Amy Seiwert: Challenge, Exploration, and Meaning

The mission statement of acclaimed choreographer Amy Seiwert’s company, Amy Seiwert Imagery, is “to expand the definition of ballet by exploding preconceptions of what ballet is and can be.” This ideal pervades her work, as she constantly challenges herself and her dancers to explore new expressive realms. The World Dances spoke with Seiwert about what this means to her, her work, the importance of cultivating new and diverse creative voices in ballet, and more. 

Please tell us about the piece you’re currently working on with Smuin.

The piece, Broken Open, premiered last fall with Smuin. I have a phenomenal production team with Brian Jones, who did the scenic design and lighting, and Sandra Woodall, who did the costumes. It was good watching it coming together in the studio, but when we got to the theater it became suddenly so much greater than the sum of its parts and really came to life. It was chosen as one of the top ten performances in San Francisco in 2015, so we brought it back and I’m really excited to see it on stage again. The company’s had some turnover since last time, so I’m excited to see it with some new dancers. 

What do you think made the piece so special on stage?

It totally surprised me! If I knew the answer to that question, we’d all be applying it to every piece we ever make. Sometimes things just click. It really came to life and it was highly satisfying. It’s only happened a few times for me when something’s come together that synergistically on stage.

I’m not sure if that’s the equivalent to when a dancer’s performance feels transcendent and “in the zone.” As a dancer, that experience is usually a personal and specific moment in time. Building a piece happens over such a long, long time. There might be a parallel, but they’re dramatically different in terms of duration. Also on the production side, it’s so much about having vibrant collaboration. It’s not just that someone does the lights, someone does the dancing, etc., but when the ideas really all start to influence each other. It’s amazing and what we’re striving for when we’re collaborating.

Would you describe your creative process as collaborative? 

I’m old school. I start with the music. But I do love working with collaborators who can push me into new ideas or who can share something about a world I know nothing about. For example, I’ve worked with a software artist a few times. And I did a piece with Atlanta Ballet with Marc Mamuthi Joseph, who’s an amazing spoken word artist. He wrote all the poetry for that, and it pushed me further than anyone had up to that point. The subject matter was so diverse and heavy. It took a big leap of faith to go there with him and it was incredibly powerful. There’s a high reward when collaborations work well.

It seems like embracing and responding to challenge is an important part of your work.

Yes, ballet is my language. It’s the field I love and where I’ve spent my career. But ballet can sometimes be very safe. We have an amazing tradition that we should honor, but I’m interested in what else can be said with that language and how it can be relevant to today. Especially today, when things can be so divisive, how does this traditionally European art form find a voice that matters to our time? We need to find that voice if ballet is to be able to resonate with the population. And I think we can. 

How do you strive for that in your company?

There are a lot of ways to try to do it. Our company has dancers with different body types. We’re racially diverse. We really try to change the assumptions about what a ballet company is supposed to look like or be.

Part of the goal is to run the company a little differently. I pay equity across the board. I’d never pay men more than I pay women just because there are fewer of them. I’d be really interested to see someone do some data consolidation on that across the United States, actually. I also have a mission that my dancers have a voice in the creative process. They’re not empty vessels for me to fill up. They’re thinking, growing artists who contribute. They’re active collaborators, not puppets. Being a woman creating changes things too, especially in terms of partnering. Partnering so often involves a man leading. It’s interesting to see how the partnering changes when the person who isn’t able to lift as much initiates the movement.

The question of gender and sexism in ballet is an important conversation that I’m glad we’re having. Olivia Clark, a beautiful, super intelligent dancer who retired recently from Ballet Met, told me about the satisfaction of dancing the part of a strong, complex, nuanced woman character in my ballets. That made my heart sing. I think I do portray women differently on stage.

The question of diversity in ballet has been enjoying a swell in discussion lately. What does it mean to you to be a successful female choreographer in this context?

It’s interesting. There was a Twyla Tharp interview where she was asked about being a female choreographer. She answered, “I’m not a female choreographer; I’m just a choreographer.” I was saddened by that. For me, being a female choreographer is who I am. I’m sure my experiences being female shape my art. Is it an agenda I put forward? No, but I’m not going to say it doesn’t’ effect things. Everyone talks about the dearth of female choreographers. There’s not a dearth. It’s just that we’re not getting the same opportunities, especially not the high profile ones. People are trying though. We have to advocate for women and we have to advocate for choreographers of color. We need more and new voices, otherwise ballet is in a bubble. We have to reflect our world.

What’s it like for you to work with Smuin after having danced with the company?

It’s great! I’ve had a relationship since I moved to San Francisco in 1999. I danced there for nine years. Michael Smuin was such an advocate of my work. He was so supportive of what I was doing even though it was aesthetically very different from what he was doing. Without him advocating for me, I would not have the career I have. Being able to go back there and create is a way to honor that legacy as much as I can. It feels like going home every time. They’re a great company. The dancers are strong and diverse. They’ll try anything. I love that relationship.

What’s it been like for to have your own company, and how do you think that’s changed you as an artist?

It’s been so organic. It really grew out of me just wanting more opportunities to make more work. Since it’s grown, I have these dancers who know me so well. The creative process is incredibly vulnerable. Most artists are pretty sensitive to begin with. When you think about it, it’s weird. We take this group of highly sensitive people, put them in a room, and ask them to be vulnerable together. It’s crazy! To have these dancers who trust you, and I trust them, is so special. I know I can try anything with them. We’re comfortable going into spaces and not knowing if it’s going to work. Creation, period, is vulnerable, but when you’re intentionally going outside your comfort zone together—why would you do that?! The answer, of course, is in hopes of creating something unique and finding something new. With Imagery, I feel like I’ve been able to foster that environment for myself and for others.

Is being able to partake in that process of vulnerably a key characteristic you look for in your dancers?

Yes! We have a core of about 15 dancers and they’re really hand picked. They’re all brilliant artists on their own, but they also all play well with others. They’re into collaborating and being uncomfortable. They don’t want to just work on doing eight pirouettes everyday; they’re interested in investigating. I want dancers who are inquisitive and into finding new things, exploring what we don’t know yet. When I do commission work, the time frame is so compressed. You’re usually asked to cast within a few hours, and that’s exactly what I’m looking for—the dancers who want to share in that experience and aren’t afraid of not being perfect.

What projects do you have on the horizon?

There’s a lot! I’m doing my first opera this spring, Phillip Glass’ Les Enfants Terribles with Opera Parellèle. I’ve never done an opera before. And this summer I’m doing my first full-length ballet, which will be based on Schubert’s Winterreise. We’ll do that first in San Francisco in July then we take it to New York to the Joyce. [Click here for more on upcoming works and tickets.]

What advice would you offer aspiring dancers?

Be brave and dance fearlessly. All of this is hard and we all have to be courageous. We can hide behind things, but that doesn’t serve the art or humanity. So be bold and be thoughtful.

Photo: Smuin dancers Ben Needham-Wood, Rachel Furst, and Jonathan Powell in Amy Seiwert's "Broken Open," presented as part of Smuin's Dance Series 02 in the 2016-2017 season. Photo credit: Chris Hardy.