This year’s selections in The Utah Review of the top ten moments of the Utah Enlightenment in 2023, the ninth annual edition, were the easiest to curate in the nine years of publishing this annual list. Likewise, selecting the top moment among the ten was just as easy. In Utah, there are creative producers in the arts who are genuinely elevating the contemporary experience – with the sum of its tensions, problems, conflicts, disappointments and crises – to an enthralling sensation of healing, revelation, atonement and empowerment. They also represent new directions which always are worth the efforts in taking risks.
This has been a hefty news year in the arts community. Two internationally known dance institutions are in the middle of their 60th anniversary seasons: Ballet West and Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Two others have passed the 45-year mark: Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation and NOVA Chamber Music Series. The Utah Film Center’s Damn These Heels, the longest running queer film festival in the Mountain West, celebrated its 20th anniversary.
One of the titans of the Utah Enlightenment died this year, leaving a significant legacy that will endure for generations: Joan Woodbury, cofounder of Ririe-Woodbury, who passed away Nov. 1 at the age of 96. Earlier this year, The Utah Review chronicled the groundbreaking work that Woodbury and co-founder Shirley Ririe put into establishing the company that bears their names.
THE UTAH REVIEW’S TOP MOMENT OF THE UTAH ENLIGHTENMENT IN 2023
This year’s top moment is shared by two Utah playwrights because their respective works, when combined, articulate the epiphanies of conscience embedded in the historical and contemporary realities of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They are Debora Threedy for Mountain Meadows, an immensely satisfying play which received an excellent premiere in a Pygmalion Theatre Company production last winter, and Morag Shepherd’s Worship, which received an exceptional premiere, produced by Immigrant’s Daughter Theatre.
They are companion pieces, in the most potent sense of the description. To quote from an earlier review when Worship was premiered: “Shepherd directed the excellent Pygmalion Theatre Company production of Debora Threedy’s Mountain Meadows, which was about historian Juanita Brooks’ search for the truth behind the Mountain Meadows massacre, one of the darkest stains in Mormon history. With news of the massacre, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints institutionalized a doctrine of obstruction, where the suppressed truth eventually becomes its own lie. It is a doctrinal practice that has been perpetuated seemingly through every scandal and stain connected to the church. In Threedy’s play, the character of Brooks responds to a church elder who says that not talking about it might be best for everyone concerned and that nothing can change what happened so the dead should be allowed to rest in peace. Brooks replied, “‘It’s us who can’t rest in peace.’”
Mountain Meadows is based on the 1857 massacre involving a wagon train of 127 immigrants from Missouri and Arkansas who were slaughtered in southern Utah by Mormon zealots. Threedy did a formidable job in her script about a devout Mormon who was a teacher, mother and housewife but also a dedicated historian committed to the highest standards of accuracy and truth finding in her craft. Brooks never shied away from the pointed counsel of church authorities who thought it would be better to let the history of the massacre rest without any further disturbance. Again, quoting from The Utah Review, in Threedy’s play, Brooks, who remained steadfast in her faith, knew that the only way to get to the truth was to become uncomfortable.
In Worship, Shepherd, who also directed the premiere of Threedy’s play and suggested the final title of that play, was wisely careful not to belittle members who believe in the church. But, she also infused the stage atmosphere with a distinct air of discomfort, to the extent that it becomes lucid for anyone to comprehend, regardless of whether or not they were ever part of the Mormon faith community. The four tableaus Shepherd crafted relate to true events and sociocultural dynamics affecting the Mormon faith community. As The Utah Review noted: “We are left with some characters who assuredly are struggling or will do so eventually, regarding their fears in probing their faith and ties to the Mormon community. They might end up wondering what happens if the probability is high that what they will discover confirms that the church leaders’ attempts to protect their claims as true collapse entirely under the weight of scrutiny and skepticism.”
Incidentally, this is Shepherd’s fifth appearance in The Top 10 Moments of the Utah Enlightenment (2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020) and her first as the top moment of the year.
Regarding both plays, “these are playwrights who know how to take the current temperature in the Land of Zion. Setting aside the BYU abuse case for the moment, these two plays are elucidating for those who are learning about the ongoing sex abuse scandal and subsequent ostracization surrounding Tim Ballard, a prominent Mormon. Before the scandal broke out, his story as a rescuer of children from sex trafficking rings became the basis of the sleeper film hit Sound of Freedom.”
Threedy and Shepherd do not shy away from the LDS church, which is the formidable beast in the room of Utah sociopolitical and sociocultural landscapes. Few other reviewers dared to take on the challenge of becoming uncomfortable with the truth. The blunt realities in Utah remain that even former Mormons who are in politics, media or in the nonprofit world willingly apologize on behalf of the church.
In an August 15, 2023 column for The Salt Lake Tribune, Robbie Parker. who co-founded the Emilie Parker Art Connection as a nonprofit connecting children suffering from trauma and neglect with the power of art therapy, correctly summarized how the silence of the LDS church deprived children of an advocate and a voice against their abusers. Indeed, it was also the silence of those who left the church, yet remained silent even when they listened to stories of such abuse being told. They remained complacent, believing that good Mormons, who were hotline volunteers, had the proper intentions but also did nothing to bring light to these abuses.
In their outstanding works, Threedy and Shepherd powerfully illustrated the utter moral bankruptcy of silence and complacency. It is precisely that artistic courage which epitomizes the foundations of The Utah Enlightenment.
THE REMAINING LIST OF TOP 10 MOMENTS
Presented in no particular order, the following eight moments round out the list of Top 10 moments of the Utah Enlightenment in 2023:
Last April, NOVA Chamber Music Series presented the world premiere of a work that incorporated the sounds of the mating rituals of the greater-sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse. Commissioned by the Fry Street Quartet, whose members serve collectively as music director for the series, Lek by Nicolás Lell Benavides, was a delightful, witty, appealing on-the-spot audio documentary, with plenty of live music and birdsong.
As noted earlier in The Utah Review, Benavides scored the work for string quartet and electronics featuring edited recordings of these ‘thirsty’ bird species in the midst of their own natural club for hooking up. The composer recorded the birds in Utah last year. Benavides, a Nuevomexicano who lives and works in California, is one of the busiest contemporary composers in the U.S. and his catalog of music merits close attention.
Benavides scored the parts with one instrumentalist representing the female who decides which one of her three ensemble colleagues — who respectively take on the roles of the prancing, strutting, flexing, restless males — will win the mating prize. Thus, it was left to the audience to decipher which string quartet members ended up being the lucky couple. The Fry Street Quartet hit the piece right out of the ballpark for the winning home run. Likewise, the performance of this piece for the Fry Street Chamber Music Festival in a July concert in the Russell/Wanlass Performance Hall at Utah State University in Logan sounded even better, courtesy of the venue’s superb acoustics.
Benavides did a masterful job at weaving the mating sounds through each instrumental part to heighten the effects. At times, the work reminded of the thumping rhythms of a late Saturday night at the club — but instead the scene was for birds in the broad daylight outdoors. Each of the prospective suitors had their character features while the ‘female’ sounded alluring and pretty. The ‘female’ was picky, looking for the one whose demeanor appealed to her the most. The result was complex yet naturally harmonious in its very credible representation of a mating scene, which frankly is not all that different from human behavior.
The six dancers of the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company have consistently demonstrated the tightest performance chemistry in recent productions. Last spring, the evening-length world premiere To See Beyond Our Time produced further evidence of that stellar standard. The dancers (Peter Farrow, Megan McCarthy, Alexander Pham, Fausto Rivera, Sasha Rydlizky and Miche’ Smith) collaborated with Daniel Charon, the company’s artistic director, and Alexandra Harbold, a theatrical director who is on the University of Utah faculty and is cofounder of the Flying Bobcat Theatrical Laboratory, to create the work.It traces the broader scale of how the lake’s natural integrity has been stressed and compromised. There are the consequences of industrial development and rapid urbanization in a state with the fastest growing population in the country. There are the lengthening shadows suggesting the lake’s most resilient natural features may collapse amidst a sanguine, casual attitude that seems more bent on procrastination than on acknowledging the urgency of ensuring its survival.
As The Utah Review summarized, “In plainest terms, the work is a potent third-way approach to engaging the audience to help build that critical mass of social will and consensus of opinion essential to addressing the existential crisis of the Great Salt Lake. Arts such as dance can stimulate the relevant conversation about the proper ways to mobilize efforts for saving the lake, without being burdened by pedantry, partisanship or moral lecturing. Over many months of its gestation, To See Beyond Our Time emerged from the union of diverse, deep pools of scientific expertise and informed advocacy and the dancers’ direct epiphanies, as they observed and articulated their thoughts by absorbing the choreographic and dramaturgical vantages involved in the process.”
Last spring, reprising a role that he performed 13 years ago, Carleton Bluford ripened with the wisdom of his personal and professional experiences, as he portrayed Wallace Thurman in Fire!, written by Jenifer Nii and directed by Jerry Rapier in a sensational production by Plan-B Theatre. Nii’s play is a theatrical tribute which significantly boosts public awareness of Thurman, who was raised and educated in Salt Lake City and, in his short life, quickly rose to major figure status in the Harlem Renaissance. Fire! premiered in 2010 along with a companion piece about Wallace Stegner written by Debora Threedy. Incidentally, Bluford’s play The Clean-Up Project, which Plan-B Theatre premiered, took honors as The Utah Review’s top moment of the Utah Enlightenment for 2022.
Throughout the 45-minute play, Bluford excelled in properly extruding the cadences and rhythms of Nii’s words. But, near the play’s end, there was one astonishing moment. At 32, Thurman knew his remaining days are numbered, as his health woes accumulate due to tuberculosis and alcoholism. Bluford said, “One day, if I keep faith, perhaps I too will learn what it is.” He subtly slowed the rhythm, as he spoke, “To make manifest my own clarion call. To open my mouth and sing the notes I have written, and know that they are beautiful.” By this point, Bluford pulled the cadence so that every remaining word would be heard: “And my friends, That. Will. Be…” In Fire!, Bluford’s deliberate efforts to extract the full preciousness of that moment was profound for several reasons. Also, it was Bluford’s nuances that underscored this production as a bittersweet celebration. In The Utah Review preview, the point emphasized was how Fire!, the first play by Nii that would be professionally produced, represented a perfect trinity for the playwright, the actor and the company.
Again, to quote from The Utah Review feature last April, with the exception of Fire!, there is no other formal tribute in Utah acknowledging Thurman’s pioneering path in the literary world. “With this 2010 play, Nii also blazed her own path. A former journalist, she would become the first Asian American playwright in Utah to have a work professionally produced. Her body of work expanded rapidly in diversity of genres and narrative treatments, garnering recognition from national organizations with award nominations and a grant, for example. But, Nii’s creative voice is now silenced, due to hippocampal atrophy, as noted previously.”
There were numerous stunning parallels that pop in the play. Nii and Thurman were both journalists in their professional lives. Lines that Nii wrote 13 years ago carried even greater dramatic impact that only a gifted actor who has fully absorbed the meaning of the character he portrayed as well as the bond of the playwright to the story of that character could interpret so powerfully. In fact, Nii said in 2010 and reiterated last year that she had always envisioned Bluford as the actor best suited to transmit the voice of Thurman on stage.
One could not have asked for a more spectacular opener for Repertory Dance Theatre’s (RDT) 58th season than the premiere of Natosha Washington’s evening-length work I AM…, in October. The RDT company gave an unconditionally exceptional performance. Indeed, it was a rare moment when the eight dance artists effectively unified with a work that began as an autobiographical composition of choreography. Washington’s work ultimately became an embodiment of the dancers’ own experiences as artists in the studio but also in their lived identities off the performing stage. Plainly speaking, the RDT dancers ‘own’ this newest addition to their repertoire in an extraordinary manner that is on par with Zvi Gotheiner’s Dabke (2013), another composition that RDT has astounded audiences with in terms of emotional connection.
As noted in a preview published earlier at The Utah Review, in developing and setting I AM…, Washington started the creative process, by reflecting upon the holistic body of experiences she has had as a Black woman. Raised in a Mormon family in southeast Georgia, she made dance a lifetime vocation from her formative years. From an interview for the preview: “I really give the RDT dancers credit,” Washington said. “Coming into studio during what was the hardest year of my adult life, I was just raw. As I gave them space, they gave me a safe space. When I was younger, I remember professors telling us to leave our baggage at the studio door. But why would we leave it at the door when this is what makes us what we truly are? I didn’t feel like I had to leave it at the door at RDT and instead it became a part of their creative process where I was exactly who I am. And, I say this as a Black woman, there are not many places where I get to be exactly as I am.”
Joining the dancers was Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, actor, singer, educator and playwright, who narrated and sang at key points in the work. Washington infused her work with a spiritual sense that was simultaneously uniquely hers and that of the dancers, individually and collectively, in a profoundly ecumenical way. Evening-length works succeed when the narrative cohesion is clear and lucid. In I AM…, Washington excelled in the results and, unquestionably, the dancers knew precisely how to embody all 75 minutes, without ever sacrificing any of their authentic selves or the personal impacts of the experiences that Washington brought into the choreographic canvas.
To those outside of Utah and, frankly, to many in the Beehive State, perceptions about the state’s cultural geography tend toward the monolith or defer to Salt Lake City and the more heavily populated areas of northern Utah as the most influential. But, in fact, the six regions that were depicted in the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA)’s exceptional, elucidating A Greater Utah exhibition emphasize the enlightened awareness of a cultural foundation as remarkably diverse, spectacular and durable as the state’s natural landscapes.
Viewers could easily identify each of the six regions represented, even without the benefit of labels and signage. The artists which each regional curator selected to represent the region skillfully encapsulated the distinctive dynamics of each area’s culture, as informed and influenced by its history, topography, demographics, politics and spiritual bearings.
In northern Utah, numerous juxtapositions, explaining how some of the state’s most densely populated areas exist next to the west desert and Great Salt Lake, were captured in the art. Surrealism and abstract art subjects generated in various multimedia forms highlighted the Salt Lake County region. The artistic statements were among the most sharply articulated surrounding the sociopolitical issues surrounding Utah’s largest metropolitan area. Artists representing central Utah, took note of the presence of the most durable vestiges of early Mormon pioneer settlements while developing a more comprehensive portrait of the Sanpete Valley area and questioning the prevailing myths and folklore associated with the region. The most prominent representation of Indigenous and Native American artists was found in the eastern Utah region, representing creators who are committed to sharpening awareness of productive social activism, as they are focused on cultural-centered issues of land and environment. The Utah County portion of the show followed a different path by asking four artists to create work specifically for A Greater Utah, “with a focus on material process and transformation whether it be through craft traditions, the layering of paint, or the repurposing of tools of industry” (in the words of curator Peter Everett). In southern Utah, a region that is being transformed by development and a growing population nearly, if not even faster, than in the state’s northern region, artists made the compelling argument, reflecting the blunt reality of curator Jessica Kinsey’s statement: “That is exactly what is happening in Southern Utah–we are killing and erasing the thing we love.”
One of the most important values of the Utah Enlightenment has been creative entrepreneurship. An outstanding example this year was Meanwhile Park, a splendid project by Jeff Paris, who created a professional theatrical space to produce top-quality works in the backyard of his Salt Lake City home.
A stellar benchmark was set with the world premiere of From June to August, a one-act romantic comedy by Matthew Ivan Bennett and directed by Jason Bowcutt. With four actors, this chamber theater rom-com is witty, sensitive, realistic and intelligently sentimental. Bennett’s play was chosen from 57 submissions, for this unique outdoor theatrical experience. The process for the second playwright’s prize, for a 2024 production, is underway, This is Bennett’s third consecutive appearance in the top 10 list and his fourth overall.
As The Utah Review noted last summer, “In the outdoor setting of Paris’ perfectly built theater, the production rides the sounds and the visions of a late July evening that amplify the script’s summery mood better than what might be experienced in an indoor theater. The play starts after the sun has set, and by the middle of the action, audience members can glimpse the bright moon rising behind the trees, feel the gentle breezes as temperatures retreat from the daytime nineties and listen to the gentle noises of summer insects or to an occasional roar of a motorcycle on a nearby thoroughfare. The emotional counterpoint of fun and games, along with the moments when a budding romance seems jeopardized and then the gently crafted epiphany appears, feel wholly appropriate in this backyard theater.”
For his Sundance debut in 2023, Utah based filmmaker Luis Fernando Puente made I Have No Tears, and I Must Cry, a 13-minute narrative short entirely focused on Maria Luisa and her husband Jorge, as they are being interviewed by a U.S. immigration officer for Maria Luisa’s green card. The short has had quite a run at film festivals since then (30), along with seven prizes (including Dallas International Film Festival, Grand Jury Price for Narrative Short Film; Cine Las Americas International Film Festival: Texas Archive of the Moving Image, Best Hecho en Tejas; best of fest and best narrative short at the Nevada City Film Festival; 44 CineFestival San Antonio: Winner Best Texas Short Film and The Utah Short Film of the Year honors at Utah Arts Festival’s Fear No Film along with a Fear No Film Award for Cinematography). Another short film by Puente, El Moño finished its festival run this year at San Francisco International Film Festival, where it received the Golden Gate Award for Best Family Film and Mill Valley International Film Festival.
As The Utah Review noted in its Sundance coverage, Puente excelled in showing that what might seem like a routine bureaucratic procedural step to an outsider, for immigrants it can be yet another emotional, tense experience in a process defined by long periods of limbo and costs to ensure everything is in legal order.
The dialogue is solidly credible but also compact and economical. With award-winning Oscar Ignacio Jiménez’s exceptional cinematography, the emotional tensions are fleshed out in shots of the expressions and nonverbal gestures of the couple (played by Alejandra Herrera and Enoc Oteo) and the immigration officer (Cherie Julander). Before entering the building for their interview, the couple are sitting in the car, hopeful that Maria Luisa will be approved on the spot. In fact, they plan to go shopping for a new couch. But, their optimism also is guarded, as their facial expressions show. In the interview, the officer is stoic, not giving any expression. She scrutinizes every document and response by Maria Luisa. Her seeming skepticism appears a bit unsettling.
The nuances distinguish this outstanding short. Notice the angles captured during the interview. Puente, who came from Monterrey in Mexico and eventually became a naturalized U.S. citizen, explains, when his wife (Lizde) went through the process for her green card, “so much more was at stake.” It is her experience that became the genesis for this short.
This is Puente’s second appearance on the Top 10 list for Utah Enlightenment moments. In 2021, he appeared on the list after winning the Fear No Filmmaker Award in the Utah Arts Festival’s 2021 Fear No Film slate of short films for La luna y el colibrí (The Moon and the Hummingbird). At that time, The Utah Review noted that Puente was working on the film that eventually landed at Sundance: “Puente is a filmmaker to watch closely and the production team he has assembled for this project, which includes Jiménez, assures that this latest short film will become a major award-winner on the festival circuit.” Puente has proven that prediction with outstanding results.
Among the Utah artists who have carved out impressive niches as creative entrepreneurs is Dusk Raps. As The Utah Review noted in a feature last summer, it might surprise more than a few that Dusk Raps (Ryan Worwood)’s apartment has become a full-fledged visual art studio. He has been on the local hip-hop and rap scene since at least 1996, when he graduated from Hunter High School in West Valley City. But, even during the height of Mindstate – a popular hip hop duo featuring Dusk as MC and his brother Ben as DJ Honna – many already were aware of how Dusk integrated making art with making rap lyrics and beats, especially when he was performing.
Lately, Dusk Raps has been riding a rigorous creative wave that has been fascinating to observe. For example, his most recent signature Camo Towers body of aesthetics has signaled another evolutionary phase in his artistic expression. His source materials for inspiration have expanded greatly. Dusk has found the magnetism for his creative platform through old movie posters, large art books of fantasy iconography and even religious symbolism, pulp fiction cover designs, older generation sci-fi art, and jewel box graphic art for CDs. In addition to Dune, Dusk has found resonance with films such as Apocalypse Now (1978), the Indiana Jones franchise and Bruce Lee classics.
With an eye toward using collages in his work, Dusk also explored the work of Frazetta, who was popularly known as the godfather of fantasy art and whose aesthetic has inspired artists and filmmakers including Guillermo del Toro, George Lucas and George R.R. Martin. Frazetta, who died in 2010, mastered a technique that gave 2-D media a depth of narrative framing to illustrate characters and story scenes that went beyond merely representing the original source, to become its own freshly interpreted story. Another example of how Dusk finds the rationale for his artistic explorations comes in his tracksidesafari social media account (Instagram and Facebook). Reiterating a point The Utah Review mad earlier: “Indeed, Dusk’s artistic safari continues, as he explores more paths to nourish and cultivate visual art that will consistently be as honest, open and reflective as his music.”