Expect the Unexpected: Subverting the Ballet Paradigm with Amy Seiwert and SKETCH 3

By Claudia Bauer


“When I started making work, no one was paying any attention whatsoever,” Amy Seiwert recalls. After nineteen years spent dancing for Sacramento Ballet and Smuin Ballet, she launched her choreographic career in 1999. In retrospect, the first ten years, when “no one had any expectation on if I was good or bad,” was a time of freedom, joy and growth. “I got to take a lot of risks. I got to really try what worked, and what didn’t.” While no one was looking, without pressure to produce a salable product or connect dots set out for her by commissioning companies, Seiwert followed her muse and developed a unique contemporary voice.

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery Photo by David DeSilva
Amy Seiwert’s Imagery
Photo by David DeSilva

When people finally did take notice, those halcyon days came to an end. “As you get more successful, more people pay attention, which is awesome and terrible at the same time. Suddenly, any risk you take, everyone’s putting under a microscope.” We dream of achieving our definition of success, but we rarely anticipate the trade-offs. For ballet-based choreographers like Seiwert, ever-more-mainstream commissions mean that “it gets scarier and scarier to risk. And if we don’t risk, as choreographers, our role in furthering the art form will stagnate.”

A woman of great creative integrity, Seiwert responded by founding the SKETCH choreographic festival, now in its third year, designed to push the boundaries of ballet-based dance. Last year’s theme was women choreographers, who are vastly underrepresented in the ballet world, and garnered Izzie nominations for choreographer Gina Patterson and dancer Sarah Griffin. SKETCH has also been covered nationally by Pointe and Dance magazines—clearly Seiwert is on to something.

This year’s theme is “challenging expectations,” and the point, ironically enough, is to offer choreographers a safe place to take creative risks. Seiwert, Val Caniparoli and Marc Brew will contribute world premieres for Seiwert’s company, Imagery, to perform at ODC Theater July 25–28. “I encourage them to really take a personal risk,” Seiwert says of the choreographers she invites to participate. “And if it fails miserably, only 800 people saw it by the end of the weekend. It wasn’t on the Opera House stage; it wasn’t viewed by thousands of people.”

But why bother? Seiwert’s slate is full with nationwide commissions as well as her Smuin Ballet residency. When Caniparoli is not dancing with San Francisco Ballet, where he has been a company member for over 40 years, he travels the world creating new works and staging from his rep. UK-based Brew, who made the spectacular contemporary piece Full of Words for Oakland’s AXIS in 2011, has created work for the Australian Ballet, Scottish Dance Theatre and the Beijing Olympics. All have been nominated for, and won, numerous awards.

“I want to keep growing,” Caniparoli says, and growing creatively is not what choreographers get paid for. “Even though companies say, ‘No, no do what you want,’ you always know—there’s that pressure there. That’s why I said yes [to doing SKETCH], to go out of my comfort zone.” It is a sign of his own artistic integrity that he wants to shake off the traces. As Seiwert says, “This is Val Caniparoli doing something that he doesn’t know will work. Which could be awesome!”

Caniparoli is making the most of the opportunity. “I’m gonna do things that I’m afraid to try in some major companies. Who knows? I do very little floorwork, so maybe I can incorporate that into my choreography. Or even picking music…how do you get around something with words? How do you work that out in choreography? Do you ignore it? Do you use it?” For his score, he is considering a John Tavener choral piece sung by Bjork…no stagnation here.

As for Brew, he was Seiwert’s inspiration for the theme. Trained as a classical ballet dancer in Australia, he continued his dance and choreographic career after becoming paralyzed in a car accident over fifteen years ago, at age twenty. “I feel like with SKETCH 3, we can start changing the preconception of how ballet is made,” Seiwert says. “Marc is a brilliant example of that. Full of Words—when I first saw that, I was blown away. It was so beautiful. As I realized that this was created by a man in a wheelchair—how did he get to this place in making it? It really shattered a paradigm for me on who gets to make what, and how, and why. Where else can this go?”

As a disabled artist, Brew knows that he inherently defies others’ expectations. He sees SKETCH as an opportunity to challenge his own. “A creative risk for me is to make myself go to the unfamiliar places of a different creative process,” he says. He’ll have to go there quickly: to accommodate overseas travel, he’s shortening his normal six-week process and allowing just two weeks to create his piece, which will be focused on partnering “through the use of attachments that create different structures of an ever-changing landscape…how once they are created, how do they disassemble?”

Brew is especially excited to work with Seiwert’s dancers, who were hand-picked for the project, among them Katherine Wells (Robert Moses’ KIN), Susan Roemer (Smuin Ballet), Sarah Griffin (Dance Theater of Harlem Ensemble) and Brandon “Private” Freeman (ODC/Dance). Unlike Seiwert and Caniparoli, Brew has not worked with any of them previously, so he will be sketching from scratch. But the dancers were chosen as much for their individuality as for their technical mastery, so they will be active players in the creative process—another way that SKETCH subverts the ballet paradigm.

“I’m really into dancers being thinking artists,” she says. “In the modern-dance community, that is absolutely always true. In old-school ballet, that wasn’t really cared about. If I go to a traditional ballet company, if I ask dancers to improvise and manipulate material, it will often be met with a lot of resistance. ‘This is just not the way it’s done.’” Seiwert cannot recall a single time, over her entire tenure as a dancer, when a choreographer asked her for creative input.

The audience is asked to come along for the ride, too. At works-in-process Q&As, they can give feedback and gain insight into the experience of the choreographers and the performers. “No one ever asked me what I thought,” Seiwert recalls of her dancing days. “To have the dancers add an intelligent voice to the conversation is fantastic.”

Seiwert describes last year’s Q&As as “really interesting,” an assessment that Caniparoli may or may not agree with. Despite his best effort to keep a low profile during a session about male dominance of the classical-ballet world, “all of a sudden I got drawn into the conversation. It was like, ‘Yeah, Val, why is that?’” He admits he is more anxious about speaking to the audience than he is of showing them a different side of his creativity. Nonetheless, he agrees with Seiwert that that a direct connection with the audience really matters. As she says, “Ballet can get a bad rap because it’s just about being entertaining. Our goal is to use our art form as a container for serious discourse. [Last year], it went into a whole worldview of how this affects the population in different ways and forms and shapes and sizes.”

Dancers’ Group is helping to bring more people into the discussion via the New Stages for Dance grant. Created to support artists in presenting work in new or larger venues, the grant made it easier for Seiwert to manage the financial risks as well as the creative ones. “What if we add another show and we don’t sell it?” was her biggest quandary, as SKETCH 3 has expanded to four evenings. “If we do this and it works, it puts us on firm footing to go forward. If we do this and it fails, will SKETCH 4 happen? The New Stages grant just gives us that cushion to take the risk—we’re back to that risk word, which is so important.”

The potential rewards for choreographers, dancers and audience alike are many. Brew wants to push the dancers to “physically uncomfortable places” and challenge their own beliefs about what they can do—and what they can’t. “I love to question their decisions and push them to unexpected places of unfamiliarity with moments of awkward beauty.” Caniparoli is going for the brass ring: “If I’m going to go out on a limb, I’m going to go a hundred percent,” he says.

As for Seiwert, she will reconnect with the joy of creativity on her own terms, free of any and all expectations. “As a choreographer, you’re making a gift and you give it to someone,” she says. “They will receive this gift however they want, and you have to give it with an open heart.”

SKETCH 3 will perform July 25-28 at ODC Theater, SF. Find more information at asimagery.org

This article appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of In Dance.

Claudia Bauer is a freelance writer. She covers dance for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher Magazine and DanceTabs.com.