REPERTORY DANCE THEATRE: FLIGHT
Producing a gratifying trio of works to highlight Earth Month, Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) made its Flight program its strongest offering within the last four years. Zvi Gotheiner’s Dancing The Bears Ears, a 2017 commission for the company, and two first-time RDT performances of existing works — José Limón’s The Winged and Donald McKayle’s I’ve Known Rivers — came off splendidly, being accessible and emotionally engaging for the audience.
Different from some of Limón’s other great works that are girded in profound historical narratives, The Winged (1966) is an enormous suite comprising eight sections including solos, duets, trios and group sections. It’s a soaring exploration of ornithological wonders and some flying creatures of classical mythology, without focusing on a particular unifying theme. It is relatively more austere than some of his work but yet is marvelous and vivid. Set against the sound design and music by Lief Ellis, composed primarily of recorded birdsong and a handful of music tracks, the choreography is pristine for how it evokes birds gathering, their wings fluttering as they race rapidly back and forth across the stage, as well as in and out of formation. Three guest dancers (Ruby Cabbell, Lauren Gresens and Kara Kormarnitsky) joined the company (Lauren Curley, Caleb Daly, Daniel Do, Lindsey Faber, Elle Johansen, Jonathan Kim, Jacob Lewis, Megan O’Brien and Ursula Perry).
When Limón set the work, his eponymous dance company at the time was highlighted by a fresh wave of younger dancers, many of whom were his students and had come from Juilliard. As with other Limón works that RDT has performed, Nina Watt, who toured nearly three decades with the Limón Dance Company, staged and directed this performance. No question,the RDT performance maximized the athletic and artistic gifts of the 12 dancers. Solos and duets conveyed the compelling, credible images: Jonathan Kim as Eros, the occasionally unruly and maverick winged god of love; Megan O’Brien and Caleb Daly in a section reminiscent of the story of Daedalus and Icarus; Jacob Lewis as Pegasus in the modern majestic framing as the flying horse of the nine Muses, and Lauren Curley as the Sphinx who challenges the viewer with her riddle.
Ursula Perry’s solo in McKayle’s 2005 work I’ve Known Rivers was brilliant in every beat of movement and verse. The work augments but, more importantly, magnifies the soulful core of Langston Hughes’ The Negro Speaks of Rivers, the poet’s first work, which he wrote in his late teens, to be published. Hughes connects four rivers — Euphrates, Congo, Nile and Mississippi — in tracing the journey of Africans and African Americans through civilizational history. The choreography is set to music by Margaret Bonds and the verses are sung by Darryl Taylor. Stephanie Powell, for whom McKayle created the work, was invited by RDT to stage the performance.
The poem is quite short but Perry fully elucidated the rising and ebbing emotional textures of the choreography, as it precisely traces the sung rhythm of Hughes’ poetic text. Likewise, Perry’s costume, designed by Christopher Larson, completed the memorable imagery. It has been several years since RDT last presented a solo at a live performance (there were quite a few during the pandemic with filmed productions) but Perry’s interpretation will be the hallmark for other soloists to emulate.
The choreographic trifecta of genuine emotional engagement was completed with the company’s performance of Dancing The Bears Ears, a 31-minute work that Gotheiner set in a collaboration with RDT six years ago. It is a penetrating meditation on the famous natural monument in southern Utah. As noted in The Utah Review preview of this production, only three dancers remain from those who participated in the travels, the workshop and the penultimate creation of the work in 2017.
Gotheiner, who recovered from a stroke, traveled to Salt Lake City to stage and direct this latest performance and, indeed, the flow and the emotional character of the work were even sharper this time. RDT has always adapted quite easily to Gotheiner’s choreographic techniques, aesthetics and philosophy, as reflected in Dabke, a 2012 work that Gotheiner set on his own company dancers in New York City. RDT’s performances of Dabke, for example, have been superior every single time. Likewise, the 2023 performance of Dancing The Bears Ears exemplified the same tight chemistry as its 2017 premiere.
Along with Josh Higgason’s beautifully rendered media design, Scott Killian’s magnificent score picked up on the work’s rhythms and cadences marking the behind-the-scenes long timeline of how the Bears Ears’ spiritual, anthropological and archeological evolution has added layers to its significance as a natural sanctuary for preserving the primacy of its natural and Indigenous history.
With the concert closing the company’s 57th regular season, Flight also featured the final RDT performances of Elle Johansen and Lauren Curley, who were welcomed with flowers and extended applause.
SAMBA FOGO: THE SEED OF SAMBA
One of the most impressive stories among Utah’s community groups dedicated to specific diasporas of dance, music, spiritual and cultural traditions is Samba Fogo. Utah’s award-winning Afro-Brazilian music and dance ensemble continues to ripen artistically every year. Their latest spring concert, The Seed of Samba (A Semente Do Samba), was outstanding, by every measure. In a crisply paced show that ran just a little more than an hour, Samba Fogo delivered a resplendent banquet of dance, fire acrobatics, a first-class orchestra, a drum line that becomes more impressive every year, great vocals, eye-popping theatrics and original songs.
The production played deftly on the parallels of Samba Fogo’s artistic cultivation and cultural heritage preservation, while emphasizing the core elements of nature that must be preserved, sustained and nourished. Samba Fogo’s founders, with choreography by Lorin Hansen, the company’s artistic director, and music by Mason Aeschbacher, Samba Fogo’s music director, have epitomized the role of responsible and inspiring cultural stewardship.
To wit: the opening number reflected the title and the theme of the production, with lyrics and composition by George Edgar Brown, with Aeschbacher assisting on musical arrangement:
The seed of Samba
Was planted on the hill.
Watered by the tears of my ancestors
It sprouted. Spreading its roots.
Bringing happiness in the nature of its cadence.
On the hill this imperial sprout came to life.
Cultivated by a people without much money.
Its radicles propagate
Covering the city
Forming the foundation for our Carnaval.
Fertilized by a people brought over in cowardice,
The seed with origins in Luanda that came from Bahia.
Germinated in the yolk of the marvelous city
Bringing tremendous happiness to its people.
The opener segued seamlessly into Four Sisters, respectively respecting the sacred elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. The four sisters are preceded by the song Eleggua, as arranged by Hansen and Aeschbacher. In the Orixá tradition, Eleggua is the god of all roads and paths and in the diaspora religious practices, all rituals can only begin with Eleggua’s acknowledgment.
With that metaphorical blessing, each element is celebrated in dance, song and rhythm. Each sister was represented by a dance soloist: Mallory Howard for Earth, Missy Stone for Water, Natalia Andres for Air and Hansen for Fire. The audience was justifiably thrilled by the spectacular visuals, including the company’s hugely popular incorporation of fire into its performance. More importantly, Samba Fogo has been scrupulous about striking the proper cultural tones in their performances. For example, the song accompanying the dance in Water is É D’Oxum, by the legendary songwriter Gerônimo Santana, which is considered the unofficial theme song of Salvador, Bahia in Brazil. Among the lyrics for the song, which has been popular since it was composed in the 1980s: “Be a lieutenant or a fisherman’s son, or important judge/If you give a gift, it’s all one thing. The force that lives in the water does not distinguish color/And the whole city is d’Oxum. It’s from Oxum/I will sail. I will sail on the waves of the sea.”
Following the Four Sisters, another Orixá deity was honored — Oya, a strong female force who repels bad decisions and exclusive male domination in times of great difficulty and transitions. Oya is sometimes represented by the Buffalo. The choreography was set by Dandha Da Hora, among the numerous master teachers Samba Fogo has invited for its artistic development. The dancers, dressed in skirts that billow like the wind, move in swirling, commanding steps, accompanied by drums playing rhythms specific to northeastern Brazil regions, including Maracatú, Seis-Oito, Ilú and Samba Afro.
The remainder of the program became a celebration of the cultural crops reaped from the planting of the seed by Samba Fogo. It also was a tribute to all aspects of womanhood and identity, from Mother Earth to strong feminine Orixá deities to the Malandro and to the reclaiming of the divine feminine spirit. Highlights included Hansen’s award-winning signature performance in two songs about the Malandro, a suave Brazilian character who has the panache of Jeito, which subverts and upends social norms and stifling rules of civility. Hansen’s interpretation was inspired by Madame Satã, the performing name of João Francisco dos Santos (1900–1976), a drag performer and capoeirista in the famed Lapa neighborhood of Rio De Janeiro.
The orchestra shined throughout including in Caxanga Rosa by Caixa Preta, with the drums and horns in arrangements by Eduardo “Dudu” Fuentes and Stefanie Schmidt, respectively. Samba Fogo’s music program is just as dynamic as its dance offerings. In Your Sweater, an original song by Hansen and Aeschbacher, the symbolic reclaiming of the feminine power of the divine is manifested, which brings another stunning dance, with fire.
The social significance of the complex and multilayered diaspora identities is evident. There is a subtle but relevant sociopolitical statement as well. For instance, in Alma Livre (Free Soul), composed by George Edgar Brown, “I’m of a mixed race. I am Brazilian/I’m from the good nature of the ‘atabaque drum and the ‘pandeiro’ tambourine/I’ve freed myself from the punishments of the overseer/ I’m also free from censorship and dictatorship.”
From this point, the program burst in jubilant revelry à la Carnaval. It is this exultant brand of that has earned the group its artistic merit of excellence: the Samba Batucada choreography electrified the stage, with drums and orchestra producing a blast of triumphant sounds. And, of course, there was the now standard official Samba Fogo song, which Brown wrote. The group song closes with the following definitive lyrics:
É O Samba, É O Fogo, O Samba Fogo Arrebate O Coração. It is Samba. It is Fire. Samba Fogo, Captures the Heart. The fire catches, it’s contagious. It is happiness, it is euphoria, it is passion.
Keeping with The Seed of Samba theme, Samba Fogo will host Plant Your Feet, a daylong dance and tree planting festival May 13 at the new Tracy Aviary Jordan River Nature Center. Joining Samba Fogo will be TreeUtah, Tracy Aviary and West Valley City Arts, as well as Samba Fogo’s new offshoot Return Dance Project, TreeUtah, Tracy Aviary and West Valley City Arts.
The festival will include a community tree planting activity, outdoor dance classes with two Afro-Brazilian guest artists and a film and documentary screening about the Return Dance Project. The main evening event will be a 6:30 p.m.concert with live orchestra, featuring dance choreography for the planting of five trees. Hansen says, “In essence, we are dancing a forest to life.”
RIRIE-WOODBURY DANCE COMPANY: TO SEE BEYOND OUR TIME
The six dancers of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company have consistently produced moments of the tightest performance chemistry this critic has seen in dance works throughout the 2022-2023 season.
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.
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.
The opportunity for dancers to place their own imprint reinforced the core chemistry that has produced such satisfying kineticism for their 59th season. The arc spanning the ten movements followed a well-woven infrastructure of movement, music and text without separation. The counterpoint of the movements was clear to follow from the opening section representing interconnected fates to the ensuing falling apart and the spot-on choreographic imagery of Death by a Million Paper Cuts and ultimately to Swan Song and Hope in the Dark.
The work 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. The music marked the dramatic contours with dead-on selections of tone and mood by Bach, Edvard Grieg, Béla Bartók, Jean Sibelius, Michael Nyman and Ingram Marshall. True to the spirit of the work, the dancers wore costumes designed by former company dancer Melissa Younker, entirely constructed from upcycled and repurposed materials from Ririe-Woodbury’s costume closet and her own collection of scrap canvas fabric and secondhand notions.
Each dancer added their own text. An outstanding example was Miche’ Smith’s exquisite reading of Where do the birds go now? The dancers’ eloquent contributions of text were interspersed with quoted prose by some of the best known names and authors in environmental conservation and preservation, including Terry Tempest Williams, Rebecca Solnit and Darren Parry.
NOVA CHAMBER MUSIC SERIES: CONNECT WITH THE WEST
The Libby Gardner Hall audience for NOVA Chamber Music Series’ Connect with the West received the full ASMR sound treatment of the mating rituals of the greater-sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse in the outstanding world premiere of Lek by Nicolás Lell Benavides. Commissioned by the Fry Street Quartet, whose members serve collectively as music director for the series, Lek was thoroughly entertaining as it was enlightening.
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. The result was a delightful, witty, appealing on-the-spot audio documentary, with plenty of live music and birdsong.
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.
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.
Likewise, (Bury Me) Where The Lightning [Will] Never Find Me, a 2019 work by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Raven Chacon, conjured up an equally vivid sonic portrait for the listener. As noted in The Utah Review preview, the title comes from a specific reference in the 2003 book How Early America Sounded by Richard Cullen Rath (p. 39): “In the eighteenth century, Phillis, an enslaved African American from Connecticut, asked to be buried under a tree, when she died, ‘where the lightning [will] never find me.’”
Scored for violin, cello, bass clarinet and percussion, the work emphasizes sound’s pervasive stealth capacity. This is a major feature in many of Chacón’s works and the composer has explored thunder and lightning and its different historical significances for Native Americans and others. For listeners, the experience of (Bury Me) sharpens the senses, as a more instructive and penetrating view of a comprehensive portrait of the American West is introduced by the instrumentals.
The remainder of the concert was just as entertaining and satisfying. A collection which has become a mainstay for many contemporary sopranos, Songs from Letters: Calamity Jane to Her Daughter Janey, 1880–1902 by Libby Larsen received a rousing performance by singer Jin-Xiang Yu and pianist Kimi Kawashima. Yu was dressed in an appropriate tribute to Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Cannary), in buckskin, hats and boots. This performance was an astute reading of an iconic Utah and American West figure, revealing the whole complexities of her enterprising life, character as mother and sociocultural legacy.
Meanwhile, the performance of Roy Harris’ Piano Quintet was so compelling that it made this listener realize that it should be at the top of the list, when it comes to the most interesting chamber music pieces written by an American composer during the middle decades of the 20th century. Harris’ placement on this program was due to his well documented but short artistic residency at Utah State University in the late 1940s.
From the commanding theme played in octaves by the strings to the solo cadenzas played by each instrument and to the spiraling synthesized mass of sound to conclude the work, the performance, which featured former NOVA music director Jason Hardink on piano, was the perfect cap to this celebration of the American West.
NOVA’s season closer will be Connect with the Earth, featuring Mahler’s song-symphony The Song of the Earth, conducted in a farewell performance by Utah Symphony Music Director Thierry Fischer. For more information and tickets about the May 21 concert, see the NOVA Chamber Music Series website.