Long before the pandemic forced performing artists to radically reconfigure their plans, choreographer Amy Seiwert had embraced the creative power of destruction. Of course, in Seiwert’s world, no one is harmed in the process, but when her company, Imagery, and ODC Theater co-present “Sketch 11: Interrupted,” the works on stage will have been put through the wringer.
Running Aug. 27 to 29 at the ODC Theater (and streamed online Oct. 22 as part of ODC’s digital season), “Sketch 11” features world premieres by Seiwert and Imagery Artistic Fellow Ben Needham-Wood. The works they are presenting have been altered, reconfigured and otherwise redirected from the initial plan by “wrecking,” a process developed by esteemed choreographer and leading dance theorist Susan Rethorst.
“It’s a very specific way of giving feedback and interrupting someone’s creative process, which is the whole mission behind Sketch,” Seiwert said. “When you do one of these commissions you’re not supposed to fall back on the tools that you have. It’s about failing forward and risk taking. Ben has watched some videos of my rehearsals and he’ll give me specific tasks that I’m not allowed to add to but can change, and vice versa.”
While Silicon Valley has ardently tried to recast the implications of failure so that missteps are seen as mere detours on the way to an IPO, the dance world runs on a very different kind of currency. In the performing arts, experimentation tends to take place far away from the public eye, and choreographers strive to present a polished production. Seiwert created the Sketch series to give audiences a glimpse into dance making as an imperfect art, where ideas might not work out.
“My board chair doesn’t want me to talk about failure,” she said with a laugh. “But Sketch is truly about trying something new, that might not work, and that’s okay. The point is about the process.”
While the artists take risks on stage, ODC Theater is doing everything it can to minimize dangers for the audience. Proof of vaccination and masks are required for the live performances, and in the event that Covid-19 prevents a ticket buyer’s attendance or a city mandate cancels the show, tickets will be exchanged for the Oct. 22 virtual premiere via the ODC box office.
Seiwert is ready for any eventuality. If there were any doubts about her ability to ride the highs and lows of the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic, she seems to have come through more resilient than ever, despite vertiginous reversals. Her 2018 appointment as Sacramento Ballet’s artistic director was a national arts story, marking only the seventh time a woman has taken the lead at a professional American ballet company. She quickly sought to establish a firm fiscal foundation for the company with an original version of The Nutcracker (a ballet precious few women choreographers have tackled in the past).
But five months after the initial pandemic-induced shutdown, Sacramento Ballet terminated her contract as a cost-saving measure. In the best of times, regional ballet companies struggle to make ends meet; Silicon Valley Ballet, formerly known as Ballet San Jose, disbanded in 2016 after three decades. And, with prospects for a return to performing uncertain, the ballet “cut me loose I could go do other things,” said Seiwert, who spent about a decade dancing with the company.
“I wouldn’t say it was amicable,” she continued. “It was pretty heartbreaking on both sides. It’s important to be clear it was not my choice. But they didn’t do anything wrong, and I believe they did what they did because they felt it gave the company the best chance to survive. I wish nothing but the best for them.”
Rather than licking her wounds, Seiwert threw herself deeper into cinema, turning Sketch’s milestone 10th anniversary into a mini film festival. Commissioning three Sketch alumni to collaborate with filmmakers, her company Imagery produced a series of new works, including two pieces that are screening as part of the San Francisco Dance Film Festival, which runs Oct. 15 to 24 both in theaters and streaming via Marquee TV.
Ben Needham-Wood, Imagery’s artistic fellow, is represented in the SFDFF’s Dance Heals program with “What the Body Holds.” The 17-minute piece is a dance documentary collaboration with filmmaker Matthew McKee inspired by the work of domestic violence survivor advocate Svetlana (Lana) Pivchik. Like Seiwert, Ben Needham-Wood earned early renown with Smuin Ballet and has participated in every Sketch season since the 2011 launch.
Needham-Wood is Imagery’s inaugural artistic fellow, a position that Seiwert created to formalize the kind of mentorship that fosters essential but seldom-taught skills necessary to run a dance company. Though the fellowship was conceived as a two-year program, Needham-Wood is finishing up his third year, due to pandemic disruptions. Much like Sketch was designed to push choreographers into creative problem solving, Needham-Wood has had a front-row seat as Seiwert and Imagery Managing Director Annika Presley reimagine the company in the face of the pandemic.
“Working directly with Amy and Annika, I got a chance to watch a process most artists in the studio would never get to see, particularly at a unique time during the pandemic,” Needham-Wood said. “Imagery has done an amazing job holding tough conversations. What is our role? What do we need to be sustainable? My only expectation was to be a fly on the wall, but they’ve given me so much of a voice in that process.”
He’s already applying a lot of the skills he’s honed as artistic fellow in his own company, Redirecting Dance, which focuses on developing “dance-based productions that elevate social causes and generates empathy,” Needham-Wood said.
Seiwert is still charting her path forwards in the aftermath of the Sacramento Ballet, but she has found a particularly dependable outlet in ODC Theater. She was a Mission resident for about five years, back around the turn of the century, and has deep and abiding ties to ODC, which has presented six previous Sketch productions.
“It’s a good base to see this kind of work, because it’s so intimate,” she said. “It’s way different than the Opera House, where there’s a whole pit between you and the audience. That organization as a whole is so invested in the community. I moved here in 1999 and met Brenda Way and KT Nelson, and their commitment to the Mission community was very clear.”