The co-founder of James Sewell Ballet has soared in her own aerial works and explores improvised movement, wearing her pointe shoes throughout. The word that comes up most often to describe Rousse is “adventurous.”
Her dance career reflects her daring spirit. The Vermont native performed with large and small ballet companies both nationally and abroad before partnering with Sewell in 1990. Along the way Rousse (pronounced “roose”) discovered an interest in a wide variety of dance forms.
“I had a different kind of curiosity, a different hunger, different interests, and some of those I could bring into the company,” she said. Rousse’s varied dance interests will be on display Sunday at the Cowles in a 50th-birthday celebratory performance that also will mark her 24-year legacy with the Sewell Ballet.
A dance scene superheroine
Watching Rousse demonstrate technique in the living room of her Minneapolis home during a recent interview, it’s clear she understands movement from the inside out. Rousse enjoys breaking down the physical mechanics while explaining a trick that involves bending the knee to create an illusion of height.
“You have to have an imagination to keep dancing this long,” she said.
And a brain. “I was really surprised when I saw movies like ‘The Turning Point’ that depicted all dancers as stupid,” she said. “All the dancers I know are incredibly intelligent, their way of problem-solving is really unique. Just because they’re not talking a lot doesn’t mean they’re not intelligent.”
Of course, the body plays the pivotal role in dance. Rousse measures in at 5 feet 1, but adds another seven inches while on pointe, thanks to “really long toes.” Longtime friend, poet Heid Erdrich, said Rousse “has crazy arms. Her arms are as long as her whole body. She has elastic arms, that’s the fun thing about her being a dancer. In my mind, she’s 6 feet tall.”
No wonder this seemingly fearless diva inspired a leggy crime-fighting cartoon character called “Tutu the Superina,” created by Bill Burnett for the 1998 Nickelodeon series “Oh Yeah!”
For all her skill, Rousse is self-deprecating and even courts “divine chaos.” Perfection is beautiful to behold but lacks a certain urgency. “If you’re watching someone like [New York City Ballet dancers] Darci Kistler or Suzanne Farrell in the middle of an emergency, a dance emergency, that is so exciting; you can watch them think.”
Rousse said she has a dance emergency in every show, from costume malfunctions to complex movements and missed connections with other performers; maybe that’s why her presence is so riveting and refreshingly human.
“She can be a really pretty picture that projects to the back of the balcony,” said Kristin Van Loon of the dance duo HIJACK. “At the same time, she can let her body get completely disoriented on stage.”
From Vermont to the world
The youngest of seven children, Rousse grew up in Barre, Vt., a granite town. She was just 4 years old when her father, a journalist, was killed in a plane crash. Her mother, a nurse, remarried, and the family got by on a tight budget. Rousse learned about ballet from a popular girl and got hooked. As a teen she left home for the academically rigorous St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire to join its dance program.
Erdrich met Rousse while both attended the prep school on scholarship. “I admired her so much,” said Erdrich, originally from North Dakota, adding that it was “awe-inspiring” when Rousse graduated early to pursue a dance career, cramming four years of school into two while spending her summers studying at New York’s School of American Ballet.
Rousse’s first job was with the Omaha Ballet. There she met her first husband, David Munshin, and after two years they returned to New York. Rousse joined the Garden State Ballet in Newark, led by Peter Anastos, the founding director/choreographer of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an all-male drag troupe known for parodies of classic works.
“I was really his muse for about three years,” she said, but despite her sense of humor, Anastos only gave Rousse serious roles. “He would make me sit next to him and watch him coach the funny ballets. He taught me about comedy,” she said.