By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

BIG SKY – The James Sewell Ballet is not the Nutcracker.

Its new “Outerborough” collaboration with violin virtuoso Todd Reynolds debuted in New York October, and opens the inaugural season at Big Sky’s Warren Miller Performing Arts Center with a contemporary ballet choreographed to Reynold’s music.

During the performance, Reynolds plays on stage with the dancers – nine men and women – improvising according to what he sees on stage.

“While it’s choreographed by James [Sewell, the director], set in stone in a certain way, the energy from night to night is not,” Reynolds says. “That energy is very fluid between the dancers and myself.”
Based on songs from Reynolds’ album Outerborough (2011), each movement in the ballet is 4-8 minutes, and each contrasts starkly with the next.

WMPAC Artistic Director John Zirkle says although this performance will likely be different than anything the Big Sky audience has seen, it will also be accessible.

“It’s movement based,” Zirkle said. “If you come here to snowboard, you come here to interact with gravity, and that’s the connection between dancers and skiers and snowboarders.”

As for defining the music – that’s perhaps more difficult. While Reynolds is trained classically, he draws equally from “rap, pop, rock and roll, country, jazz, everything,” he says. “My music is closer to pop than anything else.”

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By opening the season with this edgy, contemporary, yet fun – and sometimes funny – ballet, Zirkle is making a bold statement.

The goal, Zirkle said in an email, is to “present great art to inspire our audiences to go out and create in their own lives. It’s not just about entertainment; neither is it about trying too hard to push Art with a big ‘A.’ … [By] bringing in national and international professional performing artists, we hope to build on a sense of place… [and] get us thinking more about our shared story as human beings.”

He selected all of the season’s acts with equal cognizance, and with “a nod to artistic freedom,” as he wrote in the 2013/14 season program.

“We will see movement that defies gravity with the James Sewell Ballet; improv comedy that will leave us exhausted from laughter with The Second City; stories that captivate and enthrall us from The Moth Mainstage,” Zirkle continued. “Mark Applebaum, a featured TED speaker, will show us how he pushes the boundaries of creativity in a fight against artistic ennui. David Mason and Tami Haaland, the Colorado and Montana Poet Laureates, will demonstrate how less is more when using words to change an entire society’s perspective, and Antonii Baryshevskyi, just 25 years old, will show us how to make a piano sweat – in a good way.”

Zirkle is particularly excited about the “Big Sky Commission,” in which nationally-recognized composer Philip Aaberg, a Montanan, wrote an entirely new piece of music dedicated to WMPAC. Accompanying Aaberg on that program are musicians Mike Reynolds and Angella Ahn.

“I believe that it is the responsibility of a performing arts center not only to celebrate artists as performers, but also to encourage them as creators. We are celebrating what it means to be ‘Made in Montana,’ and how that manifests itself within new artistic vision and works.”

Zirkle wants patrons to see the acts as a “single product that runs through the entire ski season, as opposed to a seemingly random string of events. This is a single idea, nine events put together like chapters in a book that form a cohesive whole that should come off as one event.”

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One of those chapters, The Moth, is sure to sell out quickly.

Since its launch in 1997, the acclaimed nonprofit has presented thousands of stories, told live and without notes, to standing-room-only crowds worldwide, according to its website.

“It is a celebration of both the raconteur, who breathes fire into true tales of ordinary life, and the storytelling novice, who has lived through something extraordinary and yearns to share it.” Called “New York’s hottest and hippest literary ticket” by the Wall Street Journal, The Moth Mainstage will hit Big Sky in Feburary.

Senior Producer Maggie Cino says that outside of Denver, this will be the only place The Moth has performed in the Rocky Mountains.

“We’ve ended up with a lot of shows on the East Coast tending into the central time zone, and all up and down the Western Coast, but getting out into smaller communities [like Big Sky], is something we’re interested in and is a passion of mine, because some of the most interesting stories are found in those places,” Cino said.

The Moth lineup for the WMPAC show isn’t dialed in yet, but one thing’s become clear, Cino said: “There is an embarrassment of possibilities up there.”

Cino, who plans to spend a few days skiing while she’s here, said they’ll likely bring some outside talent, as well as seek out locals. The show also finds presenters through its pitch line, which is open to the public (find it at themoth.org/tell-a-story).

“If any of your readers want to call the pitch line, we want to let them know about it,” she said.

What they’re seeking, Cino said, is interesting stories and new perspectives, as well as a balance of presenters “that shows a range of human experience.”

“So much of it is about the presenter, their unique point of view, and their willingness… to stand up and say this is what happened to me, and it didn’t really go so great, but I did make it out the other side in the end. To show something about themselves that is vulnerable and puts us in touch with the feeling that we’re not alone.”