Amy Seiwert on SKETCH 12: Breaking Ballet Barriers


June 28, 2022—Choreographer Amy Seiwert's innovative SKETCH series is now in its twelfth year. This year's SKETCH includes three world premieres choreographed by Seiwert and two other choreographers, Imagery's new Artistic Fellow and former ODC dancer Natasha Adorlee, and Joshua L. Peugh, whose work is being shown to Bay Area audiences for the first time. A student of the late Michael Smuin, Seiwert sees it her mission to take risks that push choreographers and dancers to innovate creatively in ballet-based choreography. Amy Seiwert met with BayDance's Michael Phelan to explain SKETCH 12, Dear Diary, her newest in the annual SKETCH series.

Amy Seiwert. Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo
Amy Seiwert. Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

MP: Tell me about SKETCH 12 and why it's called Dear Diary.

Amy Seiwert: From the beginning SKETCH has had the mission to ask each choreographer to self-identify a task that they are personally working on that is something different than what they've done before. For example, I'm trying to work a lot with speed this year. I know Joshua is right now, although he might abandon it, he's working with pointe shoes. It's the first time he's done that in a decade because he works predominantly with contemporary companies. When Val Caniparoli did it (SKETCH), I know he worked with improvisation. You're supposed to try a tool that you're not used to working with. But within that, you're also asked each year to answer a prompt. An example is Use Your Words (SKETCH 6), where the written word was meant to be a prompt in some way, shape, or form. Whatever you created. This year the prompt is nostalgia. I think for a lot of people, in the height of the lock-down, nostalgia took a big hold on us as an emotional coping mechanism, and we're still feeling some of those ramifications. You see it in pop culture, pop music. So I'm interested to put that on the table as a prompt and see what that excited in people.

MP: SKETCH 12 involves access and inclusion. What does that mean to you?

AS: That means making our work available in as many ways as we can and to rethink what that means. It used to mean that if you had songs with words, making sure you had an ASL interpreter at one show. Then the next step was making sure that if we're going to put anything up online that has words, then we've got close captioning. At this point it also means making sure we have an audio-described performance. We were the first Bay Area ballet-identifying company to do such a thing. Contemporary, modern companies are a little faster to adapt than ballet. Something that I'm not proud of, but I'm working on, is getting ballet to the table faster on things that matter. Since about 2018 we've been doing audio-described performances working with Gravity Access Services. They're phenomenal and based here in the Bay Area.

MP: Access and inclusion are all about the audience experience.

AS: For example, if you're visually impaired, there could be a presumption that you're not going to want to see a ballet. I was talking to a patron once who was losing her eyesight, and she said to me there are as many types of blindness as there are the color blue. She is an avid dance patron. She has worked for different ballet companies. She loves ballet. She knows what a ballet looks like. She has a visual memory of what this looks like. So, if you describe to her the dancer in purple and this is the type of costume, she can still see the movement of that dancer. Now in making the audio-described performance, there's a thing called a muzzle. I didn't make up this word! (laughing) They're using a muzzle while watching the performance and describing everything they're seeing. And the patron can be wearing a headset and be getting a description of everything that's happening on stage. This is done often with plays and with Broadway musicals, but not so often in the concert dance world. We're trying to make it more common. There are so many different ways that we can expand accessibility to what we do, so we're trying to explore more of them and trying to learn more about what we don't know.

MP: You've got two choreographers, Natasha Adorlee and Joshua L. Peugh. Your website says that Natasha was chosen for the integrity of her work. What does that mean, the integrity of her work?

Natasha Adorlee. Photo: Robert Suguitan
Natasha Adorlee. Photo: Robert Suguitan

AS: She's simply a very strong choreographer. Period. Someone we're seriously considering for a fellowship has got the ability to craft a dance well, tell a story well, work with dancers well. So there's a high level of integrity there. What I love about Natasha is that she is constantly looking at integrating technologies, things I barely understand. She's of a younger generation and looking at things with different eyes, and it's fantastic to have her involved.

MP: Tell me about Joshua, the other choreographer in SKETCH 12.

Joshua L. Peugh. Photo: Brian Guilliaux
Joshua L. Peugh. Photo: Brian Guilliaux

AS: I first saw his work almost a decade ago. What I loved about it was it was funny but poignant and made you think. To be able to capture all that. The first thing I saw of his was a ten-minute long duet. It was such a narrative story, basically watching a couple through all the phases of their experience together: when they met, their relationship, and their relationship falling apart. What he did was he used the same song, but three different versions of it. It was fantastic! It was charming, and funny, and heartbreaking. When you can get all of these together, that's a rare combination. That certainly got him on my radar. I've wanted to bring him out here for quite a while.

Amy Seiwert's Imagery in Rehearsal. Photo by David Desilva
Amy Seiwert's Imagery in Rehearsal. Photo by David Desilva

MP: I see all over your website, in interviews and so on, that you are a risk taker. You take risks to further innovation. What happens if you try something risky and it doesn't work?

AS: I feel terrible! (laughing) It is highly uncomfortable. It's a sense of unease. But as the saying goes, if everything you try works, you're not trying hard enough. SKETCH really began with this premise of what I was feeling personally, which was when I first started making ballet, nobody was paying any attention. I was definitely doing it on my own terms, small performance venues, and I would try anything. And then I got more successful, and I got paid more money to create ballets, and organizations were putting more financial resources behind it, there's more audience coming in. And it makes it really hard to take a risk because it's going to be on an opera house stage with a couple of thousand people in the audience. So you want to make the most brilliant thing that anyone's ever seen. But, meanwhile, it's easy to fall into what you know will work. And it's really hard to step away from that, you know. And the more people who are paying attention, the harder that gets. And, I'll be transparent right now, my husband gave me a lecture on the phone the other night. He's like, isn't SKETCH about risking, not about making the perfect work? Because I'm trying something new right now and I'm not sure it's working, and it doesn't feel good. But, this is where there's the room for growth. Even if I try something new and it doesn't feel good and it doesn't produce the ballet that I'm striving for, there's a moment of reflection after that. Like, is it just not the right tool for me? Or was I using the tool backwards? Was I using the wrong edge of the knife? You have to really look at what you tried to do, what, in quotes, is "successful" and why? Maybe I'll use the word effective instead of successful. Was it effective, and if so, why? And if it wasn't, why? It really encourages that spirit of adventure and curiosity (laughs). And when it goes wrong, or when it does create a sense of unease, looking at that and pulling your ego out of it, really looking at why.

MP: What sort of risks are you taking in SKETCH 12?

AS: My personal one has been...I tend to work very slowly, very methodically. I don't move forward until I'm very satisfied with where something is. A friend described watching me work is like watching someone handcrafting, very meticulously handcrafting. My goal has been to move faster and not over-analyze and not edit while I'm creating, but just to get a draft and put it out there. And I can tell you, I'm moving slower than I ever have with the goal of moving faster than I ever have. So that's something for me to think about. (laughs)

MP: You said that in SKETCH 11, when you did By Any Other Name, and you used the flower prop, you could hear the voice of Michael Smuin screaming, "Never use props!"

AS: Yes! (laughs)

MP: Have you found yourself at other times going against the advice of your mentors?

AS: (laughs) I still hear Michael's voice in my head all the time, and sometimes I very respectfully disagree with him. And, for the record, he would scream "Never use props" when he was using like the biggest prop you've ever seen. He said that, but he wouldn't take his own advice on that constantly. There are two other things I always hear, like if I have something that's too busy and too far apart, he'd say, "I don't know what I'm supposed to be looking at," and, "That moment's too important, it should be on center." But really a lot of his criticisms of my work were very much from a director's eye, looking at it like 'I don't know what I'm supposed to be looking at'. Which doesn't mean you need to change anything. It could be something you need to clarify with lighting or something else. But it was challenging me to make sure I knew what it was I wanted the audience to be looking at.

Amy Seiwert's Imagery in Rehearsal. Photo by David Desilva
Amy Seiwert's Imagery in Rehearsal. Photo by David Desilva

MP: Over the 12 years of the SKETCH series, is there anything that you especially see as a risk that really worked, that stands out in your mind?

AS: We strive for it to not be the same experience twice. That's a pretty big goal for us. One of my favorite experiences was the Music Mirror in SKETCH 4. There were only two choreographers, myself and Adam Hougland. It was our job to each find three images. And we sent those three images to a composer. That composer made six movements of music based on those six images. We didn't see each other's images. We didn't know which image matched which piece of music. We were handed back six movements of music. We were allowed to put those movements in any order we wanted. And we each made ballets to this music. And we did it at the same show. The same dancers had to dance to the same music in different orders, with different choreographic intentions, costumes, lighting, everything else. The challenge was to the dancers and to the musicians who were playing live and had to play it in different orders. But also to the audience to see if it could be two unique experiences versus get beyond just compare and contrast. From what I heard, that worked from the audience point of view. The challenge went beyond just the dancers and the creators. We were asking the audience to experience the same music twice in different ways. That stands out as one of the more unique things we have ever done.

SKETCH 12 Dear Diary runs July 15-16 at Cowell Theater, Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. For more information see Amy Seiwert's Imagery.

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