By Maria Wyllie
Explore Big Sky Staff Writer

BIG SKY – John Zirkle, Artistic Director for the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center in Big Sky, set out to make a strong statement with the opening act of the center’s debut season. And he did just that.

On Saturday, Dec. 28, the James Sewell Ballet, a modern dance troupe based in Minneapolis, gave a mesmerizing performance, taking ballet to a new place as 10 dancers pushed the limits of conveying stories through song and dance.

Unlike classical ballet, the choreography pulled from theatre, gymnastics, modern dance and contemporary music, making it easier for today’s audience to relate. “We tend to do well with dragged husbands and boyfriends,” said James Sewell, Artistic Director and co-founder of the James Sewell Ballet.

The curtains opened with a performance of the “Star Spangled Banner” where six dancers clad in red, white and blue spandex suits made it clear they were there to have fun as they turned their bodies into a wavering flag. A humorous take on the national anthem suited the Big Sky audience well, shedding a light mood on the evening and letting viewers know they need not take the ballet quite so seriously.

Six more pieces followed, including a parody of “Swan Lake,” a human body puzzle, a story of heartbreak and jealousy, and a dance titled “Winter,” which spoke to Big Sky’s freezing temperatures. The first half of the evening ended in a flash – a sign that the ballet was anything but dull.

“Outerborough,” a collaboration between Sewell and composer Todd Reynolds comprised the second half of the program. Reynolds, a master of hybrid music, joined the dancers on stage and played his violin, laptop and kick drum alongside them. Feeding off of one another, the dancers and violinist adjusted their movements and sounds to build a powerful synergy that took over the theater.

Much more abstract than the first half, “Outerborough” was a display of live emotions.

For the audience to understand exactly what each movement means is not the point, both Sewell and Zirkle pointed out before the show.

“We want to let the audience relax and say these are the inexplicable, ineffable joys of performing arts that can’t be put into words,” Zirkle said.

With 280 seats, every member in the theatre could see the dancers’ facial expressions and hear their feet hitting the floor, giving the performance a genuine sense of humanity not typically found in a New York theater.

Eight other national and international acts are coming to Big Sky this winter, including the Portland Cello Project, the Moth, Brubeck Brothers and Ukrainian pianist Antonii Baryshevskyi, among others. Visit warrenmillerpac.org to buy tickets and learn more information.

Explore Big Sky attended rehearsal and went behind the scenes of the James Sewell Ballet for an exclusive interview with artistic director James Sewell and violinist Todd Reynolds.

Explore Big Sky: How do you describe the James Sewell Ballet to someone who’s never heard of it before?

James Sewell: We are a contemporary ballet company, and that means ballet is our base of training. We do a ballet class every day, but once we start performing and I start choreographing, we incorporate other elements, from modern dance, from gymnastics from theatre –
all sots of other things to round it out and expand the pallet of what we’re doing.

EBS: What is the company’s mission? What are you striving to achieve through dance?

J.S.: We are always trying to push the bounds of contemporary ballet… One of our missions is taking dance to underserved audiences around the country… It’s important that people see dance live. It’s not the same on television [or] YouTube. You need to see it live because there’s something palpable in the energy you get with that.

We’re also trying to expand the idea of what ballet is… People come to our performances, and they have fun, they laugh. It’s [set] to music that they [often] can identify with, something they recognize.

EBS: Where do you find inspiration? How do you keep things fresh?

J.S.: It’s coming up with new ideas… When I started out choreographing, I always wanted to have in my mind how the whole thing was going to work before I started. Now as I’ve understood how to craft a ballet and create things… I look for those projects where I can’t even imagine how I’m going to pull it off. Then in the process of creating it, it forces me as an artist to grow and come up with new processes or ways to bring something to life.

EBS: How did the idea for “Outerborough” with Todd Reynolds come about?

J.S.: “Outerborough” came out of my going to New York to see a band that I was thinking of collaborating with and bringing to Minnesota… When I was there I met Todd Reynolds who was the violinist for that group, and I heard that he was a composer himself. [I] listened to his music and fell in love with [it], and it worked out with his schedule to bring him to Minneapolis and the collaboration was born.

Once he arrived in town and we started working with him on the stage, that completely changed it. It changed how the dancers danced, and… [him] seeing the dancers [changed] how the music worked for him.

EBS: What are the benefits to having a live musician on stage?

JS: You get this back and forth between the musician and the dancers… they feed off each other and they can watch and listen, and it drives it forward in a way that is very vital and in the moment. There’s little nuances that make the senses go alive in a different way than when you can just assume what everything is going to be. Audiences feel that. There’s a dynamic that happens when everybody is on that edge.

EBS: Tell me about the use of improvised and set steps in your work?

J.S.: I’m interested in exploring that line between improv and set work, and going back and forth during one piece. So in Outerborough there are parts that are completely set, and parts that are completely improvised. The audience won’t necessarily have any idea which is which. Certain things only happen if you set them, and other things have a feeling when you’re improvising that also doesn’t happen when you set it.

EBS: What has “Outerborough” taught the dancers?

JS: The dancers have had to dive deep into his music, and I think they’ve had to grow musically to hear the underpinnings of the rhythm. His music is rich with texture, and sometimes the texture can overwhelm some of the structures there, which is exactly what I love about the music, but it’s exactly what is challenging for the dancers at times in order to keep things together.

EBS: What kind of mindset should people have upon entering the show?

JS: I like it when people come into our shows not knowing what to expect. Because whatever they expect, usually we’re not that.