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Kris Kerzman, Published March 02 2014

Into the ‘Inferno’: Sewell ballet set to debut at MSUM

MOORHEAD – Dante’s epic poem “The Divine Comedy” is easily one of literature’s most influential works.

Its treatments of morality and striking imagery have sent shock waves through Western culture in the seven centuries since it was written. It’s sprinkled throughout the poetry of Milton and T. S. Eliot, the paintings of Botticelli and Dali and, contemporarily, in graphic novels, video games and cartoons.

Add to that list “Inferno,” a new multimedia ballet from the Minneapolis-based James Sewell Ballet, debuting this Saturday as the season finale of Minnesota State University Moorhead’s Cheryl Nelson Lossett Performing Arts Series.

In addition to the ballet, the university is planning additional walks through the world of Dante through music and visual art.

James Sewell, the ballet’s founder and artistic director, said he has thought about creating an adaptation of Dante’s classic for about 30 years.

The ballet will have the hallmarks of a Sewell production, utilizing up-to-the-minute lighting, digital projection and staging techniques to fashion an immersive experience for the audience.

Dante’s world will receive a modern update: Sewell’s “Inferno” begins in Times Square in New York City, moves through the woods in Central Park and enters hell through a subway station. But the performance will still pack the universal wallop of the original.

“It’s amazing how timeless it is,” Sewell says. “It’s a story of a midlife crisis, the 14th-century version of ‘Scared Straight.’ This man needs to re-find his moral compass.”

Sewell’s company sticks to the original material, but the artistic director hopes his reframing will show the audience how relevant Dante’s world is today.

“In Dante’s time, he had two political parties at war with each other,” Sewell says. “He was in exile and wrote this partially as a way to get back at them. In terms of social commentary and religious meaning, in operates on so many levels.”

The production has required weeks of technical rehearsal to coordinate the various video projections and sound (including music by Nine Inch Nails, Pink Floyd and Bach), and has required adjustments along the way to get the dynamics right.

But Sewell says he’s confident the hard work will pay off for both him and the audience.

“It’s really been an exciting and terrifying learning curve. It’s more like I’m directing a film – a dance film,” he says. “When this many elements come together, it’s completely uncharted territory.”

In addition to the ballet, MSUM will host pianist Jihye Chang, a talk by Dante scholar John Kerr, and will show artwork by students challenged with the task of visualizing the concept of hell.

For Chang, the reverberations of the themes in “The Divine Comedy” are just as apparent in music as they are in other art forms. Her program will feature music inspired by Dante and will highlight the structures of musical compositions that invoke ideas like sin, terror and divine love.

“This is ingrained in our culture and our experience, and we feel a certain way when we feel a certain type of music,” Chang says, adding that the usage of certain harmonies, note intervals and other musical gestures has been consistent through much of our musical history.

That spirit of renewing age-old concepts and being part of our larger inquiry into human nature gets right to the heart of the role of the arts, Sewell says.

“The arts aren’t a way to tell people what to think, but rather, they’re a way to get people together, to talk and express their differences,” he says.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo, and its online publication, ARTSpulse. For more informationon the arts, go to http://theartspartnership.net

If you go

WHAT: “Inferno,” a ballet by James Sewell Ballet

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Hansen Theatre, Minnesota State University Moorhead

Tickets: $28 for adults, $24 for seniors, $12 for students

WHAT: Jihye Chang on piano, lecture by Dante scholar John Kerr, and visual art by MSUM art students

When: 5 p.m. Thursday

Where: White Hall and Fox Recital Hall, MSUM