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John Lamb, Published February 28 2012

Dance to the music: Sung’s trio sets tempo for acclaimed ballet troupe

If you go

What: James Sewell Ballet with Arsenal Trio

When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday

Where: Hansen Theatre, MSUM

Info: Admission: $28 for adults; $25 seniors; $12 for students. (218) 477-2271 

See video below

MOORHEAD – Snowstorm or not, James Sewell was looking forward to returning to Fargo-Moorhead.

The founder and artistic director of the Minneapolis-based James Sewell Ballet has come to town many times in the group’s 22 years, but this week’s visit has a special twist – performing with live music, some of it the type of American pop music you don’t often associate with ballet.

“We don’t get the chance that often, so it’s fun to do it,” Sewell said Monday from Minneapolis. He and his troupe were scheduled to arrive in town Tuesday.

The dancers perform with the Arsenal Trio on Saturday night at Hansen Theatre, Minnesota State University Moorhead. The trio features former MSUM violin instructor and F-M Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Ben Sung, his wife, pianist Jihye Chang Sung, and cellist Hrant Parsamian.

The two outfits teamed-up last fall in Minneapolis for a work set to Felix Mendelssohn’s “Piano Trio.” The piece will make its local premiere Saturday night.

Story continues below video

Sewell says the catalyst for the pairing was asking:“How can we have as much interesting live music as possible?”

He calls Mendelssohn’s work, “one of the classic chamber music pieces.”

Dancing to live music instead of recordings adds energy to the performance, he says.

“It’s not just them playing the same every time. They’re aware of us and how we’re moving, and we’re listening to how they’re phrasing, so there’s a sort of feedback that happens between the musicians and the dancers that keeps things alive and vital in a way, and it really can’t be captured otherwise. It’s really a very special thing,” he says.

Ben Sung agrees.

“In so many ways, it makes sense to pair music with dance,” the violinist says. “All of our sounds are produced by motion. There is a kinetic link working with dancer.”

It’s a different interaction working with dancers than a conductor, he says, adding that there are limitations.

“We have to be more predictable, especially with tempo. But James is amazingly musical. He always puts together choreography that is very flexible,” Sung says.

That’s how a critic for the New York Times saw the ballet group, calling it, “a polished gem of a chamber dance troupe” and Sewell “one of American ballet’s most inventive choreographers ... . Different and unpredictable.”

“Unpredictable” would be a good way to describe the final part of Saturday’s show. The performance closes with a suite from his ballet, “Made in America,” which focuses on the variety of American music, bluegrass, rock, country and jazz and includes “Dueling Banjos” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”

“Ballet has been labeled this sort of stuffy, antique art form about subjects that are over 100 years and to music that is over 100 years old,” Sewell explains. “The way I approach ballet, it is very much a living, breathing, changing thing. I’m always combining elements from different dance forms and different music and subject matter. Things that are relevant to people today, so it’s much more accessible and interesting.”

Appropriately enough, the set closes with the Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

“That’s just a dance-your-butt-off-have-a-lot-of-fun kind of dance,” he says. “People don’t expect to laugh when they go to the ballet.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533