Rites of Fall: James Sewell Ballet with the Minnesota Orchestra

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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 frieze.

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 Celesta.”

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?

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