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Amy Seiwert Imagery
Amy Seiwert Imagery in “Back To.” Photograph by David DeSilva

Starting Over

Amy Seiwert's Imagery at Ballet Festival

Ballet Festival
Amy Seiwert's Imagery
Place
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, August 15-16, 2015
Words
Erica Getto

This week, I found myself curled up in the corner of my kitchen, shaking. It comes over me swiftly, sometimes, thunderously, always—a wave of weight. My partner knows this routine well by now, and slips into his role: he hovers over me, cups my ears, lifts my chin, and has me look into his eyes. Slowly, softly, it feels—no, I feel—lighter.

This week, I found myself seated in a corner of the Joyce Theater for Amy Seiwert’s Imagery. As the curtain rises for the second piece of the evening—“Starting Over at the End”—one of Seiwert’s dancers walks with trepidation towards the front of the stage. Then, her hips, her wrists, and her head convulse. She pushes herself—no, she is pulled—to the floor. Her fellow dancers are also on the fritz. As the piece progresses, each dancer slips into a sturdier state, if only for enough time to stabilize another dancer.

It comes over me swiftly, thunderously: I know this dance.

At the Joyce Ballet Festival, Seiwert presents a suite of three works: “Traveling Alone,” “Starting Over at the End,” and “Back To.” Through these pieces, Seiwert spins a web of human frailty and fear. She also examines what it means for a person to have a support system—in the form of another dancer or, perhaps, oneself.

The evening begins with “Traveling Alone,” a structured yet shadowy work. Colorado Ballet soloist Dana Benton joins the troupe for this piece: clad in ruby, she is nimble and nymph-like. She flits across the stage, flirts with the male dancers, and fixates on her female followers. She pushes away aggressive suitors who—in one of the evening’s more disturbing moments—are powerful enough to conquer her physically but not crush her emotional resistance.

In one of the work’s more haunting moments, Seiwert pits Benton against one of the ensemble dancers—all of whom are wearing white. In this distant pas de deux, the two mime each other’s movements: is Benton’s character dipping into her past and, perhaps, a more sympathetic side? The Max Richter track accompanying their tempered twirls—a crackling melody that is constructed to sound as if it were cranked out of an old gramophone—only reinforces this nostalgia.

As this moment captures, Seiwert’s female dancers are at once stoic and susceptible. Another of Seiwert’s female leads dances out a version of this dynamic: as she lurches across the stage, her face in apparent pain or sorrow, two male dancers attend to her. Although they physically support the woman, she is in power here, like a queen who is propped up by her minions. The men ultimately carry her off of the stage as she holds a goddess pose with her arms angled upwards.

Throughout the program, in fact, Seiwert meticulously arranges her dancers’ hands: they slice through the air, they point like guns, and they twist like awls. They are serpent-like, swimmer-like, sometimes jaws, and sometimes horns. Rarely are they limp.

In “Starting Over at the End,” Seiwert seems principally interested in how humans build relationships with—and off of—one another. These connections are not gendered: both men and women have “hysterical” moments and lift—sometimes literally—peers of both sexes.

Seiwert reinforces this solidarity by offsetting these dancers with a male soloist who is not vulnerable. At one point in the piece, the rest of the troupe zig-zags from one wing of the stage to another. The male dancer jogs behind them, but he cannot catch up: he is, in this manic circle, an outsider. In the ensuing moments, he tries to mimic the other dancers by forcing his elbows and knees into knots and throwing his head back. His contortions reveal that he is in touch with his body but not the rest of the troupe, which, through flux, establishes solid connections.

Annali Rose and Liang Fu in Amy Seiwert’s “Back To.” Photograph by David DeSilva

In “Back To,” Seiwert’s changes pace as the dancers swing to the country twang of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. This piece is the most narrative of the evening, a sort of coming-of-age snapshot of a backcountry town. It is also the only piece inflected with humor. In one sequence, a group of four dancers sits on a bench, clad in Western wear. One of them, a sprightly female dancer, pokes one of her peers and, like dominoes, the rest of the group slumps over. This playfulness continues until two men lift the first dancer above their heads and hold her horizontally above their heads. They carry her now-stiff frame over to the bench, where she is deathly still until her body spasms. The dancers, in turn, press her back down onto the bench, place her hands on her chest, and then hang their heads in mourning. Here, Seiwart confirms her ability to lace light moments with more morose and, in this case, morbid elements.

Offsetting this comic relief, Seiwert develops the evening’s richest romance. This striking pas de deux plays off of earlier moments in the evening: as in “Starting Over at the End,” the female dancer picks her despondent male partner off of the floor by grabbing his head. In a nod to “Traveling Alone,” she playfully slaps his forehead, although her teasing is a sign of affection, not resistance.

She is his consoler and his compass—that is, until she succumbs to his embrace. The sequence closes with the male dancer stationed behind her, his hands snaking around to clasp her hands, which are resting on her stomach. He twirls her around and then picks her up. She folds, melts, melds with him. They hold each other’s faces in the shadows as the ensemble, spotlit, upstages their intimate moment.

In her depiction of this duo, Seiwert does not contrast passion with purity. Instead, she layers the two. Throughout, in fact, Seiwert constructs a space in which her dancers—particularly the women—can have organic encounters and mixed emotions.

She also layers dancers’ intimate moments: Seiwert has a strong sense of depth, and throughout each piece, she places her dancers on different planes of the stage, some of which are shrouded in darkness. While some members of the troupe dance under spotlights, shadows dance on their peers. In this instance, the pas de deux recedes to the back of the stage, and other dancers playfully crowd out this private moment.

In “Back To,” though, Seiwert takes care to situate her more liberal characters in more reserved environments. When the female dancer returns to the stage, the other dancers circle her. She is, in effect, the group’s Hester Prynne, and not only because she wears a red flower on her chest. Furthermore, when she dances alone, she gestures at her stomach to a track about a “daughter of mine.” Seiwert could have drawn the curtain here. Instead, she reintroduces the troupe’s male dancers—including her soloist’s one-time partner. The men move in on the woman and prop her up on the bench, which is now upright. Are they allowing her to transcend her apparent “sin”? Or are they crucifying her?

As she slides off of the bench, she falls into her lover’s arms and, for a moment, they seem bonded again. But, in one of the program’s most impactful moments, she casts him away. Alone again, she sits on the bench and crosses her legs. She sets her hands on her lap.

She takes her future into her own hands.

The Royal Ballet
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