Amy Seiwert: Ballet’s Mad Scientist
Tori Marchiony finds out why Amy Seiwert is constantly pushing against boundaries—seen and unseen.
Amy Seiwert is a celebrated choreographer for ballet. Her works have been performed by such high-profile dance groups as Ballet Austin, Atlanta Ballet, Washington Ballet, and the American Repertory Ballet.
Seiwert grew up in Cincinnati, OH, and began dancing when she was 6 years old. She created her first ballet at age 16. After apprenticeships at the Garden State Ballet and the Princeton Ballet, she joined the Sacramento Ballet in 1991. She moved to Smuin Contemporary American Ballet in 1999 and danced for nine years under choreographer Michael Smuin. After retiring from the stage in 2008, she spent a decade as choreographer in residence at Smuin before returning to Sacramento Ballet as artistic director, a role she held 2018–2020.
She founded her own company, Amy Seiwert’s Imagery, in 2004 and launched its in-progress SKETCH Series in 2011. In 2017, the Joyce Theater in New York commissioned Seiwert’s first evening-length work, Wandering. That same year, she choreographed the Philip Glass opera Les Enfants Terribles for Opera Parallèle in San Francisco.
Of all the adjectives one might use to describe the virtues of ballet, experimental is probably not the first one that comes to mind, but for choreographer Amy Seiwert, the dance is perhaps most importantly a way to explore uncharted territory. In 2017 alone, Seiwert choreographed her first narrative work, the Philip Glass Opera, Les Enfants Terribles and first evening-length work, Wandering, set to the song cycle Winterreise by Schubert and in 2018, she was named Artistic Director of Sacramento Ballet, where she had previously danced for eight years. Indeed, Amy Seiwert is always pushing herself, but on her very first day of ballet class, as a six-year-old, self-described tomboy, she was mostly pushing back.
Amy Seiwert: I cried, I did not want to take ballet. Ballet was pink and it was girly and I didn’t wanna do it.
But once class began and Seiwert realized just how much athleticism ballet demands, she was hooked for life.
Seiwert: The amount of training, the amount of dedication that you had to do at such a young age, it’s not a hobby. There’s so much strength, there’s so much tenacity that is needed to excel in this artform. Yes, it’s our job to make this look effortless, but what actually goes into it.
Seiwert put in almost 20 years as a professional dancer. In that time, her view of her instrument was not always kind, but these days, she’s found peace with her body.
Seiwert: I don’t have a traditional ballet dancer look. I’m pretty short. I like to say I’m 5’3″, it’s not true. I’m very compact, like a little more muscular and I always thought that was bad. I did not look like the waif that people were used to seeing on stage. That said, one of the reasons I got to dance so long is that my body was able to handle the demands pretty well. I didn’t have a major injury until I was 30. That’s lucky and so this body that I was like, oh, it should be thinner and it should be waifier and it should be more flexible actually really served me so well. So it takes a while to appreciate the strengths that you have.
AJC: So if you didn’t have a ballerina’s body, why not go into a different kind of dance?
Seiwert: So I loved point shoes. To me, working in the classical ballet technique and working with the point shoe, you can have greater speed. There is a different sense of approaching lines from above that you just have a different lever, a differently physicality with it.
A shared mastery of point technique is what keeps Amy Seiwert’s relentlessly-adventurous eight-dancer company, Imagery, within the bounds of ballet. Still, Seiwert’s work is constantly evolving, while always retaining an essence that is uniquely her own, but learning to trust herself took time. She points to her nine years with Smuin Ballet in San Francisco as the period when she truly came into her own, both as a dancer and a choreographer.
Seiwert: So Michael Smuin was amazing as a mentor to me, and I think one of the main reasons was that what I was doing was so different than what he did. His work often had a Broadway kind of flare, often was super accessible. He had a love of showmanship and then here’s me who especially when I was younger had a love of being moody and a little weird and he thought that was great. One of my favorite memories of him is that I had been home for the holidays and showed my grandmother this ballet I made called The Melting. It was not in point shoes, it was on flat. It was really weird, it was a lot about just exploring what the body can do. It was abstract, but dealing with the nature of water and how molecule changes depending on the environment around it and I was so proud of it and I showed it to my grandmother, and she was like, “Have you ever thought about being more like Michael?” So then I come back to San Francisco and Michael’s like, “How was your break?” I was like, “Oh, it was great. Showed my grandmother The Melting, she asked me if I ever thought about being more like you,” and he just shook his head and he said, “Does she have any idea you’re doing really well just being yourself?”
Smuin died in 2007 and Seiwert retired from dancing the following year, but stayed with his company as she moved into choreography full time. In 2011, her own company, which had been a loose collective since 2004, finally became an official entity. The same year, she launched the Sketch Series, a showcase of in-progress works designed to give ballet choreographers a forum to try new things and risk failure all for an audience prepared to come along for the ride.
Seiwert: You need to be able to know what we can’t do. So, yeah, Sketch.
AJC: How did you get comfortable with that idea of failure ’cause it’s—
Seiwert: Oh, I’m not.
AJC: You’re not?
Seiwert: No, not at all, and you know, it doesn’t feel good to fail. When you step out of the realm that you know and you’re creating here and this whole thing might be a failure, but maybe there’s the smallest little nugget of creation that happened, that becomes the seed for something else, and you can’t get to that something else without going through that awkward growing stage of that particular, again, I’ll use the quotes, failure. You gotta walk through it, you gotta step into what you don’t know and maybe you just step into it and be like, yes, I’m never doing that again, but if you don’t know, you’re never gonna go beyond that first sphere.
And so, Seiwert continues her search for something profound, even divine, though she hesitates to use that word.
Seiwert: I’ll always describe it as the moments that make your soul sing. You can describe it as looking for God. You can describe it as finding the moments that transcend. We’re looking for these things that express the unknown, that go beyond the singular eye and connect to the greater scope of humanity.