Amy Seiwert and Cincinnati Ballet dancers
Often when I watch dance, especially in creative rehearsals, I feel that my world has been refreshed. I mean that in the sense that one refreshes a page on the Internet. My connection has been updated. I am current in this world!
The give and take, the visceral shaping of movement in time that takes place between choreographer and dancer(s) is a grounding experience. It teaches me to take one thing at a time, to know my physical capacities in this increasingly virtual world of today.
So when I had the chance to watch Heather Britt and Amy Seiwert in rehearsal, and talk with them about their choreography, I jumped at the chance.
Two snaps above of Heather Britt and Cincinnati Ballet dancers
The two join three other choreographers whose brand new work can be seen this weekend and next during Cincinnati Ballet’s “The Kaplan New Works Series” production, which has moved this year from the Mickey Jarson Kaplan Performance Space at the Ballet Center to the larger 347 seat Jarson-Kaplan Theater (at downtown’s Aronoff Center). Tickets and details can be found at http://www.cballet.org.
Seiwert is based in San Francisco where she directs her own company, Imagery. For me, the way her dancers connect in time and space call to mind an exquisite, inevitable etching of time.
VALINKAT: Hi, Amy. Good to see you. Do you have a name for your newest piece?
AMY SEIWERT: Right now, it is called “Back To.” [reader note: I’ve also seen “Yesterday and Tomorrow” in ballet updates.] It’s set to the recorded music of Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings. It’s “bluegrassy” – Appalachian-inspired.
Their songs sound as if they might have been written in the 20’s or 30’s. So – these songs are current, but sound like they might have been written long ago. The lyrics and instruments especially highlight the essence of the solo that is the center of the piece. We are shifting – the world has changed so much throughout all humanity. But even with this entire shift, the emotions are the same.
How many dancers are you using?
Seven. There is a group of five for the opening and closing, and then the duet. Sarah Hairston and Zack Grubbs are one cast, Janessa Touchet and Cervilio Miguel Amador the other.
Ballet and you?
Everything I do is based in classical ballet technique, so even the weirdest turned-in moment still derives from the training of knowing where your femur is, and your pelvic girdle, and your hip for instance. So I’ll tell my dancers, sometimes we’re gonna take everything you learned about position and rotate and invert it.
As music for your dances, you’ve been working a lot with songs with lyrics lately, right? [among other songs she’s used are those of Leonard Cohen]
I have been lately, but I like to keep the range wide. For instance, when I leave Cincinnati, I’m going to Kansas City, and the piece will be much more classical. And on point.
So, I do like to do words, but I usually don’t make it literal, I don’t tell my dancers “this is what the song is about – and if they say jump we’re gonna do a lift.” For me, it’s really trying to find the essence of what that lyric is saying and take it out there.
As I’ve been watching rehearsals, I see so much graceful weight transfer, especially in duos. Can you talk about that?
I do like doing a duet that is about connection!
I really don’t let them separate that often. I like to watch a line of energy – if the gentleman does something to a lady she’s gonna catch that energy or pass it, or then it’s gonna go up here (she gestures). I kind of feel like there is a little gyroscope between the two of them, and the energy passes between them.
When I was in school at School for Creating and Performing Arts half a lifetime ago, I took music theory. We had to analyze Bach chorales. You know, “if it goes this way, then it’s going to resolve this way,” . . . it all has a mathematical sort of way about it.
Though I hope I’m choreographing it in a way that will be interesting and unique to people, really, it’s following a through-line. I think, if that person is reaching and the torso goes that way, then a fouette? Or a kick as high as it will go. And past that point will it turn around and come into something else?
Where do you draw the line between what comes out in your work between you and your dancers? How much is yours? How much is theirs? When they can’t execute your ideas, then what?
The degree of how collaboratively I work? It’s a pretty wide range but [my choreography] is always collaborative.
I might tell a dancer to do something. But the way they do it is gonna show me what comes next. And whether they even say “this feels good” or it doesn’t, you [as a choreographer] are gonna see which way their body wants to roll.
I don’t really make up that much before I come in. I’ll have images, and they’ll usually be very abstract. I’m not gonna sit there [in rehearsal] and say “OK, we’re gonna to do this, and this, and this . . .”
Because then you will come in [the next day] and it just looks wrong. It will look like they are putting on a shirt that doesn’t fit right.
When you are with them [dancers] you need to find out what you are [in your choreography] with them. Really, it’s gotta be created together. I don’t try to comment about what the dancers are. It’s not gonna look the same on everybody. That would be so boring.
You’ve worked with Cincinnati Ballet enough that you know many of the dancers here now. Can you talk about that?
One thing that I love is that I’ve got this duet with two different couples. And they look different doing it. And that’s great. I wouldn’t want them to be carbon copies of each other. Each couple is doing the same steps. They are doing things the same way, in ways that I like. But it’s colored, it’s shaded. So, it’s the same, but in very different ways.
Britt, founder of local phenomenon DanceFix, brings visceral, emotionally powerful energy to the stage in dances that call to mind forces of nature. She is choreographing her sixth work for Cincinnati Ballet.
VALINKAT: Hi Heather! I’ve been watching you choreograph for a few days now. I’m interested in what you have to say about how you see the interface between you and the dancers you are working with.
Obviously, you as choreographer have something in your mind. Part of your job is to bring your ideas out of your mind, into your body so you can teach it to them, right?
Yes, that process of transmitting ideas is very key.
Sometimes – I mean, more often than not – I have these ideas that I can’t execute. So that’s always interesting!
But, in the process of having to try to execute the idea that I have, I’ll get a new thought extension. So, a new idea is often revealed through that process.
So sometimes, it’s easy – right away I know “this movement moves exactly to the left.”
Today I saw you working with Sarah Hairston and the rest of the cast. She was lifted high above everyone, and you tried so many different ways to move her to the ground.
That’s right. And a lot of times, I’ll think I want a lift like this [she gestures] and it turns out for it to work the dancer has to have no arms. It could be just physically impossible.
But, in my head, Sarah should be able to just float around the stage! As though we have a harness, you know what I mean [she laughs].
We must have tried twenty different ways to get to that point.
What are you calling this one?
“Floating Forward. I wanted to create a community in this dance. Gabriel Gaffney Smith has composed for six voices from Vocal Arts Ensemble, who will perform live.
It’s a little bit smaller community of dancers than I’ve used previously – but I’ve created it specifically to fit the space at that new theater, I didn’t want to overpower the space in the Jarson-Kaplan Theater [which, though there are more audience seats, is actually smaller for the dancers].
This particular process has been a big collaborative effort with the dancers. A lot of effort. We really had to put all our strengths in place to create this piece. I had to use their knowledge – there are big lifts, we really had to bring everything to the table. And that is what is interesting, because it’s also what the piece is about.
I didn’t specifically plan the piece to revolve around Sarah Hairston, but the music started to unfold. I thought I’d tell the story, inspired by the uplifting music, of one person who is supported by others.
How is your sixth piece for Cincinnati Ballet different?
For one thing, it’s interesting that in the first year, I danced every moment, and showed them how I wanted it to look. I’ve had a few injuries, but it’s incredible how they can execute it like I want it to look. I love these dancers.