Rites of Fall: James Sewell Ballet with the Minnesota Orchestra

Camille LeFevre attended the premier of "Turf" by the James Sewell Ballet, in concert with the Minnesota Orchestra, at Orchestra Hall, on Sept. 20. It's a courageous and harrowing performance.

James Sewell Ballet

In 1913, Vaslav Nijinsky stirred the audience at the Theatre des
Champs-Elysees almost to rioting with his iconoclastic choreography
for “Le Sacre du printemps,” set to Igor Stravinsky’s symphony of the
same name. Instead of a classical, elevated, turned out and tutu-ed
ballet en point, Nijinsky choreographed a pagan ritual in which the
dancers, wearing heavy tunics, moved with flat feet turned in. Their
jumps were weighty and earthbound. And they angularly flattened
themselves into one-dimensional poses while moving with rhythmic
determinism, resembling figures marching along an ancient horizontal

Last Wednesday, the Minnesota Orchestra (conducted by
Osmo Vanska) performed Stravinsky’s symphony with spine-tingling
bravura and mystery—but without any accompanying choreography.
Instead, the program’s ballet, “Turf,” was performed by James Sewell
Ballet to Bela Bartok’s 1937 “Music for Strings, Percussion and

Choreographed by James Sewell, the 30-minute ballet had plenty of
high twisty lifts, turned-out movements and dancing en point.
But there were also flat palms (braced in a “stop” position), arms
and legs bent into angular positions, and flat one-dimensional frieze-
like poses, sometimes with contracted torsos. The homage to Nijinsky
was clear and intriguing, given “Le Sacre” was the dance work not
danced on the program. But Sewell also had other things on his mind.

Namely, current political events and human-rights concerns,
particularly the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. “Turf” didn’t
incite a riot among the Orchestra Hall audience. But the work’s
visceral, disturbing portrayal of violence, imprisonment and torture—
in which nearly everyone is dirty, culpable or downright sinister, by
virtue of a sophisticated interweaving of tormentor and victim that
allows no one to emerge guilt-free—was unlike any dance seen here
since the war began.

After the performance, a friend leaned over and said, “At last
someone’s dealing with this stuff. It’s about time.” The only other
dance performance I recall that expressively included images of
torture that conjured Abu Ghraib was Joe Chvala’s “Between the Fire
and Ice (Mjollnir II)” last December. Sewell’s portrayal is far more
graphic, contextual and complex.

The ballet begins abstractly to Bartok’s Andante tranquillo. The
dancers ooze through the thick gloom of the music, their elastic
bodies reaching, opening, closing and curving like the mere shapes of
shadows. They bend into odd angles. They flatten, briefly, into those
frieze-like poses. There are little leaps and slight lifts.
Gradually, one group of dancers steps over an imaginary line into a
more brightly lit section of the stage, and we see the larger
ensemble broken into two camps.

The second, or Allegro, section is almost West Side Story-ish, with a
dash of Nijinsky, as the two groups start to rumble. What begins
benignly with angular lifts and acrobatic antics to xylophone
plinking or string plucking quickly becomes more violent. The dancers
start “beating up” each other with high kicks. Three men use Sally
Rousse as a battering ram. Justin Leaf “rapes” Brittany Fridenstine.
Rousse dies, causing a break in the action, but then rises from the
dead as an invisible, spectral presence.

The Adagio opens with Rousse and Sewell in a poignant duet that’s
both memory and warning. Then all hell breaks loose. Offenders (Leaf
and Penelope Freeh) are brought in hanging from other dancers’
shoulders, their wrists tied and eyes blindfolded. To Bartok’s eerie
strings and winds, the jailors sexually tease the prisoners and force
them to kiss their hands.

They also dunk their heads into black barrels (which, given news
reports, we automatically envision to be full of water or some other
lethal substance) as the prisoners struggle. Rousse and Sewell
reappear amid the madness. They hold each other. Sewell lifts Rousse
overhead, her legs akimbo. There’s another wonderful lift in which
Rousse, her hands on Sewell’s hips, swims her legs in the air.

In the Allegro molto, the final section, the abstract angularity is
back, with new rigidity. There’s a mock trial between two lawyers (or
so it appears) who reach an agreement through a vividly sketched
gestural language. The tortured are released. But we are not. As
horrifying as the Abu Ghraib pictures are, as unfathomable as
American soldiers’ complicity in such atrocities is, as bewildering
as Bush’s determination to torture continues to be, those realities
and public policy toward them remain as one-dimensional as a line of
figures on a frieze.

In “Turf, ” Sewell and his dancers fill out the picture with wordless complexity, visceral physicality, emotional bravery, and
choreographic elegance. No one wins, this ballet says. Can any other
choreographer say it better?