It turns out you needn’t be in New York City to find great collaborators. James Sewell, a native Minnesotan who earned his stripes early in his career in the Big Apple, now finds plenty of wonderful artists here in the Twin Cities.

As a case in point, Sewell’s spring concert includes a new work that uses the music and poetry of Dessa, one of Minnesota’s hottest musicians. The show’s run continues this weekend.

“I like that we have such an amazing music scene, and she’s such a stellar representative of what can happen here and has been happening,” Sewell said. “I love being able to respond to where I live. You don’t have to be in New York to be collaborating.”

Dessa is in Europe but she wrote by e-mail that she met Sewell and his dancers while they were filming the music video for “Call Off Your Ghost.”

“Every troupe member I spoke to seemed kind and enthusiastic,” she wrote. “When James later asked if he could choreograph to some of my music, I was flattered.

“I’m on tour for the entirety of the run, unfortunately, but I’ll be lifting a glass in the general direction of Minneapolis, wishing his team the best of luck with the ballet.”

Sewell found Dessa’s music “wide-ranging in theme and pulse and tone.” For that reason, he chose to have a number of his dancers choreograph different sections, in addition to his own contributions.

“I thought that broadened the palette of the piece,” Sewell said.

Many takes on the music

Nic Lincoln, who is retiring from the company after this season (he is featured in a separate pas de deux as a thank you and farewell), has choreographed both to Dessa’s poetry and her music. Rather than trying to reiterate the poem’s meaning, Sewell says, Lincoln has created movement that “lies on top” of the words, culling the images Dessa has created.

Other dancers who contributed to the piece include Nicky Coelho, who performs with a hula-hoop to Dessa’s “Into the Spin” and Kelly Vittetoe, who used Dessa’s “Warsaw” for her piece.

“It had this gritty kind of feeling and yet there were peaks and valleys,” Sewell said of Vittetoe’s work.

“Into the Spin” additionally includes one piece choreographed by Sewell set to music by Aby Wolf, one of Dessa’s frequent collaborators.

The company is also performing as part of this concert “Silk Road,” a piece choreographed to music by Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, which Sewell also choreographed during a Montana residency in the summer of 2014.

“The music spoke to me,” Sewell said. “I feel like what interests me about choreography is blending classical ballet with other styles — drawing from modern, different international influences, improvisation.”

Finding the right chemistry

He found that same kind of sampling of different influences in the work of the Silk Road Ensemble, which seeks to explore interdisciplinary forms inspired by Asian cultures along the Silk Road.

“It’s like playing chemistry,” Sewell said. “When I mix this with that, what’s the reaction?”

He was especially drawn to the images evoked in the music. One section of music was quite long and made Sewell think of a journey.

“It sounds like people are going across the tundra or something and it has these episodes along the way,” he said.

Sewell also found inspiration from the natural landscape of Montana, where the company taught workshops for young people and rehearsed during the evenings.

“In our times off we’d be done dancing for the day, we’d go out and find this great place where we’d jump off into a river or we would go hike up the mountain and look at the stars — these different sort of episodes were happening that somehow drove images into what we were doing on stage,” Sewell said.

Also a part of the concert is “Dusty Realms,” choreographed by Norbert de la Cruz III, which premiered as part of the company’s Ballet Works Project, a laboratory for new work. While the company doesn’t always look to the Ballet Works Project, it does happen occasionally.

“I don’t want it to be a competition — which is ‘the piece that’s going to get on the season’ kind of thing,” Sewell said. “I think that would change the way people take risks and approach the project. But once in a while it does happen, and I’m delighted when it does.”


Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis writer.