Working the Narrative: Amy Seiwert’s Wandering

James Gilmer, Tina LaForgia Morse, Gabriel Smith rehearsing “Wandering”. Photo by Amy Seiwert

Sitting down at the end of a day of rehearsal last week, Amy Seiwert shared some of the questions that are at the back of her mind as she is creating Wandering, a piece which will premiere at the Cowell Theater, at Fort Mason Center, this coming week: “When does narrative work in dance? And when narrative does not work, why?” The Bay Area contemporary ballet choreographer, who has just been appointed Artistic Director of the Sacramento Ballet, has always leaned toward abstraction but for this new piece she is venturing into narrative.

Wandering is part of the Sketch series, which Seiwert initiated in 2011 to promote risk-taking and innovation in ballet. For this year’s Sketch 7, Seiwert has identified making an evening-length work as a challenge to her creative habits: “I’m really at home at a rep piece. I know exactly how to make a 20 to 25 minutes ballet,” mentioned the choreographer who has been commissioned by Ballet Austin, BalletMet, Atlanta and Oakland Ballets among others. Seiwert’s longest work to date is the 45-minute ballet Requiem which she choreographed in 2011 for Smuin Ballet. “I’m not sure you can do an evening-length work without some kind of a narrative,” Seiwert continues. “For Wandering, how to sustain the ideas and keep people engaged through the entire time is scary. That was the challenge.”

Conceptualized about a year and a half ago, Wandering is supported by one of two Creative Residencies offered through The Joyce Theater Foundation. Seiwert’s company Imagery is the first company outside of New York City to receive a National Residency from the Joyce. The residency provides considerable support to Seiwert’s creative process: in addition to a substantial grant, it subsidizes studio space, artistic assistant Katherine Wells — a former member of Imagery- as well as choreographic adviser Val Caniparoli. “Having these resources has been such a gift” Seiwert insists. “For example, we realized this afternoon that we needed to do a social media post, I asked Katherine to go shoot a short video in the back of the studio. These are little tiny things that are important but they take time. Having the support to be able to be creative and not worry about the little things has been amazing.”

Wandering is set to Franz Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey). Seiwert first set a piece to Schubert for Sketch 6 when she choreographed Starting Over At the End with KT Nelson. “This whole thing is all her fault!” Seiwert jokes affectionately. “KT introduced me to lieders in general. I love Schubert’s music: you can hear the leaves falling, the organ-grinder, the mechanical turning of gears…” Seiwert is referring to the composer’s literal interpretation of German lyric poet Wilhelm Müller’s 24 poems, which forms the lyrics of Schubert’s Winterreise.

The music is so powerful –at times dramatic, sorrowful, at times colorful and buoyant- that it takes a choreographer with a strong backbone and talent to create a choreography that stands up as an equal partner, and not as a servitor to the music. With her own distinct vocabulary — swift, and at times quirky, gestures such as the flick of a hand, a shoulder rolling in and out, a sway of the hip, or an elbow hic-upping, contrast with lyrical extensions — Seiwert brings the movements on equal footing (no pun intended) with the music.

Seiwert used a recording by German lyric baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, one of the most famous Lieder performers of the post-war period. Singling out Fischer-Dieskau has helped placing the ballet in a historical context and informed some of the imagery that Seiwert is exploring. “We looked at a lot of images with a sense of destruction — black and white barbwire, linden trees, lanterns lighting the way, photos of Europe after World War II. They come up in the work,” Seiwert commented.

Some of the imagery was also drawn directly from Müller’s poems (a mocking crow, a frozen river for example) although Seiwert didn’t let herself be bound to the poet’s narrative. The poems delineate the story of a man who experiences isolation and loss during his wandering journey throughout woods and villages after his love rejects him. Using an astute costume prop, Seiwert moves away from identifying a single hero or heroin in the group of eight dancers. In a democratization of sorts, everyone gets to be the lead character –the wanderer- at some point of the piece. Each of the roles appears to constantly morph: a group of dancers may create an exterior environment in one scene– for example creating a human set in which the wanderer evolves (chest arched upward, angular arms with fingers stretched apart evoke Linden trees). In another section, they seem to invoke the wanderer’s inner world.

Seiwert reflects on her choice of allowing each of the dancers to embody the wanderer: “It is about making something sustainable for everyone,” she explains. “But it’s also about the fact that this piece explores the different ways that loss is universal. We may experience loss differently but we don’t get not to experience it.”

Seiwert’s choice to move away from an overtly identifiable storyline and keep a dynamic seems like a possible response to her initial questions. So is her decision to underline the many facets of the characters present on stage, which allows space for empathy. Seiwert adds: “That might be especially important nowadays where perhaps empathy seems a bit underutilized as a human resource.”