The glorious expressive power of dance: Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s Parallax, Repertory Dance Theatre’s Sanctuary

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While the competing theoretical, philosophical and ontological discussions of dance’s unique status as a performing arts form are too complex and dense to handle or digest in a compact peroration, it is sufficient to acknowledge the extraordinary happenings in the world of dance that challenge conventional ideals. Choreographers and performers are probing new territories that shape an unprecedented view about dance’s expressive capacity as a unique language.

At a time when so many words are uttered carelessly in so many channels without respect for linguistic precision, the complex language of dance movement has expanded significantly in its expressive power. In dance, movement is not just aesthetically pleasing or entertaining to the eye, it becomes a profound statement of aesthetic impact and of humane values. Where words fail, dance invites the viewer to an open, less turbulent yet more emotionally enlightened, space of interpretation, meditation and contemplation.

Raja Feather Kelly, Pantheon. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo: Stuart Ruckman.

Two eminent dance companies in Salt Lake City recently presented completely different programs that demonstrate dance’s expansive capacities. In both instances, the result was an astounding artistic success not only for innovation but for the capacity to move and change their respective audiences.

RIRIE-WOODBURY DANCE COMPANY: PARALLAX

Kate Weare, Unstruck. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo: Stuart Ruckman.

The idea of a parallax as the coalescing theme for the company’s opening concert of its 54th season was even more astute than what had been suggested in advance (see The Utah Review’s advance feature on the program). The three works, including a pair of world premieres, underscored the liberating experiences of acknowledging a parallax view. It was riveting not just to see how artists in the dance world envision their creative possibilities but also for how audiences might see in themselves the various emotional, social and cultural dimensions that inspired the evening’s work.

Unstruck, the opening piece choreographed by Kate Weare in 2015 and restaged by Nicole Vaughn Diaz and Julian DeLeon, was a deeply sensuous meditation on human connection and trust. An intimate chamber dance piece, the trio of dancers – Mary Lyn Graves, Dan Mont-Eton and Megan McCarthy (on closing night) – was mesmerizing, as their bodies intersected and carved against each other within spaces that narrowed and expanded continuously.

Kate Weare, Unstruck. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo: Stuart Ruckman.

The musical score by Curtis MacDonald, a Canadian saxophonist and composer, augmented the kinetic energy of the work, which was inspired by the Sanskrit ideal of the anahata nad – the “unstruck sound.” Weare’s work is a marvel about the body’s deepest circuitry of total sensuousness. Music is struck sound (ahata nad) but with the unstruck sound, there is the sound of silence inside the music. Many contemporary musicians have explored this relationship between struck sound and unstruck sound. John Cage was more akin to a Zen perspective but it is the work of his contemporary La Monte Young, one of the earliest known composers of minimalism, that is more in line with the singularity of the Unstruck ideal that often has been explored in authentic yoga meditation. Weare’s dance piece, however, is an infinitely more satisfying contemplation of this relationship than what many contemporary musicians have been able to achieve – as emphasized by the trio’s magnificent performance and MacDonald’s brilliant score.

Meanwhile, the world premiere of Daniel Charon’s Exilic Dances, a suite of eight pieces with music by Klezmer Juice and Golem, was an exhilarating tour de force of dance musical theater. Charon’s choreography transformed a “vessel of songs” (klezmer) into a mini-musical where the multi-generational story is told exclusively through dance. An inner core of slow-tempo songs was surrounded by fast-paced numbers, beginning with a Prologue titled Ose Shalom, which translates as the One Who Makes Peace.

Daniel Charon, Exilic Dances. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo: Stuart Ruckman.

At a time when talks of immigration and its historical value often descend into noxious tones, Exilic Dances emerges as an exuberant tonic, a celebration of ancestral roots, cultural pride and newfound respect for country that translates effectively to any immigrant tradition. Klezmer music is heavily dance oriented and its inflected with a large diaspora of sounds stretching from Eastern and Central Europe to north Africa. Its essentially global character propelled the boisterous and humorous feel of Charon’s choreography, executed with infectious charm by the company’s eight dancers who also did not miss a beat working with and clearing the numerous props incorporated into the performance.

Raja Feather Kelly’s Pantheon, a world premiere, closed the evening-length tour of the Parallax view in dance on a captivating note and promise. An artist fascinated by a predominating voyeuristic and exhibitionistic culture post-Andy Warhol, Kelly set the piece, in some respects, as a modern continuation of The Rite of Spring, the 1913 ballet with music by Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky that caused a riot at its Paris premiere and which became a pop culture icon (somewhat to Stravinsky’s chagrin).

Daniel Charon. Exilic Dances. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo: Stuart Ruckman.

In Pantheon, Kelly challenges the dancers and the audience with the following: What should we make of our current pop cultural obsession with celebrities and the inevitable loss of control that comes with fame and the unrelenting demand of a consumer market? The work opens with the dancers clad in wigs, white briefs and bras, gym socks and tennis shoes and one by one, the dancers put on silk jumpers.

The original score by Sam Crawford opens with a rhythmic motif that reminds of the same primal pattern that Stravinsky wrote in his work. Crawford’s score has a complex electronica feel that works well with Kelly’s choreography that is often grueling in its physical demands. Late in the piece, the score includes voice-over narration snippets referencing celebrities who died unexpectedly, committed suicide or fatally overdosed.

Raja Feather Kelly, Pantheon. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo: Stuart Ruckman.

Kelly works from a broad palette of movement languages, some referencing ballet while others hint at dancers in a pop music video. One of the most impressive moments came in a movement phrase about devolving humans – an apt comment of concern over losing our discriminating impulses for independence. The dancers morph from standing creatures to crawling and eventually squirming and writhing bodies on the floor. At the end, one of the dancers is caught in the spotlight lying on the floor, in a rain of glittering confetti while the rest of the dancers surround her, moving and jumping back and forth in typical pop dance fashion which might be found in a workout room or gym.

Pantheon, which received a grant from the Princess Grace Foundation-USA, effectively incorporates the Warholian collage effect of pop culture and Kelly’s work is an excellent example of how choreographers are staking new aesthetic territory in dance’s expressive power. It also signified Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s interests in pushing dance’s aesthetic philosophy through traditional boundaries and finding new ground in social and cultural contexts more readily accessible to audiences who come from many diverse backgrounds.

REPERTORY DANCE THEATRE: SANCTUARY

Zvi Gotheiner, Dancing The Bears Ears. Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharon Kain.

Simply put, Sanctuary, Repertory Dance Theatre’s opening concert for its 52nd season, was a most memorably moving dance performance from start to finish. As previously mentioned in a preview at The Utah Review, the scheduled three works embodied sanctuary’s enduring sacred values and purposes. The world premiere of Dancing The Bears Ears, choreographed by Zvi Gotheiner, is destined to be part of the essential canon of artistic works that represent the authentic voices and spirit of the American West.

Prior to the performance, audience members watched a short documentary, filmed and edited by Marty Buhler, highlighting the travels and workshops the company along with dancers from Gotheiner’s ZviDance company in New York City participated in at various locations in the designated Bears Ears National Monument. The group of artists were joined by three guides from the Diné tribe – Mary Benally, Jonah Yellowman and Ida Yellowman – who contributed significantly to the underlying artistic voice that gave the new work its enthralling authenticity. The documentary was an elucidating primer for what the audience was about to view – a 31-minute dance composition functioning as a symbolic timeline of the ancestral and contemporary cultural and historic roots whose sounds and experiences are forever embedded and accessible in this vast natural monument in southern Utah. Many of the scenes from the documentary had their parallels in sections of Gotheiner’s choreography.

Zvi Gotheiner, Dancing The Bears Ears. Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharon Kain.

The segue from the documentary to the performance concludes simply: “We were changed.” Indeed, it was a masterful, heartfelt performance that truly was a ritual of healing. That sense of change is evident at every turn. In that half hour, one could forget the contentious, more often brutal, politics that have surrounded the designation of the Bears Ears National Monument. From the opening ritualistic dance to the serene closing moments of the work, there arose a new emotional connection to a land about which hundreds of thousands upon hundreds of thousands of words have been written and uttered. One could appreciate anew the long game of preserving Bears Ears that was unprecedented in its scope and which had unified five Native American tribes (Navajo, Hopi, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute, and Zuni).

The sensuousness of RDT’s newest work was emphasized by the media installation design by Josh Higgason that presented periodically changing images of the landscape as a backdrop. But, most significantly, the original music score by Scott Killian, which RDT also had commissioned, was a brilliant element that deepened the emotional intensity of Dancing The Bears Ears. Killian’s score became the metaphorical physiology and heartbeat of the land, its organic nature guiding the dancers through the story telling of a land changed continuously by the seasons, new communities and the uncompromising circumstances of nature. Dancing The Bears Ears will stand out as a masterpiece of collaboration.

Eric Handman, Ghost Ship. Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharon Kain.

There were plenty of breathtaking moments in the second half of Sanctuary. The company presented Eric Handman’s Ghost Ship, a work that was premiered 10 years earlier. As the work begins, the dancers seem to emerge in the fog from an abandoned ship. But, it soon becomes a fascinating exploration of time and memory and the paradoxes of present moment realities, the memories of our past and the anticipation we carry for the future. Handman makes this comprehensible. Time moves as we would expect dancers to perform, sometimes doing so quickly while moving slowly at others. At one point, a dancer glides quickly onstage and then retreats to the wings, repeating the movement several times.

The great dance critic Marcia Siegel is most well-known for writing that dance exists at a “perpetual vanishing point” – a sentiment that many dance philosophers have expounded upon since her book was published in 1972. But, many dancers and choreographers also have been intrigued to solve the paradoxical problem: what becomes of the past that we carry in our minds and in our bodies as we look toward the horizon and into our future? Ghost Ship accomplishes this in a sinewy, often cinematic display of movement, ending in a shower of 120 pounds of grains of rice dropping like sleet pellets on an icy surface. A visually stunning and elegant composition, the work was accompanied by the operatic-sounding music of Tom Tykwer and Rachel Hurd-Wood which inspired the 2006 film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.

Eric Handman, Ghost Ship. Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharon Kain.

Equally stunning was the Utah premiere of Tower, a 2015 work created by Andy Noble, an RDT alumnus who is artistic director of the Houston-based NobleMotion Dance with his wife Dionne. Noble’s work, which included Laura Harrell as creative collaborator, is epic and immense, a 15-minute approaching storm with 25 guest dancers from Utah Valley University joining RDT’s eight artists.

The work has sparked different meanings for audiences but its most recent connection has been made to the recent flooding disaster in Houston because of Hurricane Harvey. A Houston resident, Noble had seen directly how the storm’s impact affected the lives of dancers in NobleMotion.

Andy Noble, Tower. Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharon Kain.

After Tower’s martial like introduction, the numbers and groups of dancers gradually grow on stage. There are lines of dancers undulating like the winds that are building with the storm. Intense physical movements mimic the thunder and lightning that come with a super-cell storm building its heights. The scene becomes increasingly frenzied and the dancers transit from crisp formation to wild arrangements, the speed and gesture of movement always accelerating and intensifying, and underscored by the string and electronic music of Michael Gordon’s Weather One.

There is a breakout solo that takes place in front of the curtain while the dancers prepare for the storm’s conclusion onstage. Dancers propel themselves like human rockets to the edge of the stage so rapidly that one wonders if they might overshoot their target but the mishap never happens. The storm’s fury gives way to the onstage rain (made possible by a backstage system of soakers, hoses and pumps, sounding as comforting and reassuring as if one was listening to the patter of rain on a windowsill at home.

Andy Noble, Tower. Repertory Dance Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharon Kain.

Tower was the thrilling and cathartic cap on an ambitious opener for RDT.

Both opening season concerts provided signature moments for the current Utah Enlightenment. The remaining concerts of their respective seasons deserve equally strong attention.

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Les Roka
I am a native of Toledo, Ohio, having received my Ph.D. in journalism and mass communication from Ohio University's Scripps School of Journalism in 2002. In addition to teaching at Utah State University and the University of Utah, I have worked extensively in public relations for a variety of organizations including a major metropolitan university, college of osteopathic medicine, and community college. When it comes to intellectual curiosity, I venture into as many areas as possible, whether it’s about music criticism, the history of journalism, the practice of public relations in a Web 2.0 world and the soon-to-arrive Web 3.0 landscape, or how public debates are formed about many issues especially in the political arena. As a Salt Lake City resident, I currently write and edit a blog called The Selective Echo that provides an entertaining, informative, and provocative look at Salt Lake City and its cosmopolitan best. I also have been the U.S. editorial advisor for an online publication Art Design Publicity based in The Netherlands. And, I use social media tools such as Twitter for blogging, networking with journalists and experts, and staying current on the latest trends in culture and news. I also have been a regular monthly contributor to a Utah business magazine, and I have recently conducted a variety of editing projects involving authors and researchers throughout the country and the world, including Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Lebanon, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, France, and Japan. I’m also a classically trained musician who spent more than 15 years in a string quartet, being involved in more than 400 performances.

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