Ballet moves in mysterious ways

Dancers voice the world of Garrison Keillor’s famous detective

Katie Wilber

Sultry jazz led the ballet dancers through their sometimes soft, sometimes sharp movements. A voice suddenly filled the room.

“It’s a da’k night in a city that knows how to keep its secrets,” it said in a tone reminiscent of a Casablanca-style film.

Wait a second. Ballet is the language of the body, and the dancers tell a story through movement – not sound.

But when a dance company has the voice as big and broad and famous as radio persona Garrison Keillor’s, they use it.

Keillor – or his voice, rather – joins the company of the James Sewell Ballet in a performance based on his radio character Guy Noir, private eye. Keillor zuses Noir in a sketch that satirizes the 1940s style of film noir.

Keillor’s voiceovers provide a concise narration instead of becoming the ballet’s primary focus.

“The words are necessary in order to carry our storyline, but the words and movement must be balanced,” Sewell said. “It’s the power of the body versus the power of words, and each has its own strengths.”

“Guy Noir: The Ballet” is the “ballet of a million props,” Sewell said with a laugh as his dancers scoured the studio looking for their wrenches and hard hats.

Sewell has put dancers in trench coats and given them power tools. He’s blended movement and sound into a story about a dancer who is threatened before an important competition.

The dancer receives a note ordering her to pull out of the contest, and she asks the private eye for help. He agrees to accompany her to the competition, and – well, even Sewell won’t give away the ending.

Sewell had worked as a freelance choreographer for years, but by 1990 got tired of it, he said.

“I never had the time to get to know the dancers, and they never got to know my style,” he said. “I also never had the time to grow stylistically as a choreographer.”

His frustrations led him to create his own company. It now includes eight company dancers and two apprentices. Influenced by ballet choreographers as well as modern dancers like Martha Graham, Sewell’s style is both classical and contemporary.

“We use the traditional form of ballet, but take it in a new direction,” said Penelope Freeh, a 12-year veteran of Sewell’s company.

And what a new direction it is when Freeh dances barefoot with a plugged-in chain saw.

“It was scary, especially since it still had the sharp-edged chain on it,” she said with a nervous grin.

“Guy Noir: The Ballet” adds mystery and humor to their razor-sharp voice. And when their voice meets Keillor’s, dance has edge.