Once More, With Feeling

By Leigh Witchel

Of all the choreographers in The Joyce Theater’s Ballet Festival, Amy Seiwert bit off the most – but she managed to chew it. Her company, Imagery, was the toughest sell: it’s San Francisco-based, so not well-known in New York City, and she used no big names.

Seiwert began her dance career at Sacramento Ballet, worked at Smuin Ballet and is heading back to Sacramento, this time to run the company. She has been active on the West Coast for close to two decades. We both participated in the Pacifica Choreographic Project back in 1999; she’s the kind of decent person who is easy to like, and whose success you applaud.

She brought the most ambitious project, “Wandering,” a full-evening work for eight dancers, four women on pointe along with four men, which had its premiere in San Francisco a few days earlier. Seiwert used music that is a major commitment for the listener – Franz Schubert’s bleak 70-minute song cycle “DieWinterreise” (The Winter Journey). With the help of minimal but crucial effects designed by Brian Jones that owed to Robert Wilson, if Seiwert’s choreography didn’t reach the depths of emotion of Schubert’s music, it’s impressive that she managed something as polished as she did.

The piece began in half-light, a bare stage save for a few lanterns dimly-lit and a stool at the side holding a small phonograph. James Gilmer, wearing a red flared coat, put the needle on the record, and we heard an epochal recording of the songs by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Gerald Moore.  Seiwert’s ballet vocabulary was fluid, contemporary and coolly danced.

Anthony Cannarella, Tina LaForgia Morse, Ben Needham-Wood, and Gabriel Smith in Amy Seiwert’s “Wandering.” Photo © Chris Hardy.

The lyrics were not provided, but Seiwert was not following them and she did not cleave to Wilhelm Müller’s poetry. “Die Winterreise” is about the desolate and solitary journey of one man, spurned in love. It’s a watercolor in bleak grays and “Wandering” didn’t try to buck that. Perhaps it went with that even more; it didn’t evoke the agony of love, but a funereal suffering. Seiwert wasn’t pulling that from nowhere; Schubert himself was dying of syphilis as he wrote “Die Winterreise.”  Yet there was distance between the movement and the emotions.  Seiwert kept her dancers cool, with the face being the coolest and most dispassionate.

The rest of the cast hovered and supported Gilmer in slow motion, like a hallucination.  He took Shania Rasmussen and covered her eyes but another man led her away, and all the men lifted and maneuvered her through space.

Seiwert’s journey was communal; at some point everyone in the cast became The Wanderer. She held to Schubert’s division of the songs into two sets of twelve and used the intermission and lighting to distinguish them. The first 12 songs seemed to take place in the blue hours before dawn, the second half in daylight. The entire cast wore abbreviated tights with leotard bodices designed by Susan Roemer and made to look like boning: in white in the first half, black in the second.

There were occasional brief congruencies between Müller’s words and Seiwert’s moves. At the German word for flower, Gilmer’s hands spread open. Rasmussen came in to comfort him. He shook, but she removed his coat and put on an identical red one to assume his wandering. Two other couples were onstage, becoming a silent mirror, until she started shaking and they restrained her.

The robe got passed from person to person, in different ways. Rasmussen lost her robe quietly, given to Gabriel Smith, who donned it as the women hovered about like butterflies. Gilmer knelt down and pushed Smith forward, and he passed through the others as if in a darkening garden. When the time came, Ben Needham-Wood unrolled and donned his robe of his own volition. Dimming lights and a slow snowfall marked the end of the act.

Shania Rasmussen, James Gilmer, Gabriel Smith, Ben Needham-Wood, and Jackie Nash in Amy Seiwert’s “Wandering.” Photo © Chris Hardy.

The second half brought daylight and the costume change, as well as a sad, surreal morphing of the snowfall to black feathers. “Wandering” seemed more vivid in the light of day. Gilmer tried to pass the robe from Jackie Nash to Anthony Cannarella, who refused it as if he were avoiding his own destiny. It remained discarded on the ground as three couples danced, but Cannarella returned and finally acquiesced. As he dressed, two other men stood over him like a thorny hedge. He spent much of his time as The Wanderer watching, before a slow, tender switch to the final Wanderer, Tina LaForgia Morse. The group coalesced round her to lift her up. After her frightened protests they lay her down supine in a rectangle of earth marked by the lanterns, and the song cycle ended marked by the sound of the record coming to its stammering close.

“Wandering” impressed the most in its intelligent construction, particularly at its seams. The ballet transitioned from Wanderer to Wanderer with constant variety; at one point the red robe became a rope to entrap the third Wanderer. Seiwert’s design team worked with the same economical intelligence to give the work unity in a stripped-down production.

Where the work faltered a step was in the transposition of Schubert’s sorrow to Seiwert’s stoicism. Her switch of the work’s antagonistic force from heartache to mortality didn’t fully register. We saw the entire cast, and they all got their turn in the spotlight, but we never got to know them.

The emotions of “Wandering” shook, but not to the core. Ironic, but the multiplication of one protagonist into eight turned out to be an act of division – and dilution. With a single story broken into eight pieces, there needed to be more emotion to go around.

copyright © 2017 by Leigh Witchel

“Wandering” – Amy Seiwert’s Imagery
Ballet Festival
The Joyce Theater, New York, NY
July 27, 2017

Cover: Shania Rasmussen, Gabriel Smith, Ben Needham-Wood, Jackie Nash, and Alysia Chang in Amy Seiwert’s “Wandering.” Photo © Chris Hardy.

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