Artistic excellence in season openers for Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Repertory Dance Theatre

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In their respective season openers, two of Salt Lake City’s most distinguished dance institutions — Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and Repertory Dance Theatre — gave more than ample proof of why their artistic excellence commands attention not just locally but also nationally and internationally. The Utah Review offers reviews of both season openers.

Star Mark, Joanna Kotze. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo Credit: Tori Duhaime.

RIRIE-WOODBURY DANCE COMPANY: SPLICE

In its 55th season opening concert of Splice, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company clearly has absorbed the experience of connecting and communicating as dancers after their DanceMotionUSA tour last spring in Mongolia and South Korea.

From the first moments of the opener on the program, Joanna Kotze’s Star Mark, a work the company premiered in 2016, the dancers beautifully augmented the physically demanding movements and the element of a vivid floral pattern image projected onto the scrim with sharp, clear nonverbal communication and gestures. And, audience members responded accordingly to the eye contact dancers made to convey visual cues of humor, whimsy and sublime appreciation from the stage at the Jeanné Wagner Theatre.

Star Mark, Joanna Kotze. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo Credit: Tori Duhaime.

On one hand, the floral imagery might seem excessive, reminiscent of those classic Laura Ashley floral patterns that strangely resonated with hippie-style influences of the 1970s. But, on another, the dancers’ moves and their visual contact with the audience along with the well-conceived parallels of Ryan Seaton’s original music cleverly shift the perspective where the naturalness of that bucolic floral beauty draws the audience’s attention.

As charming and coquettish as Star Mark could be, the dancers transformed effortlessly into the profound, pristine character of Adam Barruch’s prima materia, a 16-minute work the company premiered in 2015. As mentioned in The Utah Review preview, the work arises from a translated line by Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, a 16th century leader in Kabbalah mysticism: “With the concealment of the light, the things that exist were created in all their variety. This is the secret of the act of Creation. One who understands will understand.”

prima materia, Adam Barruch. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo Credit: Tori Duhaime.

The dancers stand variously behind three large rectangular plastic sheets which allows audience members to watch their arms move and bodies twist. They emerge from behind the sheets and the piece, accompanied by music Barruch scored, percolates with numerous instances of partnered choreography and layers of continuous movement, particularly in the pairing of Megan McCarthy and Bashaun Williams. Barruch’s work is stylized clearly in its Baroque sensibilities of counterpoint and its astute representation of the tensions between blind acceptance of the nature of Creation and the emerging illuminating possibilities of science to observe and document the initial stages of life’s development. Barruch’s work demands intense focus from the audience but the rewards are marvelous bits of discovery.

The sounds of Spirit in the Sky, the hit 1969 song by Norman Greenbaum that fused ingeniously hard rock and gospel, introduced the second half of the program, as dancers appeared on stage for Strict Love, a 1994 work created by Doug Varone. One of the most appealing aspects of this generously pleasing work is how the dancers respond and react to the songs, which are being played as they would have been from a 1970 syndicated radio show introducing the top hits of the time.

prima materia, Adam Barruch. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo Credit: Tori Duhaime.

Varone’s choreography emphasizes the timeless appeal of the songs but not in the particular sense of trying to capture the style of the time when the music dominated the record charts and the pop culture trends. It’s a fascinating uncoupling from the anticipated nostalgic feel as each dancer tries to find a distinct interpretation in movement.

If one thinks back to shows such as American Bandstand and Soul Train, when these songs would have been featured while dancers (professional and amateur) moved on the set, eccentric and idiosyncratic dance moves underscored just how the desire for self-expression overpowered the barriers that excluded some from the community.

Strict Love, Doug Varone. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo Credit: Tori Duhaime.

The closing work was Construct, a work Daniel Charon set in 2014 during his first year as artistic director of the company. During his tenure, Charon has choreographed a series of works that respond to the tensions, challenges and possibilities of a 21st century world where all sorts of boundaries between realities and constructed representations are fuzzier and more ambiguous than ever.

Construct is a baseline work in this series that is highly effective and approachable. Construct is a live installation piece, featuring a pair of video screens and first-rate score of experimental music by Michael Wall, a Salt Lake City DJ, member of the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble, and music producer with the website soundFORMovement.com.

Strict Love, Doug Varone. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo Credit: Tori Duhaime.

The dance movements are projected on the screen, which are shown in dramatically slowed motion. This becomes a mesmerizing exercise for the audience to watch as they process the live movements which then appear in their altered form on the screen. This occurs continuously without a break throughout the 14-minute work.

One of the most intriguing aspects about Charon’s works incorporating digital media is how they leverage a significant takeaway benefit from dance which sometimes is seen as among the most ephemeral of the performing arts.

Construct, Daniel Charon. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo Credit: Tori Duhaime.

The work poses a couple of questions: Do memories make us who we are? But, as technology now allows us to share our experiences in real time and archive those digital files, a more pertinent question might be: Is who we are what makes our memories?

And, in the context of the Splice theme, Construct proved to put the excellent point on a thoroughly engrossing concert.

Strict Love, Doug Varone. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo Credit: Tori Duhaime.

REPERTORY DANCE THEATRE: SPIRIT

Repertory Dance Theatre opened its 53rd season in a program that elated the spirit as much as it touched the heart at its fervent core. In a consummate structure of programming, RDT gave audiences a compelling and accessible read on the historic and contemporary foundations of modern dance.

The overarching connections in two thematic pairs – one of pure artistic joy and the other of enormous sociopolitical importance – paralleled performances in which the dancers intuitively strengthened their expressive power among and across two world premieres and works by two of modern dance history’s prominent choreographers.

Lauren Curley, Ball, Michio Ito. Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharon Kain.

The concert opened with five short works by Japanese-born Michio Itō (1893-1961) and a tribute to the choreographer by Taeko Furusho. The Itō pieces, created between 1916 and 1931, were staged like paintings that came to life. Many of these works were created before he came to the U.S. in 1929. As a young man, he went to Europe and studied various continental influences including twelve-tone serialism of German composers that influenced, in part, his fusion of Japanese and European aesthetics. The lines of arm positions and gestures comprised a highly disciplined movement vocabulary. It might look simple but their particular placement by the dancer in the multi-dimensional performing space is what conveys most clearly the piece’s descriptive title. The music Itō used came from what would have been among the popular salon pieces of the time.

En Bateau (1923) featured the company’s five female dancers (Jaclyn Brown, Lauren Curley, Elle Johansen, Ursula Perry and Megan O’Brien) who precisely evoked the sense of sailing, accompanied by Claude Debussy’s music from the four-hand piano Petite Suite. In a solo (1916), Efren Corado Garcia channeled Itō’s image wonderfully, choreographed to the famous pizzicato dance from the Sylvia ballet suite, composed by Léo Delibes.

Taeko’s Pavane: Homage to Michio Itō, Taeko Furusho. Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharon Kain.

Tyler Orcutt cut a magnificent figure as a doll (1917), bedecked in red pants and red bowtie, who comes to life and struts confidently to the cakewalk music of Debussy’s Children Suite. A side note about this particular work: In Itō’s time, no one thought about the improprieties of a black-faced Golliwog minstrel doll as indicated by Debussy’s music. The impact and influence of modern dance (for example, not doing the Golliwog black-face) are vital in resetting and reimagining works to reflect the diversity and enlightenment of the times in which they are performed.

Curley’s solo was a transcendent gem in Ball (1928), accompanied by a Frédéric Chopin nocturne piano piece. It was grace, wistfulness, innocence and gossamer. Three selections conveyed the emotions of Robert Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes, Opus 13, with Brown representing prayer, Perry bringing full force to fear and tragedy and the company setting the pace with joy.

Say Their Names, Natosha Washington. Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharon Kain.

The company then segued into Taeko’s Pavane: Homage to Michio Itō, a 1997 work cast to the music of Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane in F-sharp minor, Opus 50. It was a spine-tingling emotional close to this section of the program, as the dancers processed solemnly and moved in tandem with the harmonic rises and falls of the work – a first-rate tribute to an early master.

Moving a century ahead and to the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, Natosha Washington’s Say Their Names, one of two world premieres on the program, is an impressively considered artistic contemplation on one of the most ignominious issues of our time: the injustices and biases of the “stand-your-ground” laws and mentality. Whenever discussions about “stand-your-ground” and police brutality take place especially in social media forums, there are few opportunities to let the moments of impact settle in and listen without words being spoken.

Say Their Names, Natosha Washington. Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharon Kain.

Washington marshals the formidable powers of dance and music (experimental composer Max Richter and Luca D’Alberto’s Consequences, a 2016 release that juxtaposes punk-inflected electronics with acoustic classical instruments) without the necessity of text or political speechifying to put the full human face and impact on the issue. As important as the protests and candlelight vigils are in activism, the white-clad dancers manifest an unforgettable vision of the victims of unjustified, inexcusable, racist violence whose memories will not be erased and who will not rest until we confront our own silence about it.

Tiffany Rea-Fisher’s Her Joy, the other world premiere of the evening, opened the second half, evoking the same sense of pure dance artistry that Itō’s works did at the beginning of the concert. Her Joy truly celebrated the artistic gifts of RDT’s women dancers: Jaclyn Brown, Lauren Curley, Elle Johansen and Ursula Perry.

Her Joy Tiffany Rea-Fisher. Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharon Kain.

The work’s timing is relevant. Of course, the earliest appearances of modern dance repudiated the hierarchical and patriarchal roles that had defined ballet in its late Romantic period. But, today, in the midst of the #Metoo movement and the demands for acknowledging the complexities of sexual assault and harassment that encompass identifying stages of sexual grooming and recognizing potentially predatory behaviors, there also is recognizing a woman’s body rights, as she sees and defines them. What Rea-Fisher’s work articulated so beautifully is how the dancers freely embrace an exuberant, rigorous, adept sense of physical movement in the supreme glories of the women’s minds and bodies that went into creating and performing Her Joy.

Just as Itō’s works from a past century remain vital in the contemporary world, Donald McKayle’s Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder from nearly 60 years ago is as timely as ever. It’s a huge contrast to Her Joy, as McKayle, who died earlier this year, had set the dance, a fully realized narrative of a Southern chain gang, from the male point of view. Leslie Watanabe, who performed as a soloist with McKayle’s Inner City Repertory Company, reset the work for RDT, which is choreographed for seven men and one woman. Guest artists Jonathan Kim, Brendan Rupp and Austin Hardy joined RDT’s Daniel Do, Garcia, Dan Higgins, Orcutt and Perry for the ensemble.

Her Joy, Tiffany Rea-Fisher. Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharon Kain.

The representations are unmistakable. The men are put through grueling physical movements that evoke the punishing labor chain gangs had to endure. Meanwhile, Perry takes on various dimensions that do not convey a specific female character as much as they represent aspirations of freedom, nurturing, love and compassion. These young men respond passionately to McKayle’s choreographed story, as does Perry who gives one of the most emotionally charged performances of the evening. The full-throated choreography matches the equally full-throated music highlighting the folk songs that Alan Lomax catalogued scrupulously in his work as an ethnomusicologist.

The end of Rainbow is heartbreaking, as one of the prisoners is shot and killed, the men slowly exit the stage shattered emotionally, and Perry’s dreamlike image fades into darkness. McKayle created the work in the midst of the civil rights movement. The chain gangs of the 1950s have not disappeared. Now there are private corporate prisons where conditions make men and women invisible. Prison tent cities house immigrants whose only crime is not having the proper documents along with innocent children. Even when released or unchained, individuals must abide disenfranchisement and a civil death in society.

Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder, Donald McKayle. Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharon Kain.

The young dancers made painfully clear that Rainbow’s story, as told in dance, embodies the same sense of harshness that inspired McKayle to create it 60 years ago.

The opening concert not only highlighted emotionally-driven performances but also provided numerous encouraging signs about how to engage audiences to experience modern dance comfortably and satisfyingly. The short video interviews preceding each work appropriately highlighted what audiences should look for in the performances. Among the most interesting was Washington’s interview, which drew some appreciative chuckles about a choreographer’s challenge to avoid making modern dance weird. And, on closing night, there was a diverse audience that drew in a larger share of younger members than what typically has been witnessed. It’s a revealing indicator for a company, which has billed its season with the theme of Manifest Diversity.

Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder, Donald McKayle. Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharon Kain.

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