Imagery's Unstoppable Amy Seiwert Dons a New Creative Hat at Smuin and Explains Her Latest Work French Kiss
April 10, 2023—Amy Seiwert wears many hats, as Artistic Director of Imagery ballet company, as a nationally renowned choreographer, and as a creative dance filmmaker. Yet she is donning another artistic hat as Associate Artistic Director of Smuin Ballet beginning in August. The announcement by Smuin Ballet comes two weeks before Seiwert's newest choreographic work, French Kiss, has its world premiere at Smuin's Dance Series 2 on April 28th.
Amy Seiwert graciously shared her views on French Kiss and her new responsibilities in an interview at the Smuin company's new studios in San Francisco. When I last spoke with her in June, Amy described herself as a risk-taker who discards "the right or wrong paradigm." When I remind her that she'd said Michael Smuin thought it was great that she was "a little moody and a little weird," between laughs she says, "He did!"
Because she has been called a "mad scientist" for her tendency toward unconventional innovation, one might expect her choreography to be strange and even bizarre. But her dances are often beautiful and moving, described in words such as poignant and sensitive. And they are. Her work Instructions, for example, takes the unconventional step of having a dancer on stage narrating from a Neil Gaiman poem. It works beautifully.
Asked what are her parameters of innovation that are accessible to familiar emotions, she answers that she is very inspired looking outside her "creative box." She started as a professional ballet dancer when she was 19 years old. "When dinosaurs were walking the earth," she laughs. At that time, ballet dancers were never asked to improvise. There was a lot of imitation versus collaboration, but she finds there's much more collaboration today. "For example, Amy London (Ballet Master of Smuin Ballet) and I were just talking about a question I had about the piece, and she brought it back to baseball. We were answering the question by talking about what a baseball manager would do in this situation."
Seiwert says she can draw inspiration from varied sources: baseball, the tech industry, and collaborating "with people who might have been considered outside the norm in ballet even a decade ago." She has done a lot of work with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, an "amazing spoken word artist," and has collaborated with software artists for interactive video work.
"I think there is something phenomenal when you look outside the creative box you know to get inspiration, and that can lead to innovation because we're looking, perhaps, to a place no one has before." She points out that Neil Gaiman, whose poetry she applied in Instructions, is known more for his Sandman series of graphic novels. "You don't normally think of graphic novels and ballet," she says, "But it's a great pairing."
She strives to remain curious and not have a predetermined notion of what something is going to be. "I love to be surprised in the studio," she says. "There was a moment today when I tried an idea and thought that was highly satisfying." But not all ideas are satisfying. "You have to have 20 ideas, at least, to get to one that makes your soul sing. And that can take a while," she laughs, "You have to be patient."
One of her satisfying ideas was to choreograph her upcoming world premier French Kiss to the music of the band Pink Martini. "There's some bitter-sweetness to this piece, for sure. If you look at the mood board for this piece, it's like color, and Mondrian prints, and '60s Paris and Montmarte." She wanted to set the work in this place of color by using Pink Martini music, but she liked so much of it that she narrowed it down to just their French songs. "That settled the piece in its place. It totally fit.
The music has a personal connection for Seiwert. When she was a dancer in her twenties, she spent summers in Paris. "I was pretty broke, so I walked around a ton," she explains. "It's a city I was fortunate to see a little deeper than a traditional tourist," she said, "Setting in Paris brings back a lot of good memories."
Regarding her new role at Smuin, she recalls that during her nine years as a dancer with Smuin Ballet, she and Smuin Artistic Director Celia Fushille used to dance together. "We've always had a good relationship. We've always been able to dream and scheme together about the work that I'm doing," she reflects, "So to be able to do that organizationally is something I'm really excited about." Part of her job will be helping to grow the organization strategically. "But what is the best shape of that to go" she asks, "I'm still only one human, right?" She intends to apply her experience in dance film and media, which Smuin wants to explore. "Celia brings a curatorial point of view. The people she's brought in are fantastic. I'm lucky that I've done work across the country and been exposed to choreographers that she might not even know. I've had more work out on that national stage, and I can bring a different point of view than what she's been exposed to here. We can meld those two things together. That's going to be exciting."
In addition to the late Michael Smuin, Seiwert's approach to technique owes a lot to Carinne Binda, formerly of Sacramento Ballet. "She was really a phenomenal, phenomenal coach," Seiwert says. Asked if she could point to an example in her work, she says, "No. It's more nuanced than that. It's really like an approach to, like..." With a little laugh, she rises from her chair. "For example, if I'm doing something with a dancer, and you're going to fall back and step into the next thing, I'm never going to ask a dancer to step under." She does a turn to demonstrate. "They're always going to have to go fast the other way, which gives things a very specific look of where movement is initiating from. I don't know how you put that in words," she laughs. "A lot of my theories on ballet technique were honed in my time as a dancer in Sacramento, and then I brought that here."
When asked how she works what amounts to two or three full-time jobs, she laughs. Directing Imagery, choreographing for dance companies across the country (last month for Ballet X in Philadelphia), making dance films, the Smuin position, etc. How does she do it all? "Some days I do better than others, for sure," she admits. At Imagery her Managing Director Annika Presley "keeps everything on track and allows me to focus on the creative work, which is fantastic...She's an exceptional human...I can just focus on the art."
In addition to French
Kiss, Seiwert is working on the next performance in the Imagery
Sketch series, a June production for American Repertory Ballet in New
Jersey, and her dance film Organized Hope, which Seiwert
expects to be screened later this year. "The next four months are
pretty packed," she says.
Smuin Ballet's Dance Series 2 runs April 28 - May 28 in San Francisco, Mountain View, and Walnut Creek. For more information, see Smuin Ballet.