Every work that choreographer Amy Seiwert creates starts with a love match — at least musically speaking.
“I fall in love with music first, and my musical choices are very wide,” she said in an interview.
Two of her pieces returning to the stage this month offer pretty solid proof of her expansive musical taste: “Dear Miss Cline,” a honky-tonk romp set to the songs of country crooner Patsy Cline, and “Been Through Diamonds,” a tale of unrequited love inspired by a lyric from an ’80s rock song but danced to the music of Mozart.
The pieces will be featured in Smuin Contemporary Ballet’s February program, “Dance Series 1: Love, Smuin” Feb. 24-27 at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts. The program also features the company premiere of Gina Patterson’s “You Are Here,” which explores themes of loss and perseverance. The piece is set to the music of pianist Ludovico Einaudi.
Seiwert, a former Smuin dancer who also served for about a decade as the company’s first choreographer-in-residence, said she has found musical inspiration for her pieces in everything from the works of 20th-century American classical composer Morton Feldman to 12th-century religious music by Hildegard von Bingen.
“To me, any musical choice, as long as it speaks to me and says, ‘hey, I want to be ballet,’ it’s valid. And ‘Dear Miss Cline’ was one of the first times I was starting to explore using more pop music,” she said.
Seiwert created “Dear Miss Cline” in 2011. She said that she knew at the time that audiences would be receptive to the unusual piece, as the company had already become known for founder Michael Smuin’s inventive ballets incorporating pop music — among them, “To the Beatles Revisited 2001” set to songs by the Beatles and “Come Dance Me a Song,” danced to the music of Sir Elton John.
“Dear Miss Cline” features 10 of Cline’s country songs, many so lovelorn that Seiwert recalled during a rehearsal, lighting designer Brian Jones asked her, “How many people left this woman?”
Jones might have been joking, but the question actually gets to the heart of how Seiwert said she approaches choreography and why music is such a big part of her process.
“When you’re making a ballet, for me that starts with stories: ‘Who is this character? What happened in this song? Why is this heartbreak there? What is her relationship to the people around her?’ So you’re following the stories of the songs and storytelling is just such a huge part of the game with dance,” she said.
“Dear Miss Cline” brings Cline’s songs to life on the stage with athletic leaps, playful pirouettes and acrobatics as dancers embrace, and in the next moment, push each other away. There are elements that recall classical ballet, but the choreography looks more down-to-earth, a visual interpretation of both the longing in the lyrics and the twang of the music.
“The movements are still based in the classical language, but they’re interpreted differently, like where the center of weight is. It’s much more grounded — a little bit lower through the dancers’ bodies. You’re not hiding the physicality, which you do often in classical ballet (where) you’re doing something excruciatingly hard, and you’re trying to make it look as easy as possible,” she said, pointing out that an emphasis on the athleticism and physical labor of dancing is more common in contemporary ballet.
Seiwert employs that physicality to tell a story with many romantic complications in “Been Through Diamonds” — a piece that came from a surprising source.
The 1980 song “Love Stinks” by the J. Geils Band may not sound like an obvious fit for ballet, but Seiwert used its opening lyrics, “You love her/But she loves him/And he loves somebody else/You just can’ t win” as a jumping off point for the piece, which begins with a group of characters who are all in love with people who love someone else in their group.
“For some reason that struck me as the perfect mix for Mozart,” Seiwert said, noting that the playfulness of Mozart’s String Quintet in C Minor suited the dynamic she had in mind. The overlapping, unrequited affections among characters give way to character studies in the piece’s second and third movements: a man who is never satisfied with the relationship he has and a vivacious woman who’s in love with love.
Another lyric from “Love Stinks” gave the piece its title, but “Been Through Diamonds” isn’t all dashed hopes and dreams, with the characters happily pairing up in the fourth movement.
The piece was the first that Seiwert choreographed for Smuin Contemporary Ballet after retiring as a dancer in 2008.
“It was one of the first times I really tried to play with story. I was working on that as a different approach for me. And it’s super technical, and then super fast,” Seiwert said, laughing at the realization she had when revisiting the piece for “Love, Smuin.”
“I was younger when I made it and it seems crazy how fast it is. But the dancers are doing it and they look great,” she said.
Seiwert noted that dancer Terez Dean Orr, who joined the company in 2008, danced in the original casts of both “Dear Miss Cline” and “Been Through Diamonds” and she reprises her role in the latter work, but is dancing a new role in “Dear Miss Cline.” Seiwert said she has enjoyed watching her explore a different aspect of the piece.
In fact, revisiting her works roughly a decade later has given Seiwert the chance to see her work interpreted by new artists.
“It’s been really great to see how it changes with new generations of dancers. I see the memory of the original artists that it was (created for), then you see this new group and they bring completely different things. And it’s a wonderful journey to watch that happen.”
“Dance Series 1: Love, Smuin” will be followed this spring by a second series revisiting other Smuin company works, including Seiwert’s piece “Renaissance,” set to music by the Oakland-based Kitka Women’s Vocal Ensemble.
Smuin Contemporary Ballet performs “Dance Series 1: Love, Smuin” Feb. 24-25, 7:30 pm; Feb. 26, 2 and 7:30 pm and Feb. 27.2 pm at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $25-$99. The company will also offer the program virtually, March 10-31. Tickets for virtual performances are $20. For more information, visit smuinballet.org.