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Living Dangerously in the Creek

When Smuin Ballet swings into town Friday and Saturday with Amy Seiwert's new ballet 'Dear Miss Cline,' the in-demand choreographer is ready for risk.

The gravest danger for resident choreographer Amy Seiwert when the Smuin Ballet brings her Dear Miss Cline to the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek isn’t showing her work to admirers and critics. And it’s not creating a ballet to familiar lyrics, a practice that has trapped lesser dance makers in clichés or Mickey Mouse literalism.

The biggest danger is shoes.

“In the past, I’ve had a bad habit of spending too much money on shoes and at the Mac store. With the recession I have to really cut back,” she laments, in anticipation of the company’s appearance on Friday and Saturday.

Galloping into town on its winter tour, Smuin Ballet will continue its love affair with East Bay audiences, presenting three ballets by founding director Michael Smuin and Seiwert’s latest foray into Patsy Cline’s soulful sound.

Seiwert, a former Smuin dancer who has established a career as an independent choreographer and director of her own company, Imagery, has been spreading the artistic wealth across the country. Her repertory is on the A-list with Sacramento Ballet, BalletMet, Atlanta Ballet, American Repertory Ballet, Ballet Austin, Robert Moses KIN and more.

“Every piece is different, but 90 percent start with music,” she says. “I listen to my iPod when I’m working in the garden or cleaning the house. It’s not in the forefront of my mind and certain images start appearing.”

With the Cline ballet, Seiwert moved another step away from her natural abstract inclinations to a narrative. The images morphed into characters, which led to kinetic relationships or stories, which would have pleased her grandmother.

“I showed my grandmother a piece that was weird and abstract and she said, ‘Don’t you think you should be more like Michael?’” Seiwert recalls. “When I told Michael, he asked, ‘Doesn’t she know you are doing pretty well just being yourself?’”

The gift of trust that Smuin provided in setting ballets on Seiwert and later, with choreographic opportunities, is something she cherishes.

“I was in the original cast of Stabat Mater (a Smuin ballet on the program). The opening night performance of it was incredibly powerful. There were a number of us crying onstage. It was such a sincere, honest response from Michael to 9-11.  It was an honor.”

Tango Palace, another Smuin ballet sharing the program, stirs up a sudden memory.

“We had a gentleman who spoke no English come in and give tango lessons while Michael was creating it. It was all gesture, but you knew what he wanted. I can’t tango, but I could tango with him!”

In the studio, Seiwert is a mix of business and play. A deep researcher, she carries a musical score, but knows it so well it is rarely consulted, and she often videotapes rehearsal sessions for later study. Her rapid-fire decisions belie the extensive preparation that brings substance to her work.

Which is why some people may ask about Crazy, Cline’s signature country pop crossover that is not a part of the ballet.

“I tried not to use her greatest hits on purpose, just to avoid the pitfalls of people having a preconceived notion of what it should be,” Seiwert explains, before giving the real reason she did not include the tune.

“My sister sings the song Crazy to her dogs to make them howl. So Crazy was shot in the foot because of my sister.”

Despite the deletion, Dear Miss Cline is sure to set audience toes tapping and the dazzling, always-polished professionals that make up Smuin Ballet will, once again, pick new dance lovers up on their way to capturing our hearts.

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