Life took a tragic turn when Munshin died of cancer. Grieving, Rousse decided to start over and signed on with Ballet Chicago. She and Anastos had a falling-out over her decision. “It hurt him, and we never really patched it up,” she said. “At some point you have to slay your mentor. I don’t think he realizes how much I got from [him], to have someone really love you as a dancer.”
Co-founding James Sewell Ballet
After Chicago, Rousse moved to Europe, joining the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium. Then Sewell convinced Rousse to take a risk with him on a fledgling company back in New York.
“He invited me to Maine to a folk festival to do a ballet solo, and it’s on this funky stage with hay on the floor. I showed up with my tiara and tutu,” said Rousse. After fretting needlessly over a pleasant afternoon sailing trip that cut into her extensive pre-show warm-up, Rousse decided she needed to ditch her image as a “stick-up-my-butt ballet dancer from Europe.”
Rousse and Sewell married in 1993, and moved their troupe to Minneapolis a year later.
“We never would have made it without everything Sally gave,” he said — contributions that extended from the stage to administration.
Former JSB member Penelope Freeh recalled the duo invited the dancers to their house on “two-show days.”
“She would make carrot soup and we’d watch MTV and all take naps,” said Freeh. “Sally’s responsibility in the company was to take care of us.”
Once again Rousse was a muse, this time for Sewell. “The thing that never ceases to amaze me is her range as a creative artist,” he said. “As an actress she always brings an authenticity, she has an innate sense of understanding drama.”
Rousse inspired many other choreographers over the years, including Freeh, who found a formidable creative partner. “Her imagination is so boundless that it gives your own imagination permission to go there,” said Freeh.
Chris Schlichting, who created a piece for JSB’s Ballet Works Project last year, describes her as “this adventurous thinker who explodes with ideas.”
The birth of Rousse and Sewell’s children, Mona and Oliver (now 15 and 10), meant a change in priorities. Rousse, who had never missed a performance, started to wonder whether “the show must go on” when there was a sick child at home.
Rousse and Sewell separated in 2008 and divorced last year. “It’s gotten easier to work together,” she said. “I just thought we needed some distance so we could untangle. I was really enmeshed with his vision and his goals. Things have changed, and it’s only natural. It’s almost a quarter-century since we started our company.” The two will perform together Sunday.
This year marks Rousse’s official transition away from JSB. “We are still negotiating how to fill in the gaps left by her energy,” Sewell said. “My role is changing, too, and I’m learning to navigate without Sally being there.”
Laughing into the future
What’s next for Rousse? She is an artist in residence at the American Swedish Institute. She’s learning hip-hop dance. She may choreograph more works, and could return as a guest and coach at Sewell Ballet. And the consummate ballerina remains the biggest cheerleader for all artists. Rousse “really maintains a presence that goes way beyond being an advocate and supporter at almost every show,” Freeh said. “She’s a real champion for the people.”
Sunday’s “Sally Jubilee!” will be a dancer’s version of a celebrity roast, with a mix of sight gags and lighthearted verbal jabs.
“I thought it would be fun to make fun of me,” Rousse said.