Five premieres will mark Repertory Dance Theatre’s (RDT) Venture production later this week. The new works include three from artists who have been part of RDT’s Regalia choreographic competitions, along with a full company work by an internationally known choreographer from Poland and a piece for participants in RDT’s Prime Performance Workshop.
Venture will have daily performances Nov. 16-18 at 7:30 p.m. in the Jeanné Wagner Theatre of the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts. For tickets and more information, see the RDT website.
The Utah Review interviewed the five choreographers about their forthcoming premieres.
Just two weeks before the pandemic brought all live performances to a ground stop in 2020, Rachel Barker competed in the Regalia competition, which that year was won by RDT alumnus Justin Bass. “It is a wonderful opportunity to return and spend more time with the dancers,” Barker said in an interview with The Utah Review.
For Six Is A Crowd, her latest piece, she started with ideas about community and instances where we support each other but also those times when things become difficult.
Working with the dancers’ recollections of their experiences, Barker and the RDT dancers created tableaux for the 14-minute piece to support and elucidate a through line in the story structure. Her program note succinctly illustrates her intended throughline in the choreographic narrative:
Scratch scream clamor laugh cry rip tear tug
Need clutch embrace kiss lift
You Me Us
“The tableaus touch on everything from annoyances and petty problems and the struggles to be seen and heard to the joys and loves of the different relationships we share,” she explained. Music includes Latin jazz and percussion.
In 2022, SUPERWOMEN featured a program of works by Utah choreographers, including Barker, Alexandra Bradshaw-Yerby and Liz Dibble. The program was part of Repertory Dance Theatre’s Link Series. Of particular note was Barker’s Sedimented Here, a screendance which stands out as one of the most impressive of the genre that The Utah Review has observed. It truly melds two of Utah’s most substantial strengths in creative expression – dance and documentary filmmaking. Barker’s cinematic statement, filmed in Moab, synthesized the visceral athleticism of dance with the pristine beauty of the otherworldly red rock landscape that tempts and lures many to Utah.
She has served as a dance professor at Brigham Young University and UNC Charlotte, and has taught at The Ohio State University, Wake Forest University, Denison University, and the American College Dance Festival at Gonzaga University, the University of Utah, and Ohio University. Her writing is published in the Dance Education in Practice journal, and she has presented her research on improvisation, site-specific choreography, and interdisciplinary pedagogy at the National Dance Education Organization Conference from 2015-2022.
Ruger Memmott, who won this year’s Regalia commission, has created a six-minute work with the title of шесть (the Russian word for six, which is pronounced shest’). He recruited local composer Michael Wall to create a musical,score for his piece which he describes as “vignettes that play on work and rest and how we sustain ourselves continuously through these activities.” The electronic score features complex and counter rhythms. The title highlights Memmott’s artistic structure as well as tips its hat to the language which he studied in school and spoke during his LDS mission in Russia.
“In the piece, the dancers do not linger too long on specific phrases but they come back to them multiple times throughout the piece or as blips of a longer phrase when other are doing different things,” he explained, adding that the counterpoint rhythms drive the groove in the choreography.
From Pleasant Grove, Utah, Memmott spent his formative years in the competitive dance circuit and studied with the theater ballet company at Brigham Young University. He has danced with Utah’s Odyssey Dance Theatre for several years as well as occasionally choreographing for the company. His choreography has been selected by the Palm Springs Desert choreography festival, the MOVE: A 24-Hour Film Festival competition by the Utah Film Festival and he was selected as the winner of the 2021 SHAPE choreography festival by SALT dance.
Oktet: In Situ is set by Katarzyna Skarpetowska to a recording of a string quartet adaptation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, in an arrangement by French composer François Meïmoun. It is the second one that Skarpetowska is setting as part of a triptych, which features music by Bach as the accompaniment to the choreography.
In an August, 2023, interview with The Utah Review, Skarpetowska said that she is creating these works specifically for dance companies that are challenged to sustain and reinforce their core as an artistic community during events that complicate such an objective.
Sextette, the first piece in the triptych, was set on Smuin Ballet to music from Bach’s Violin Concerto in A Minor. The San Francisco based company was confronting how the pandemic had changed performance standards and artistic expectations.
For RDT, Oktet: In Situ reflects how the eight principal dancers of the company have processed and rejuvenated the community core, after a controversial incident in 2022 led to the sudden departure of a fellow artist. Skarpetowska said the third section will be titled Quatuor but she has yet to determine the specific Bach music and who will be the company for that final piece.
Skarpetowska, who has worked extensively with Lar Lubovitch (a choreographer whose works are part of the RDT catalog), says she was impressed by how the dancers “rallied around each other and pulled together, and I wanted to celebrate their energy and individuality in building their own community.” She worked with RDT in 2021 as repetiteur, when the company performed several of Lubovitch’s works.
As for her selections of music by Bach, Skarpetowska says that he is a “great dance partner” and his works lend themselves to how she likes to structure her choreography.
Shane Urton, who competed in the 2022 edition of Regalia, has set Sweetspot, which originated, as he explained in an interview with The Utah review, from “craft-oriented questions” but also was expanded into “observing and discovering constellations of human moments.”
Urton said he and the RDT dancers focused on how we can view sweet spots in moments and dimensions of strengths as well as weaknesses. “For example, if you’re trying to escape from a car underwater, there is a sweet spot on the windshield where the glass will break easily, or the crack of a baseball bat to hit a home run,” he added.
“We went further into human moments of compassion, affection and intimacy and how in achieving technical aspects of partnering and lifting, dancers always are searching for the right balancing point,” Urton explained. “Dancers train hard for this to coordinate when performing and there are incredibly informative and satisfying moments when lifting is super smooth and it does not require more energy. It becomes a testament to the physics and physicality of energy in that moment.”
Urton also worked with Pilar I., one of the most widely sought after lighting designers locally, to capture the full visual impact of the sweet spot in the choreography, which comprises three chapters. Adding depth to the visual punch, Urton worked with a seamstress to create eye-popping orange costumes for the dancers.
In the first, a rectangular prism of light only introduces certain parts of the dancer’s body, with respect to the solo piano music, which composer Adam Vincent Clarke wrote for Urton’s work and was recorded by pianist Olena Mozil. The lighting design capitalizes on the physics of ricochet effects to be visible but not necessarily as the central focus in a specific moment. Urton said the purpose is to magnify the spacious possibilities in the work and let questions bubble up through the surface but then dissipate and fall apart, “like a sand castle on the beach that begins to crumble when waves wash ashore.” The second chapter is marked by robust rhythms, which Urton said Clarke composed to create a desired shimmering luminescence. In the third chapter, the effect is that of throwing questions out into space but not sure whether or not they will be answered. Likewise, Clarke’s music resonates with the echo chamber effect in this particular section of the piece.
Urton, a North Carolina native, has had a wide-ranging international career in ballet, starting with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago and continuing on in New Zealand and Norway. Currently, he is living in Antwerp, where he is a member of the Opera Ballet Vlaanderen (Royal Ballet of Flanders).
Urton has a diverse palette of influences and inspirations. They include the Belgian-Moroccan choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Crystal Pite, who is well known for setting movement that augments storytelling, along with choreographers Ohad Naharin, Pina Bausch, William Forsythe and others. He also draws upon literature, science, research, psychology and sociology for inspirations. Urton explains that he especially enjoys how science, math and dance can intersect. He cites Merritt Moore, who earned her doctorate in quantum physics at Oxford while performing with the English National Ballet and London Contemporary Ballet. It is an example of the possibilities of not having to choose one field over another. He won second place in Dance Open America’s Emerging Choreographer 2021 and was a top ten finalist for BalletX’s Choreographic Fellowship.
MEGHAN DURHAM WALL
The ideals of dance movement for a lifetime emerge in Meghan Durham Wall’s Poetics of Aging. Wall will have participating performers, who are between the ages of 55 and 82, from RDT’s Prime Performance 2023 workshop. The workshop was open to older adults, regardless of whether or not they had prior dance experience.
The roads to this program and the premiere were paved two years ago when Wall was inspired by the conversations about dance in a creative aging summit. Wall and Nicholas Cendese, RDT’s artistic associate and development director, decided to take it to the next level with a workshop, which received support from the Utah Division of Arts and Museums, which would culminate in a premiere and live performance. The public had its first glance at their efforts when RDT performed earlier this year at the Utah Arts Festival.
When the process started, Wall said in an interview with The Utah Review, that she focused on “establishing trust and making safe spaces.” Acknowledging that sometimes movements and improvisations are difficult to describe in words, Wall used poetry to create the bridges for the “movers” in the workshop to create their images and metaphors. The first day, Wall turned to Carl Adamshick’s 2014 poem titled, Everything That Happens Can Be Called Aging. She also shared Hallelujah by Mary Oliver, which the poet wrote to mark her sixtieth birthday, as well as poetry by Maya Angelou. To represent the embrace of a life filled with satisfying and gratifying experiences, Wall used May Sarton’s poem Now I Become Myself, which anticipates the inevitable end of one’s life, as reflected in several verses:
So all the poem is, can give,
Grows in me to become the song,
Made so and rooted by love.
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move.
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!
Wall explained that the poetics warmed up everyone to become comfortable with the movement and structures of the world they could inhabit. The metaphors of the passage of time, for example, can be portrayed with movement suggesting the space between one’s first and last breaths, while crossing the stage. The performers have open reins about deciding when they enter and leave this choreographed line of movement.
For music, Wall fashioned a tapestry which includes two new tracks composed by her husband, Michael Wall, whose massive library of music has become an indispensable resource for choreographers around the world. She also includes the poignant yet campy song Vieillir by Jacques Brel which he wrote in 1977, just a year before he died at the age of 49. Among the lyrics in the song, as translated from French indicate: Dying is nothing, Dying? Big deal! / But getting old… Oh! getting old. The work also includes text from Mark Strand, a poet and author who wrote many pieces about aging, failure and incapacity, with a sharp wit that rang with nostalgia and wickedly good fun and absurdism.
True to RDT’s season theme of community, the Poetics of Aging represents benefits that have extended beyond the studio, Wall added. “We’ve built a community that enjoys brunches and socializing through new connections.” The group includes four former professional dancers as well as a writer and others who have enjoyed outdoor recreation.
Wall’s creative research lies in healing-centered and equity-oriented methods of training the body toward performance, whether on the stage or in society at large. She serves as the dance program chair at Westminster College and an interdisciplinary perspective informs her creative, pedagogical, and administrative approach to the field of dance.