Just as essential as a choreographer’s skills in setting the most impactful movement upon a dance company in the studio is their capacity to trust the dancers as collaborators in rendering themes they envision, particularly when the work is steeped in the choreographer’s autobiographical experiences.
In an interview with The Utah Review, choreographer Natosha Washington spoke in generous, emotionally elucidating terms about that unique collaborative sense of trust in setting her newest work, the evening-length I AM…, which will receive its premiere this week by the Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT). The work follows from a much shorter piece Say Their Names (Part I) that Washington set on the company five years ago. The production will be presented in the Jeanné Wagner Theatre of the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts, daily Oct. 5-7, at 7:30 p.m.
The 2018 work, which RDT commissioned, responded to the injustices and biases of the “stand-your-ground” laws and mentality. As Washington, a nationally known choreographer and teacher who lives and works in Utah, explained at the time about the thematic demands of her work in an RDT video, “As dancers, when we check out, we’re doing an injustice to what it is that we’re trying to convey to our audience in respect to what it is that we’ve taken on. … How deep do we go? How far do we let ourselves feel but not let us spin out of control.”
In developing and setting I AM…, Washington started the creative process, by reflecting upon the holistic body of experiences she has as a Black woman. Raised in a Mormon family in southeast Georgia, she made dance a lifetime vocation from her formative years. A graduate of The University of Utah’s modern dance program, she has been known variously by audiences as The Penguin Lady and as one of the principal directors for RawMoves, an Utah dance company. Today, she is a teacher, mentor, choreographer and community leader who has served as the art department chair and dance company director at West High School.
Washington said that when she started the piece she didn’t have a lot of ideas mapped out, adding, “truthfully, I never really do especially when I am stepping into a space like the RDT studio where I really feel the space is free to create without pressure.”
She explained that she trusts that the themes and ideas she considers emerge instinctively and guide her to the next naturally occurring point in the trajectory of the choreographic process. “I feel very much in tune with dancers especially whose own experiences and stories are interwoven in such a way that it feels like we have found a community where we can comfortably and freely find how our own stories fit in with the stories of others,” Washington said. “I can’t imagine forcing my ideas or myself onto the dancers because that would be a scary and unproductive place.”
By the time Say Their Names (Part I) premiered, Washington knew that she wanted to generate a much larger piece, as the earlier work did not feel finished. Linda C. Smith, RDT’s executive and artistic director, instantly agreed.
The RDT season theme in 2018 was Manifest Diversity while the 2023-24 season’s theme is Community. In an interview with The Utah Review, Smith talked about watching Washington’s artistic development ever since her undergraduate years at The University of Utah. “She has grown in many brave ways as an artist, especially as she always was a very fast learner,” she said.
Smith recalled the time when Washington demonstrated the urban dance art of Steppin’. The dance form had its immediate roots in Chicago as a descendant of the Bop that was popularized in the 1940s but Steppin’s true provenance is in Africa and has long been a fixture of African and Black communities. “It was eye opening and enlightening and when Natosha [Washington] said we need to teach our dancers this and do it, I instantly said yes,” Smith added. One of the works in RDT’s repertoire is Steppin’ by Washington. Tight in form and flair, the dancers really feel the groove of clapping, singing, chanting and stylized movements and the work is now a regular offering for RDT stage productions and lecture demonstrations in schools and tours.
A lot had transpired in the five years since Say Their Names (Part I), which sprung in part from a news article about a “stand-your-ground” incident in her hometown. Washington thought about many stories that happened to family members and her friends as well as their family members. Likewise, questions of diversity, equity and ethics have taken on much greater significance in the dance community as well as at the school where she teaches.
Washington said that during her childhood she rarely asked questions at the family dinner table. Her parents knew all too well about what negotiating the experience as a marginalized person entails when confronting racism, stereotypes, inequalities, fears of feeling unsafe or being subjected to violence and worse in the presence of authority, and gathering the confidence to live one’s identity as freely and authentically as possible without being threatened, intimidated or forced to hide. “My parents explained that they wanted us kids not to be worried about these realities for as long as possible but they also knew that such a day would inevitably come,” Washington said.
As adults, Washington added that “we understand fully the realness of speaking up for marginalized groups and not just for ourselves but for any individual who has been unfairly judged.” At school, Washington, who also is instrumental in broader efforts of achieving equity, said that many have recognized how “dance can be a beautiful way and wonderful place that is encouraging for brothers and sisters to not worry about putting up walls but instead to feel empowered for anyone who ever has been marginalized and has experienced either intentional or unintentional harming through words or physical acts.”
In the first week of rehearsals, Washington said she talked to the RDT dancers about her life but she deliberately kept details vague so that the artists would feel confident about pulling from their own experiences in the process.
After the first week, Washington said that choreographic material came at “such a rapid fire pace that soon we had more than what we knew we needed at this moment.” In the second week, the dancers were paired off and everyone shared their thoughts and experiences about loss, which expanded from death to loss of relationships and other examples. This included knowing someone for six years to a point where they were planning to build a life and home together only to see it fall apart. Other instances included loss when individuals left religion or affirmed their sexual orientation through their identity.
“Loss in its rawest, most exposed and vulnerable forms becomes that which can keep us together,” Washington said, “and to give people and our communities safe spaces either as immediate families or those families we create for ourselves. It is acknowledging how human connection can rip us apart but also sew us back up.”
Washington saw the creative process in the RDT studio as transcendent. “By the time we were running the piece in the next to second and third last weeks of rehearsal, I was bursting into tears over and over,” she added. As for Smith, when she watched the rehearsals, “I was in heaven,” adding “the dancers were giving all of themselves over to Natosha [Washington] out of respect for her.”
Whatever the vulnerable emotional foundations upon which the work was built, they also led to the most serendipitous assets for the finishing touches Washington added to the work — actor, singer, educator and playwright Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin as narrator and composer Trevor Price, who provides the lion’s share of music for the work. “For the last 20 years, Dee-Dee [Darby-Duffin] and I have been talking about collaborating on a work like this and I knew she would be the perfect storyteller to represent me,” Washington explained.
Washington invited Darby-Duffin to her home, and at her dining table they watched the rehearsal video of the piece to draft the narration. “It connected immediately,” Washington said. “She said, ‘Oh my goodness, this is what it is supposed to be.’ Dee-Dee added that she is going to end the narration with ‘I am here.’ But, at the time, I had never told her the title of the work. I thought that this was exactly what the piece needed. She had only joined in the last weeks of the process but it felt like she had been there from the beginning weeks in the studio.”
Washington had the same experience with Price: “We had never spoken face to face but we had been exchanging texts,” she explained. “I would send a snippet or clip of music with sounds of strings or percussion to indicate the feeling about the relationships I was trying to express in the piece. Sometimes we would chat briefly over the phone but he had never seen the work. He sent the music and instantly I knew it was exactly what I needed.”
That serendipitous connection was clarified when Washington talked to Price’s wife, Eileen, whom the choreographer describes as a best friend. At the time, the family was dealing with a profound loss. “The timing and convergence were astounding,” Washington said, adding that this is the example of art imitating life, showing everyone that it becomes something bigger than our collective selves.
“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.”
Throughout its 75 minutes, the work crosses back and forth across many spectrum points of emotion including tears, anger and laughter. “The point and hope of I AM… are to plant a seed or to offer a even a drop of water for people who will see the piece and will feel comfortable and inspired to bring up their own discussion at home or at the dinner table,” Washington added. “My opening statement to I AM… is ‘let this wash over you.’ Answers might not come at that moment, but as with any hard conversations, the right answers are not always there immediately.”
Also in the lobby during the production run will be an exhibit about the history of Black women in Utah, presented by the Sema Hadithi African American and Cultural Heritage Foundation.
For tickets and more information, see the RDT website.