Fans filled the seats at the Cowles Center on Sunday night to celebrate James Sewell Ballet co-founder Sally Rousse. “Sally Jubilee!” marked the dancer/choreographer’s 50th birthday and the end of an era as she is moving on from the company after 24 years. So it was only fitting that the evening began with a tongue-in-cheek eulogy from animator Bill Burnett, who created the cartoon "Tutu the Superina" for Nickelodeon with Rousse.
“She who danced has gone on to join the other late greats in ballet heaven,” he intoned. “Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland, Mikhail Baryshnikov, John Travolta.” Of course the joke is that none of these folks have passed on but people react to career changes like they are a sort of death.
Video of Rousse and Sewell working out moves early in their partnership showed two young innovators with a lot of creative chutzpah. When they stepped onstage Sunday night to perform the beautiful duet “Tryst” each showed that the passage of life events – including their marriage, two children and divorce – can deepen an onstage bond.
While there were many tender moments including the return of former Sewell members Christian Burns and Brittany Fridenstine-Keefe the evening was also filled with plenty of fond jokes at Rousse’s expense. According to Sewell her studio nickname is “tree frog” because of an uncanny ability to climb around on other dancers’ bodies. Dancer/choreographer Penelope Freeh, a Sewell Ballet member for 17 years, recalled how Rousse hopped into the cab of an idling beer truck blocking an alleyway in order to move it so they load up their car for a tour. “The driver was dumbstruck,” said Freeh, “But it got the job done.”
And speaking of making things happen, Patrick Scully, who introduced contact improvisation to the Sewell Ballet, described Rousse’s activist spirit by recounting how the petite ballerina stood up to the Cowles Center architects who were entertaining the notion of having the dancers use the same bathrooms as the patrons.
Perhaps the funniest scene of the night, however, belonged to the performance trio Mad King Thomas (Theresa Madaus, Tara King and Monica Thomas) wearing tutus and toe shoes, assuming ballet poses while reciting a list of wild rumors about why Rousse was leaving Sewell Ballet. “She was fired,” they hissed. “She was hit by a bus! She slept with the boss! She’s moving to a cattle ranch in Australia where the cattle are in dances narrated by Hugh Jackman! She had Hugh Jackman’s baby! She quit and tore up all the costumes! It was a frenzy of tulle!” It was a brilliant send-up of the dance scene’s catty side.
Many expressions of appreciation for Rousse came from the heart. Freeh described Rousse’s willingness to share her roles with other dancers. Longtime friend, the poet Heid Erdrich, called her “intrepid not tepid.” All of the evening’s performers waltzed with Rousse while wearing costumes from her roles (including Sewell modeling Rousse’s hamburger tutu and French-fry headpiece from 2011’s “Le Dance Off”). Former Sewell and current Minnesota Dance Theatre member Justin Leaf serenaded Rousse with a sweet rendition of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
The show concluded with Rousse and Noah Bremer of Live Action Set dancing an excerpt from a work they are developing for the American Swedish Institute. “What’s next?” he asked Rousse. “It’s in the lobby!” she exclaimed, while being carried off funeral-style by her fellow dancers. The Brass Messengers struck up a festive march.It was time for birthday cupcakes.