For James Sewell's new work "Social Movements," which highlights James Sewell Ballet's 15th spring season, the deck is clearly stacked against the choreography. Before Friday's premiere, Sewell, composer Steve Heitzeg and peace activist Anne Morrison Welsh appeared on stage to discuss Norman Morrison's self-immolation in 1965, which Welsh (Morrison's widow) described as a "desperate sacrificial act to stop a horrific war" by a man the Vietnamese consider "a saint."
Heitzeg's cinematic score, inspired in part by Morrison, was packed with emotional and dramatic cues. The ballet's section on Morrison included projected images from the 1960s against a visual of the American flag. Against this sensory and historical barrage, one hopes the choreography would hold its own.
Instead, Sewell has effaced his characteristic sense of invention in service to an almost sentimental approach to complex, passionately held ideas. Even the dancers are clothed in sheer shapeless jumpsuits -- the political drones also wear masks -- that reduce them to a mass of movers rather than highly differentiated, individual dancers.
Aiming for simplicity, the largely gestural, pedestrian choreography takes its storytelling cues from the music. In the first section, "Protest," there are walks, runs, little kicks and jumps, thrusting arms, and the acting out of Morrison's (Chris Hannon) death. In "Green," the dancers -- their costumes stuffed with garbage -- topple and stagger around the stage, tipping one another upside down to empty the trash.
"Displacement" is the most metaphorical section. Loose hands and arms ripple through the air in an expression of freedom. There are folk-inflected circle dances and partnering, which become more troubled and faltering as a foreboding phalanx of performers corrals or traps the dancers on stage. "Equality" focuses on gay marriage, with three couples embracing, nudging, lifting, resting on and gazing lovingly at each other, while the heterosexual duo receives the blessing of society and the church.
Penelope Freeh's barefoot duet "Table Waltz" has far more choreographic invention. Sally Rousse's "By the Gypsy River Banks" has an earthy vivacity, dangerous sensuality and ritual-like violence. The concert's other premiere, the company's wholly improvised "If This Then What," overflowed with languid beauty, deft humor, compelling little dramas, and a seamless ability to innovate in the moment. Intelligent abstraction trumps literal representation in this concert.
Camille LeFevre is a Twin Cities dance critic.