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Lucky Thirteen

Four distinct works, their creation initiated by a shared prompt. Four choreographers, plus time, space, and the ten dedicated contemporary ballet artists of Amy Seiwert’s company, Imagery. An environment that prizes risk-taking over accomplishment. This is the formula taken up by Seiwert for her annual incubator project, Sketch, initiated in 2011 to foster innovation in ballet-based choreography. “We come here with permission to fail,” she has stated in interviews. That said, the four dance makers/risk takers for Sketch 13: Lucky, created a compelling and entertaining exploration that happens to also look quite accomplished. It’s a terrific send off for the project that Seiwert, recently named incoming artistic director for Smuin Ballet, has announced will be her last.

Performance

Amy Seiwert's Imagery: Sketch 13: Lucky with works by Amy Seiwert, Natasha Adorlee, Trey McIntyre, and Hélène Simoneau

Place

ODC Theater, San Francisco, CA, July 28, 2023

Words

Karen Hildebrand

Amy Seiwert's Imagery in “How It Feels” by Amy Seiwert. Photograph courtesy of Amy Seiwert

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Maybe it was my front row seat in the black box space of San Francisco’s ODC Theater on opening night of a sold-out run. The air was thick with anticipation. I could see every drop of sweat and the eye contact of dancer to dancer. In creating new work for this show, the choreographers had been invited to include the element of chance, a generative task that was popularized by the surrealists and put to good use for making dance by Merce Cunningham and certain members of Judson Dance Theater. The evening of premieres by Natasha Adorlee, Trey McIntyre, Hélène Simoneau, and Seiwert herself, seemed to follow two different approaches: one that revealed its underpinnings and one that held its foundational cards closer to the vest.

For her own personal entry, “How It Feels,” Seiwert says she and the dancers “constructed physical games that primarily impacted timing and musicality to add indeterminate aspects to this creation process.” The dancers made choices as they responded to musical cues that were shuffled during performance. The terms of the games were largely invisible to the audience, yet the “intense active listening” required for working in this way had a visible impact. The dancers pulsed with a charge as bright as their neon green costumes. Seiwert’s masterful grouping and ungrouping of dancers created pleasing patterns in space; her women, on pointe, gorgeously arched their backs in sensual lifts and waved willowy arms as if strands of sea flora underwater. The mix of precision and fluidity, including the powerful presence of Grace-Anne Powers of BalletMet, was striking. 

Imagery in “Visual Language” by Trey McIntyre. Photograph courtesy of Amy Seiwert

In contrast, Trey McIntyre’s “Visual Language” served up the chance element more directly as content. He asked the dancers to each come up with a secret, which they then learned to sign using ASL (with deaf dancer, Antoine Hunter, as consultant). “Visual Language” began with one dancer: “I’m going to tell you my secret. I have mixed feelings about that.” First she signed the phrase, repeating it, both verbally and in ASL. She then began to deepen the gestures into delightful full bodied movement, and the sound of her voice faded into silence. When the full company moved together, the signature ASL gestures added a heightened vulnerability: a finger to the lip, a palm placed on the chest. Our attention was engaged in a new way. 

McIntyre also asked the audience to share their secrets anonymously. We could place a note in a box at intermission. The company drew three of these secrets randomly. While Kelsey McFalls read them aloud using voice distortions that turned each phrase into a kind of verbal dance, a solo dancer offered their own secret dance as a duet. Costumes by Susan Roemer heightened the element of surprise. She clad the performers in a variety of street clothes, all white, with rows and rows of little flaps sewn on. When the dancers moved, the flaps flipped, revealing multi-colored undersides as if a splash of confetti. 

Imagery dancers Kelsey McFalls and Joseph A. Hernandez in “Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon” by Natasha Adorlee. Photograph courtesy of Amy Seiwert's Imagery.

Adorlee’s “Blooming Flowers and the Full Moon” was a duet for real life couple, McFalls and Joseph A. Hernandez, inspired by Adorlee’s parents’ personal story. The chemistry grew palpable as the two considered each other from a distance. When they touched, it was with an oppositional tension. Their physicality was as fluidly athletic as it was sensuous, for instance, when Hernandez, who has martial arts training, lifted McFalls from the floor by her ankle, and later cartwheeled her with little more than a flick of his wrist. It was clear the couple had become more attuned to each other when the music moved from a syncopated tango into Roberta Flack’s famous lyrics, “The first time ever I saw your face.” In the final moments, a disco ball spun a refracted glitter over the two as they danced while joined together in a long romantic kiss. 

Imagery in “Gilded” by Hélène Simoneau. Photograph courtesy of Amy Seiwert's Imagery

For “Gilded,” Simoneau gave the dancers a series of poses they were to put together. They turned themselves into human Botticelli sculptures as a way to “explore the ways we present ourselves to others.” As “Gilded” opened, six performers in golden tunics stood within a circular band of red chiffon fabric that resembled burning embers. They swayed and reached between each other in a state of bobbing readiness, then began to strike poses, individually and as a group. In a duet, two women jumped in unison as they created various Grecian urn shapes. It’s as if they were trying out the options for their personal expression—am I performing or am I being myself? Matisse D’Aloisio and Hernandez tended to key off the action of the other four dancers who were actively making shapes and balances. They paused and watched before joining in. The two kept their eyes on each other throughout a dreamy duet during which she jumped into his arms and climbed on his back. After the initial circle of fire, the red chiffon receded, only to return as various dancers swirled it around themselves. It’s not clear to me what this prop was to represent—perhaps a changing boundary? What’s certain is that the Sketch project and its attendant risks will be sorely missed.

Karen Hildebrand


Karen Hildebrand is former editorial director for Dance Magazine and served as editor in chief for Dance Teacher for a decade. An advocate for dance education, she was honored with the Dance Teacher Award in 2020. She follows in the tradition of dance writers who are also poets (Edwin Denby, Jack Anderson), with poetry published in many literary journals and in her book, Crossing Pleasure Avenue (Indolent Books). She holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Originally from Colorado, she lives in Brooklyn.

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