Grace under pressure
With Sacramento Ballet’s dramatic transitions finally out of the spotlight, artistic director Amy Seiwert aims to push the company to great heights.
Amy Seiwert slowly circles the large ballet studio, holding up her phone, shooting video of a cluster of rehearsing dancers. A former ballerina, she could be dancing herself, gliding along the edges of the room watching the bodies in motion at the center.
It’s her second season as artistic director as she continues with the formidable challenge of making the company into the “Sacramento Ballet 3.0” she envisions.
The dancers struggle to keep the comically inebriated soprano Carrie Hennessey upright as she teeters perilously while singing her way through the Mozart variations “Ah vous diari-je, Maman.” The dancers scramble around Hennessey, maintaining their own choreographed performance to her unwavering voice.
The comic scene resembles a classic cartoon, and the dancers’ agility and subtle dexterity recalls silent film performers.
The Sacramento Ballet is rehearsing a new work “On the Rocks, Please!” by choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie, one third of its season-opening program Mozart In Motion, which starts Oct. 3 at the Sofia Tsakopoulos Center for the Arts in Midtown. The program also includes “Embellish” by Jodie Gates and “Requiem” by Seiwert.
Last year, the emotional drama surrounding former co-artistic directors Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda's grudging departure hovered over the season. Despite the turmoil, Seiwert’s national reputation rose as she became one of only a handful of women leading professional ballet companies.
Now, the stakes for Seiwert and the company remain high as they focus on growing their audiences.
Having Moultrie, who has choreographed for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Beyoncé, create new work represents much of what Seiwert wants: classic background, innovative creativity and talented diversity.
After the scene finishes, Seiwert shares her video with Moultrie and the dancers, who crowd around watching themselves in the work in progress.
Seiwert calls the new season “Sights Unseen,” meaning all works in the five programs will be new to Sacramento audiences except for Seiwert’s version of The Nutcracker, which premiered last year.
Seiwert’s The Nutcracker was the only full-length ballet made by a woman produced last year at any of the top 50 U.S. ballet companies, and it’s only the third The Nutcracker ever choreographed by a woman. Two-thirds of Sacramento Ballet’s works will be choreographed by women this year, which ties nationally with American Ballet Theatre.
Sacramento Ballet is leading the field in part because it’s performing many of Seiwert’s works. The gender equity issue in ballet remains a priority, one she says she will approach more directly after one year on the job.
“There was so much happening to just keep the wheels on the train, and the train on the track and the train going forward on the track,” Seiwert says in her office just off a main rehearsal space at the CLARA in Midtown. “Those were the goals, and those were lofty goals, as it turns out.”
The train in question is Cunningham and Binda's active resistance to the decision of Sacramento Ballet’s board not to renew their contracts. The dancers, audience and arts community all found themselves embroiled in the dispute.
Despite the tensions, Seiwert says Cunningham was “tremendously supportive” and attended almost all the performances last year.
For his part, Cunningham says he’s not retired and has worked with several companies. He naturally has outsized feelings for the dancers here, though.
“We put them forward, we want them to be successful, we want them to continue experiencing a career at the highest level possible,” Cunningham says.
Seiwert’s relationship with Cunningham predates the controversy. She danced with the company under him before she was a choreographer.
Now, she says, she has negotiated the difficult transition. “My relationship is primarily with the dancers, and these dancers didn’t choose the change that happened to them,” Seiwert says. “They had their career on one path, and that path got changed, and now I’m a part of it. I’m very cognizant of that as a responsibility.”
Michelle Katcher, who danced Marie, the female lead in The Nutcracker last season, says this year has a “good flow.”
“Everything feels much more at ease; it’s like having an old friend versus making a new friend,” Katcher says.
This season, Seiwert has added three new dancers. There are 19 dancers and three new apprentices in the mid-size company, which maintains a $3 million annual budget.
One dancer not returning is longtime principal Alexandra Cunningham, daughter of Cunningham and Binda. Her doctors have advised her to stop dancing while both her injured knees heal.
“I miss being in the studio for the process,” she wrote in an email. “But I have no regrets about my career and I am filled with so much happiness when I look back.”
Seiwert says she sees the changes as a natural attrition process. The ballet’s board has also been almost entirely remade over the last two years. The transition, she adds, has been emotionally exhausting for everyone, and they all needed a reset.
“Now we’re actually able to dream about the vision for the future, and we’re making some steps towards that,” Seiwert says.
Seiwert says she learned a lot last year staging The Nutcracker, which involved 300 children and was a record-breaking success, bringing in more than $1 million.
This year’s challenge involves staging the production in Memorial Auditorium as the Community Center Theater undergoes renovations.
Hamlet, a stunning production that opened Valentine’s Day weekend, didn’t get much traction with audiences. Seiwert says she knows she must get people to attend programs other than The Nutcracker to sustain all the work.
“We need to rebuild the community that thinks ballet is awesome in general and loves this company—that’s my biggest job,” she says.
To that end, the ballet’s executive director, Anthony Krutzkamp, reports that attendance in 2018 grew from 2017. “Our patrons were becoming accustomed to attending the Sofia for our mixed repertoire shows,” he says.
Back in the ballet studio, Sacramento Ballet co-founder Barbara Crockett sits with Cunningham in the front row of a recent open rehearsal. They watch choreographer Jodie Gates guide dancers Stefan Calka and Lauryn Winterhalder through a difficult lift and pirouette sequence.
“I think the program is amazing,” Cunningham says later. “Jodie Gates is a brilliant choreographer, her ballet is wonderful. Darrell’s thing is so witty.”
Seiwert knows progress can be difficult to see at times. So in her office, there’s a sheet of butcher block paper tagged in marker and taped to the wall. “Transformative” is written large and circled. Other phrases include “Change the way my field is perceived” and “Share Intent.”
“It’s my brain,” she says. “My goals. Things to remember.”
On another wall, there are patterns of Post-it notes in yellow and green, all bearing names of artists she wants to bring in and ballets she wants to produce. “I keep saying I want to walk through these hallways and for something to always be happening—I want these spaces activated at all times,” Seiwert says.
“Wednesday morning, I walked in and we are doing our ’falls prevention classes’ for senior citizens. We had company class upstairs with all of our trainees, too … and we had an open class to the community,” she says. “Every large studio was full and the problem was that we don’t have enough barres.”
She’s happy to have the problem.