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Local dance students turn into zombies

The James Sewell ballet will present 'Winter Tales' on Thursday, Jan. 31, at 7:30 p.m. in the Historic Holmes Theatre. Submitted Photo

When most people hear the word "ballet," they think of pretty ballerinas dancing to "The Nutcracker Suite" or "Swan Lake."

Yes, classical ballet does include those iconic performances, but contemporary ballet can embrace everything from jazz, to blues, to rock -- and even zombies.

The James Sewell Ballet's performance of "Winter Tales" at the Historic Holmes Theatre in Detroit Lakes on Thursday will include many elements that audiences may find surprising.

"There's one classical piece in the program," said company co-founder, artistic director and chief choreographer James Sewell in a telephone interview.

"We'll be doing excerpts from 'Giselle,' the third pas de deux, to give people their 'tutu fix,'" he joked.

But the performance, which begins at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Jan.31, will also include a piece that Sewell choreographed called "Grave Matters," which is, in essence, "a zombie ballet," he said.

"We'll be having some guest zombies," Sewell added.

Specifically, those "guest zombies" will be members of the Northern Lights Dance Academy in Frazee, who will join the company for two dance pieces, the aforementioned "Grave Matters" as well as a three-movement dance set to Antonia Vivaldi's "Winter" (which is where the name of the program was derived).

The Northern Lights students will rehearse with members of the Sewell Ballet on both Tuesday and Wednesday evenings prior to Thursday's show.

Members of the company will be arriving on Monday, then spend the next couple of days doing "lecture performance" shows at Lake Park-Audubon and Frazee-Vergas elementary schools, as well as Holy Rosary School in Detroit Lakes. (They will be offering a master class for local dancers as well.)

"We'll be performing about five excerpts (from Thursday night's show), and talking to the kids in between," Sewell said. "We'll also have the kids try some partnering and different (dance) movements."

The aim of the school performances, he added, is "to de-mystify ballet."

The classical image that many people have of ballet is of dancers clad in elaborate costumes, dancing to grand orchestrations of music from a bygone era -- something that Sewell refers to as "museum ballet."

"We're a contemporary ballet," he said, "so we're taking those (classical) steps and using them in new ways, with new music and subject matter...

"Really what we're focusing on is how we drive this art form forward rather than focusing on where it's been in the past."

Not that Sewell hasn't done his share of performing in classical ballet shows. His 35-year career in dance has encompassed stints with American Ballet Theater II and Feld Ballets New York (where he was lead dancer) as well as guest performances with the New York City Ballet, Zvi Gottheiner and Dancers and Denishawn.

He has choreographed more than 70 ballets for companies in the United States and around the world, including most of the pieces performed by his own company.

"I do most of it (choreographing for the company)," he said, "but we do have other choreographers in the company who do some things for us as well."

Thursday's show will be a mix of pieces choreographed by Sewell and some of those other choreographers, with elements of both the contemporary and classical art form.

"It's a neat mix, with a lot of variety for the audience," Sewell said. "I think it should be a fun evening."

Tickets to Thursday's show are $20 for adults and $10 for students, and can be purchased online at, by calling 218-844-7469, or by visiting the Holmes Theatre Box Office at 806 Summit Ave., Detroit Lakes.

The show is being underwritten by Papa Murphy's Take 'N Bake Pizza, with partial funding also provided by the Minnesota State Arts Board through the arts and cultural heritage fund as appropriated by the Minnesota State Legislature with money from the Legacy Amendment.

The outreach programming at area schools is also made possible through funding from the Lake Region Arts Council.

Follow Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454