Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Behind the scenes of the Sewell Ballet's "Opus 131"

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Beethoven completed his Quartet for Strings No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Opus 131, in 1826, the year before his death. That he was deaf when he composed the 40-minute work remains reason for amazement, even – and especially – in the jaded, show-it-to-me culture of our present century.

I recall the first time I heard the work.

"Opus 131" • Cory Goei & Leah Gallas
Following the conclusion of a performing arts conference and showcase in Chicago, I was driving across Wisconsin to Minneapolis on a Sunday afternoon in September 1995 with three members of the James Sewell Ballet. We had stopped earlier at the resort town of Wisconsin Dells, primarily just to say we had done so. 

James Sewell was going to begin choreographing a new ballet set to Opus 131 the next day. None of us had heard the music, so Sewell played it over the van's sound system as we drifted along I-94 toward the Minnesota border and into setting sun. The seven movements, each with a distinct feeling, are played through without pause.

Created for six dancers at its 1995 premiere at The O'Shaughnessy in St. Paul, "Opus 131" featured three partnered pairings by Anna Laghezza and Sewell, Sally Rousse and Christian Burns, and Penelope Freeh and Joel Klausler.

When reprised during the 2002-03 season, Sewell expanded the work to four pairings: Freeh and Matthew Keefe, Rousse and Sewell, Peggy Seipp and Benjamin Johnson, and Julia Welsh and Justin Leaf. JSB's touring schedule was extensive that year, and "Opus 131" saw action on stages throughout the country. 

One of those stages, a college in New England, would be followed by a Sunday matinee at Brooklyn College in New York City. It would be the company's first gig in the city since performing at Hunter College in Manhattan in March 2001.

In Minneapolis on Friday, April 11, 2003, it occurred to me that it would be fun to make the scene in Brooklyn, and I told my administrative colleagues that I would go if fares were under $200. Through the wonders of online booking, I found a round-trip to LaGuardia for $184, and arrived at the hotel in Brooklyn 30 minutes before the company drove in the next afternoon.

The Parker Quartet
Sunday, April 13, was Palm Sunday, and the staff at Brooklyn College had no expectations of filling even half of the 2,500 seats in Whitman Hall. I arrived at the theater in the morning with Kevin Jones, the production manager, and Matthew Keefe, who served the dual role of dancer and wardrobe master. My job was to not interfere, pace, and hold court in the lobby when the audience arrived.

For a while, it seemed as though there would be no audience. In addition to being Palm Sunday, it was one of those bright and romantically languid Sundays that only New York City can muster, and the streets of Brooklyn were bereft of movement. Finally, as though a faucet was turned on, people arrived from nowhere to take their seats. 

The performance began, and I watched from the back of the theater where I could pace with my usual thoughts, hoping that the performance went well, that the audience had an engaging time, and that terrorists or some other mayhem did not disrupt the scene. 

My blood pressure shot up as a series of episodic camera flashes appeared from the audience, not far from the stage. Cameras are never allowed in live performances out of consideration for other audience members and to protect performer safety and intellectual property interests. The nature and length of the music and dance, however, meant that trying to confiscate a camera would be more disruptive than the flashes, and I seethed in silence.

At intermission, while stationed near the lobby exits looking for a wayward camera, a college press officer walked up and asked if I was with JSB and could I identify photos of the dancers for Anna Kisselgoff, the senior dance writer for the New York Times. In our brief, pleasant exchange of business, she noted – a bit archly, I thought – that our public relations game had left something to be desired for this performance.

Neither we nor the college had thought of trying to schedule a photo call for the press given that we had a single performance, and I was thunderstruck by the thought that Kisselgoff had brought a photographer "all the way to Brooklyn" on Palm Sunday. I also was glad that we had taken pains to make our program notes look as respectable as possible. 

Back in Minneapolis, two mornings later, I received an early call from the mother of a JSB dancer who told me I would never believe that day's New York Times. She was right.

Across the top, front page of the arts section, and under the headline "Balletic Sonnets, Surprises Included," was a full-color photo of the JSB dancers taking a curtain call in Brooklyn for "Opus 131."

In her review, Kisselgoff wrote,

Someone needs to give the James Sewell Ballet from Minneapolis and Mr. Sewell's always imaginative, often exquisite ballets a full season in New York. In the meantime, thanks go to the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts for presenting Mr. Sewell's chamber troupe with three New York premieres at Brooklyn College's Whitman Hall on Sunday afternoon.

Mr. Sewell is one of American ballet's best choreographers, albeit one who composes sonnets rather than epics. This lack of pretension can make his work look deceptively gentle, but it is not modest. Grounded in a neoclassical style that is exploited in different ways, his choreography brims with surprises in movement invention.

This rich texture was obvious on Sunday in ''Opus 131,'' a fanciful, plotless ballet set to Beethoven.

Quite simply, reviews do not get much better than that. Most artists, let alone dancers, will never get their names and photos splashed across a page of the New York Times.

It is no longer my job to pace at the back of theaters during JSB performances. Instead, I sit calmly and expectantly in the audience, as I did last Friday at The Cowles Center for the latest iteration of "Opus 131," this time for seven dancers: Nicky Coelho, Leah Gallas, Cory Goei, Chris Hannon, Nic Lincoln, Sally Rousse, and Eve Schulte.

This go-round has its own special excitement. For the first time, the dancers are performing to live music, provided by The Parker Quartet, an exquisite ensemble of passionate talent whose members include Daniel Chong, violin, Karen Kim, violin, Jessica Bodner, viola, and Kee-Hyun Kim, cello. 

You can catch them at 8pm, April 20-21, and 2pm, April 22. Call 612.206.3600 for ticketing.

Gary Peterson served as executive director of James Sewell Ballet from 1995 to 2008.

No comments: