At 58, James Sewell can’t jump as high as he once did when he founded James Sewell Ballet with Sally Rousse 30 years ago. His evolution as a choreographer has led him to step back, see the whole picture of a dance and allow dancers in the company to be part of the creative process.
For its 30th anniversary, James Sewell Ballet is hitting the road, with a tour of its repertoire that visits 12 locations throughout Minnesota. The tour, which was launched in January and culminates at the O’Shaughnessy in St. Paul the first weekend in April, highlights JSB’s trajectory as a company that has increasingly blurred the lines between classical ballet and contemporary innovation.
“It’s been really fun to go back and find the little things that pop out and show the variety of the 100 or so ballets we’ve done,” said Sewell, the company’s artistic director.
He had touring in mind when he co-founded the company with Rousse in New York City. He noticed that many regional ballet companies at the time had 25 to 30 members and didn’t tour very much because of the expense.
“So I looked at the smaller modern companies that were six to eight people and noticed how they could go out on the road in one vehicle,” Sewell said. “I thought, ‘Well, what if there was a contemporary ballet company offering a balletic rep?’ ”
Even in those early years, Sewell was interested in reaching people who think they didn’t like ballet.
“It has this cultural rap of being this stuffy, boring thing that if you like baseball, you’re not gonna like ballet,” he said.
Sewell wanted to share something different from traditional versions of “Swan Lake” or “The Nutcracker.”
“There’s nothing wrong with ‘Nutcracker,’ but it doesn’t have a direct relationship to what I do on a daily basis, and the kind of dances to different music and to contemporary themes that I think allow people to relate to ballet as a contemporary art form.
“One of the greatest payoffs is when I see the dragged husband coming back and saying, ‘Oh, man, I didn’t think I would like ballet, but I did,’ ” Sewell said. “That to me is worth more than a great review from a critic.”
Roots in Minnesota
Sewell is unassuming in person, with a warble of a speaking voice. He grew up in Minneapolis near Minnehaha Falls but went to school in St. Paul’s Highland Park, where he played in the orchestra. His many interests included music, gymnastics and skateboarding, and he was a student at the Children’s Theatre Company School. The summer before his senior year of high school, he went to New York to train with American Ballet Theatre. ABT asked him to stay for a year in its second company. “I told my parents that’s what I was going to do, and they fell for it,” he said.
Sewell spent 15 years in New York, during which time he worked with the legendary George Balanchine, and spent six years as a lead dancer with Feld Ballets/NY. He began to choreograph early on, but quickly learned he needed a company of his own.
“When you’re working as a pickup choreographer, you can’t get the people all the time. I found that frustrating to not be able to develop my style, because I was always starting over with dancers,” Sewell said. “I decided I was going to spend one more year with the company and save all the money I could, so that I could live without having to work and try to start my own group and just focus on choreographing.”
Sewell credits his former spouse and co-founder Rousse as a key ingredient to the company’s success.
“We were great partners together,” he said. “She was a muse. If I could think of it, she could do it. She was a huge part of the development of the early work and how we developed partnering, so I’m very grateful for that.”
A collaborative approach
When Rousse left the company in 2013, Penelope Freeh, who had been a company dancer, stepped up as an associate artist for four years. Freeh said that as both a dancer and an associate, she found the company to resist a top-down structure.
“People may not know that the environment is fairly non-hierarchical,” she said. “It’s quite flattened. The dancers are empowered to be artists, so I think that that’s really important.”
Eve Schulte, JSB’s current artistic associate, said she appreciates having a say in the process of creating dances, rather than simply being told what to do.
“Even if I’m not the lead generator, I’m still very actively making this happen, relying on my own intelligences and expertise,” she said.
For Sewell, a more collaborative process brings about dances he likes better.
“When I think of choreography in advance, I’m already blocking out all kinds of possibilities of what the dancers can do,” he said.
A cultural institution
In recent years, the company has undergone a shift away from Sewell’s sole perspective.
“I think in order to become a cultural institution, which I hope we are becoming, it can’t be about me,” he said. “I have a voice in it, and I can be a guiding principle, but it can’t be my ballet.”
In other words, it’s James Sewell Ballet, not James Sewell’s Ballet, as Executive Director George Sutton has often reminded him, Sewell said.
Part of the work of becoming a cultural institution is developing partnerships, such as with the Cowles Center, where the company has its office and studio space and was instrumental in developing the Tek Box, a 100-seat rental theater that JSB initially operated. The company also has ongoing relationships with the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center in Big Sky, Mont., which the company has used as a kind of incubator for new works, as well as the Reif Performing Arts Center in Grand Rapids, Minn., where JSB has partnered in staffing the school, with the idea that it can be a kind of feeder into the company. Currently, one dancer in the company trained at the Reif before joining the ensemble.
The company is also increasingly bringing in outside choreographers, in addition to creating opportunities for JSB dancers to set pieces for its main stage productions. Last fall, the company featured works by Schulte and Austin, Texas-based choreographer Jennifer Hart. Other guest choreographers have included Twin Cities-based Darrius Strong and New York-based Gabrielle Lamb, in addition to presenting Myron Johnson’s “Nutcracker (not so) Suite” in partnership with the Cowles Center.
Meanwhile, Sewell’s work, still grounded in line and precision, is moving in new directions, like his explorations of polyrhythms within ballet.
“That’s something I will still continue to be able to do in probably more advanced ways than most of the dancers will be able to do, just because I’ve been doing it for so long,” he said.
JSB’s 30th Anniversary Retrospective Tour looks back at the company’s history. With some dramatic pieces, other comic ones, pieces that involve magic and work that draws on a variety of different kinds of music and movement, it gives audiences a taste of the company’s journey.
Looking back at the 30 years, Sewell feels gratitude. He remembers that when JSB was first filling out its paperwork to become a nonprofit, a lawyer friend said most organizations fold before seven years.
“I always felt like that was the prize. Let’s make it past seven,” Sewell said. “We did. And then we just kept going.”