It feels a bit strange to critique a SKETCH performance. The brainchild of San Francisco choreographer Amy Seiwert, the annual artistic incubator is intended to “foster risk-taking and innovation in ballet-based choreography.” The object is to learn rather than to create perfect work – is it fair to evaluate a workshop?
The SKETCH process entails creative collaboration between invited choreographers and Seiwert’s Imagery company of dancers, culminating in a weekend of world premieres. It’s always a highly anticipated dance event – Seiwert chooses superior choreographers, her production is polished and while the company roster changes a bit each year, the dancers are consistently sublime. This year’s SKETCH opened on Thursday, July 16, at the intimate black-box ODC Theater, and while the results of the choreographic experiment were mixed, the performance was first-rate.
The main event was Starting Over at the End, a first-time collaboration between the balletic Seiwert and KT Nelson, a contemporary dance-maker and co-artistic director of San Francisco’s ODC/Dance. They challenged themselves to merge their styles while retaining their individual voices, negotiating and compromising in order to produce the roughly 15-minute piece, set to lieder by Franz Schubert.
Nelson brought an urgent dynamism to the work, while Seiwert’s inverted classicism appeared in gyroscopic torsos, angled arms and gestural fingers. Costumed in casual street clothes, with the women in pointe shoes, the eight Imagery dancers splintered into partnerships like that of Brandon Freeman and James Gilmer, with Freeman wrapped around Gilmer’s torso or extending his hands so that Gilmer could hop up and land on them in midair. At the same time, an isolated Sarah Griffin rotated her arms to the ground and one leg overhead in a postmodern penchée, while Danielle Bausinger, Richard Walters, Rachel Furst, Annali Rose and Liang Fu ran, slid, reoriented and broke apart.
Exciting as it was, the frenetic pace felt discordant with the serenity of the music. The effect was an uneasy clash rather than an intriguing juxtaposition. Toward the end of Starting Over, though, the momentum slowed, the energy settled and the movement became beautifully clear. Enhanced by Jim French’s atmospheric lighting, Gilmer’s wondrously controlled solo of arabesques and développés, a tender duet by Fu and Rose, their necks entwined, and a final ensemble adagio to “Du Bist die Ruh” made this experiment a success.
In Back To, the second world premiere of the evening, Seiwert took the audience back to Depression-era America with a soundtrack of neo-bluegrass songs by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Costumed in pants and dress shirts for the men and sundresses for the women, all wearing soft slippers, the dancers conjured the mood of a parish picnic. Their stone faces recalled American Gothic, but Seiwert’s choreographic wit, and the sun-drenched lighting, hinted at “Rocka My Soul” from Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. Ballet nearly disappeared from Back To (though Furst’s gorgeous arabesques can’t be disguised); instead, an abstract story emerged from natural movement, with plot twists cued by Welch’s lyrics about courting rituals, mourning rites and remembrance of things past.
A wooden bench, handcrafted by Freeman and Seiwert’s father, was the ninth performer in the ensemble. To the song “Scarlet Town,” the dancers hopped over and onto it, gathered on it to flirt and lean on each other, and slid along it in a charming jigsaw of acrobatic timing. During “Six White Horses,” Gilmer and Walters turn the bench into a bier and carry off the deceased Rachel Furst. It’s even the backdrop for a country wedding. Apparently Back To came together at short notice, without as much time to refine as Seiwert would have liked. That spontaneity may be one of this SKETCH season’s more rewarding risks; among Seiwert’s numerous jukebox ballets, Back To is the smartest.
Also on the bill was 2012’s Traveling Alone, a longer piece for the entire company plus guest artist Dana Benton. To orchestral music and sound samples by Max Richter, duets and trios move in Seiwert’s signature take on contemporary ballet, a blend of classical technique and contemporary angles. Winding in and around four ivory-clad couples, Benton cut a razor-sharp figure in ruby red, the lone dissenter from the matrix. Her sharp attack was softened only by Freeman, who teased an uncertain tenderness from her in the closing duet.
In the end, SKETCH is about the artists and their learning process, and it’s our good fortune that they share it with us in performance. Whatever the outcome of each year’s experiment, it’s always a thought-provoking evening of dance.