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.
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.
The evening will feature past JSB company members, longtime collaborators, old friends, videos, memorabilia and lots of backstage stories.
Judging by the wide regard for Rousse, the post-show parade from the theater to the lobby for birthday cake, led by the Brass Messengers, is sure to be long, raucous and lots of fun.
Caroline Palmer writes about dance.