Amy Seiwert's Imagery in Back To Photo David DeSilva

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery in Back To
Photo David DeSilva

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY
August 15, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery is a contemporary ballet company based in San Francisco. The group made its debut New York performance as the final company in the 2015 Joyce Ballet Festival this past Saturday with a program of three dances: Traveling Alone, Starting Over at the End, and Back To, the latter two being 2015 premieres.

These same dances comprised a program titled Sketch 5: Stirred performed a month ago in San Francisco at the ODC Theater, where Seiwert and her company have been a fixture for many years. Labelling the evening as a ‘stirred’ program is particularly apt. Although the dances look very different from each other and Starting Over at the End is a co-choreographed effort, there’s an overall similarity of structure (linear) and style common to them all, but each piece is stirred differently. The results, stirred or otherwise, were mixed.

Seiwert’s choreography is an amalgamation of imaginative ballet steps, contemporary add-ins (angled hands and feet, interlocked arms used to push and pull, glides, occasional twitchiness) and almost acrobatic intricacies that put her dancers through their paces. But it’s not anything that is particularly new to the New York contemporary ballet scene. The first two pieces appeared diffuse and unfocused (despite something of a theme to Traveling Alone), but the final piece had the most coherence and greater accessibility, and proved quite enjoyable.

Back To is choreographed to a series of unidentified songs by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. With Welch singing lead and Rawlings harmony, the duo has recorded vocal music that might be classified as ‘folk,’ but which has a distinctive sound that more closely resembles bluegrass. The result is a twangy, relatively emotionless, bluesy sound with Appalachian roots and a hard, dark edge.

The specific songs used are not identified, and the song lyrics didn’t appear nearly as significant as the sound itself, which fixed the location in some rural Appalachian venue. What Seiwert has created, although at times it resembles pieces by Paul Taylor, honors and dignifies the lives of the dancer/characters much as Graham’s Appalachian Spring did, without the romanticized view of rural life or the obvious impact of a religious base. The unattributed upstage set could be the side of a barn, or a wall of a dilapidated factory, community center or church – it doesn’t matter, because whatever it is, the characters are not emotionally limited by it. For all its sense of a depressive environment, this dance is a celebration, and the costumes by Christine Darch (who skillfully crafted the costumes for each piece) added to the rural yet festive sensibility.

To each song, Seiwert choreographs a relatively free-standing dance for her eight dancers and a bench, with the bench being an active participant. Dancers move it around the stage, stand on it, slide on it, die on it, and marry on it. Each dance has its particular virtue – at times they’re highly energetic; at others more contemplative. But even though Seiwert’s style is evident, the dance doesn’t get bogged down in stylistic detail. Instead, the style and the choreography illuminate the overall sense of joyousness. And the piece has a sense of humor, used judiciously but effectively. It is highly enjoyable.

All the Imagery dancers performed brilliantly, but Annali Rose, who currently dances with Silicon Valley Ballet (formerly Ballet San Jose), and Rachel Furst, a wisp of a dancer, who from my audience vantage point bears a fleeting resemblance to Maria Kotchetkova, danced with particular flair.

My only complaint is with the dance’s ending. In the penultimate segment, the piece recaptures the opening image of the dancers forming a triangle of community – which would have been a perfect concluding circularity. But instead of ending at that natural point, the piece continued with a wistful solo for Rose which puts a stamp of remembrance on the piece that doesn’t really fit – beyond giving some possible explanation for the dance’s title. Like the strangely placed duet in Benjamin Millepied’s Two Hearts for New York City Ballet, it comes across not just as anticlimactic, but superfluous.

Like Back To, Starting Over at the End is choreographed to a series of songs, but the songs are unidentified lieder by Austrian early-Romantic composer Franz Schubert. The pace is slow, the sound somewhat dolorous and the meaning, though clearly reflective, is unclear. Onto this music Seiwert and co-choreographer KT Nelson, who is co-artistic director of San Francisco’s ODC/Dance, have applied an urgent, edgy style. But the combination (even though the contributions of the two choreographers appear so compatible that one can’t tell who contributed what) doesn’t gel into a cohesive whole.

Parts of the piece are quite moving, including duets danced by Brandon Freeman and James Gilmer, Freeman and Sarah Griffin, and Rose and Liang Fu – intricate and powerful, yet delicate, choreographically imaginative, and awesomely controlled. At one point Gilmer jumps onto Freeman’s outstretched hands, symbolic perhaps of mutual reliance, and although the effort sounds somewhat acrobatic, it doesn’t look that way. Similarly, the duet between Rose and Fu features not just arms intertwined, but necks. The result looks in no way awkward, but rather a natural, albeit unusual, depiction of mutual dependence. I also particularly appreciated the contributions of Danielle Bausinger, a refined dancer of particular grace, and Furst, whose body and limbs seemed to be everywhere at once, yet never out of control.

The opening ballet, Traveling Alone, is a concept piece that features one dancer, guest artist Dana Benton (a principal dancer with the Colorado Ballet) ‘traveling alone’ through space occupied by unfamiliar people, almost as if she was visiting alien lands, attracting and abandoning indigenous dancers along the way. Despite Benton’s cold, angular passion and quicksilver movement quality along with brilliant images that occasionally flash throughout the 2012 work, the piece left me otherwise unmoved. However, pockets of the opening night audience responded with a vocal and enthusiastic standing ovation.

A few final words about the Joyce Ballet Festival. Each of the companies was enlightening in one respect or another, and it’s to Executive Director Linda Shelton’s credit that these groups have been assembled and presented to New York audiences, many for the first time. Though I enjoyed some performances and ballets more than others, the programs fill a void somewhere between the emerging and the established, and each was well worth seeing – attested to by the sold out houses at each performance I saw. I look forward to what the Festival presents next year