This is the time of year when thoughts turn to rattling bones, so it makes sense that James Sewell Ballet is performing a work called “Ribcage” at the Cowles Center through next weekend. Inspired by Anna George Meek’s poem of the same name, the world premiere pays homage to the skeletal framework of the body’s core structure (ribs, sternum, scapula, vertebrae) but it’s anything but a dry anatomy lesson.

Indeed, choreographer Sewell has created a fanciful world onstage with elements seemingly drawn from “Fantasia” — vintage music boxes, traveling circuses, rhythmic gymnastics and mysterious late-night cabarets. Fritz Masten’s evocative costumes add to the curious big-top feel. In other words, this is a genuinely odd yet hypnotic arrangement of ideas that haunts you for the rest of the evening, just like a strange but memorable dream.

“Rib cage” is set to live music performed by soprano Carrie Henneman Shaw plus electric guitarist Jesse Langen and violinist Marc Levine with composition from Abbie Betinis, among others. The score uses reconstructed and newly arranged 17th-century music to create intriguing counterpoints of sound, particularly when the rhythmic reverberation of breathing comes into play. The effect is baroque meets prog rock — not an expected pairing at all, but it works quite well.

This may be one of the Sewell’s most physically demanding pieces of choreography to date. The dancers, particularly Nicky Coelho and Nic Lincoln, lift and support one another as their bodies curl and contort like acrobats. The troupe comes together to form tableaux and even balance heavy balls on their heads, going through their paces with showmanship flair. The pastoral scenery by Steven Rydberg is bright and pretty but there’s a sense of danse macabre within — these unwitting performers may well be caught up in a show that never ends.

The program also includes “Guy Noir: The Ballet” based on the private detective character from Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show (Keillor narrates via recording). Chris Hannon plays the lead role with appropriate gumshoe understatement and Kelly Vittetoe glams it up as the femme fatale Allegsa Goodthing. But the best part of this work is a hilarious contest between the dancers who must use tools as props. Anton LaMon’s ode to occupational safety complete with safety glasses, helmet, hammer and screwdriver is a bona fide hoot.

 

Caroline Palmer writes about dance.