaborate rules of engagement. Sewell and Ibes are particularly smooth partners, gliding across the floor as one.

Yet the work feels as if it's still coming together; the scenes don't have a seamless flow yet. A corny theme riffing off the evolution of tango feels forced especially since there is really much more to be said about the piece's ultimate question -- "Does it really take two to tango?" For Sewell and crew the answer is a resounding no -- and hopefully they will keep trying to prove it.