SPEAK: Invaluable Lessons

By Amy Seiwert

Stefan Calka, Ava Chatterson, and Isaac Bates-Vinueza of Sacramento Ballet in performance

Photo by Keith Sutter

Headshot of Amy Seiwert
Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

My first week as Artistic Director of Sacramento Ballet, I learned we had lost our warehouse space and would need to deeply consolidate our sets and costumes. As my Production Manager walks me through the warehouse, I point to things we can let go of, and things I see us using again. He points to a set, “Please tell me I can let go of this.” I realize I am looking at San Francisco Ballet’s old Romeo and Juliet set, probably purchased in the mid-90s. I danced on this set back then in my former boss Ron Cunningham’s production. This is also the set of my other former boss, Michael Smuin. Probably the same set seen when PBS aired Smuin’s Romeo and Juliet on “Dance in America.”

Worlds collide. Being back in Sacramento was already surreal enough. This moment encapsulated the “it’s complicated” status I was so profoundly feeling. (And no, I did not let him get rid of the set.)

What a long strange trip it has been. This first season has challenged me in ways I could not have imagined and was rewarding in ways I did not know possible. I am writing this a few days after Sacramento Ballet finished our first season under my leadership. That milestone gave me the opportunity to look back on a vision statement I had written to the Sacramento Ballet Board a year ago. When I read that statement, it’s easy to measure where I as an artist and we as an organization have succeeded, and where there is still work to be done.

Both these things went well, and both these things will continue. Val Caniparoli served as our first Beer & Ballet mentor and has signed on to do so again in 2020. I am excited that we have evolved this opportunity and one work created for our 2019 Beer & Ballet by Sacramento Ballet artist Isaac Bates-Vinueza will be further developed for our main stage in our 19-20 Season.

I wrote that Sacramento Ballet would continue to be a community leader. That art changes lives, and we would be a catalyst for that change in Sacramento. We have done this by continuing strong programs such as the Leaps and Bounds program, which offers free classes onsite at two Title 1 schools as well as our Community Event, which subsidizes more than 1800 tickets to students and families. Our Nutcracker School Matinees, where ticket prices range between $15-20 per student, reached over 6000 children.

We also found new ways to uniquely engage. For example, we did our first virtual field trip. This was a closed livestream of rehearsal utilizing 180’ cameras, which was followed by an interactive Q&A with artists.

We are exploring how to reach into other communities. We started a dance class that focuses on balance and fall prevention for Seniors, which is already at capacity. And through my connection with AXIS Dance Company, we are exploring how to develop a program for dance and disability in our School.

Sacramento Ballet in rehearsal
Photo by Keith Sutter

The most valuable lesson I learned this year was that I can do hard things. I thought I knew this, but early in the season I undertook the biggest creative challenge of my career, a full-length Nutcracker. It was the first moment I felt like I had been training my whole life for this job. I had to read and mark up the score to communicate with our conductor and the Philharmonic what changes musically would occur. The action of sitting with this score for hours led me to hear the music in a new way and develop a new relationship with the music I’d known since I was eight years old. Fortunately, I have cats, and while I cannot herd them, years of trying helped with the task of creating on the cast of 300 children. As a woman with a fear of guns, I choreographed a battle scene. And I was able to show my love of the classical ballet language and form, creating a snow scene that makes my heart sing. Some in this community have worried my choreographic style is too contemporary to lead a ballet company; my hope is this Nutcracker calms their concerns.

Not all days were wins. It does not matter if you’ve created the most brilliant ballet in the world if your community does not know it’s happening. Even though this was the first new professional production of the Nutcracker by Sacramento Ballet in 30 years, we received minimal press and no coverage from the local paper, the Sacramento Bee. We have not been able to get one review in print since I have been here. Fortunately, Nutcracker has enough brand recognition and tradition that we achieved record-breaking sales. But Stephen Mills’ Hamlet, while an artistic success, failed to meet our projected revenue goals. Perhaps I overestimated demand for full-length story ballets, maybe it was the February holiday weekend, maybe it was pure powder in the Sierras – but we were not able to get people interested in coming to see the work. Fortunately, those who did – stood up. Our artists were astounding in this piece, and patrons who were there started to see my future vision for this company.

We do have four new company dancers and three new apprentices joining us next year. Of the seven artists joining, three are dancers of color. Ballet has a diversity issue, and it is only by looking honestly at the problem that we can be a part of the change. We are also a company that does not yet have pay equity, an issue as a woman that makes me extremely uncomfortable. Nor do our artists make a wage I am proud of. It is hard to implement change here when I inherited a company with debt and getting out of that has had to be our first priority. But this is a place where I will continue to advocate. We have fewer dancers than before I became Artistic Director, and I am not interested in adding more dancers to our ranks until we can address both of those issues in a financially responsible way.

The opportunity to lead this company has allowed me to imagine new relationships. Remember that Romeo and Juliet set from the beginning of the article? What if I collaborate with a local artist to repurpose the set with a new visual design that allows for a re-interpretation of this classic tale? I hope to premiere my own Romeo and Juliet in 2021 when Sacramento Ballet steps back into this city’s newly renovated Community Center Theater.

This article appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of In Dance.

Amy Seiwert is the Founding Artistic Director of Amy Seiwert’s Imagery and the Artistic Director of Sacramento Ballet (as of July 2018). Amy Seiwert’s Imagery, a contemporary ballet company in San Francisco, believes that ballet is an expressive and vital voice relevant to our times. Imagery’s artists share the belief that through collaboration and experimentation we can break away from habitual reactions and express more vibrant and courageous ideas. Imagery’s mission is to expand the definition of ballet by exploding preconceptions of what ballet is and can be. Amy Seiwert’s Imagery presents SKETCH 9: Perspective: July 17-20, ODC Theater, SF. asimagery.org