One might never imagine that finding a tranquil sense of healing in the space of an underpass below 600 South and 600 West in downtown Salt Lake City is possible. Above this concrete open cave, cars rumble persistently on one of the city’s busiest interstate interchanges. Nearby, Union Pacific and Utah Railway trains pass by along with the occasional FrontRunner train, which the Utah Transit Authority operates. Within a walk of a minute or two from the underpass, there are the headquarters of the Yellow Cab Company and Salt Lake Central, one of the hubs for UTA’s TRAX light rail and the connecting station for Greyhound bus and Amtrak rail services. It is ironical during these pandemic times to comprehend how easy and convenient it would be to escape quarantine or mandated social distancing.
Indeed, the rare live performance these days is a comforting treat. The recent OuterSpace concert, produced by dance artists Dan Higgins and Haley Johnson, was a triumph of artistic entrepreneurship, always on point in Salt Lake City’s dance scene.
The seven short solo pieces – five of them performed by their choreographers and the other two by guest artists – embodied a surprisingly intimate magic of spirituality and subtle social relevance. The underpass was a smart logistical choice for a stage that accommodated the mandated set of social distancing measures and the acoustic and performance needs of the artists. The pillars were decorated with art that previously had been commissioned by the Utah Department of Transportation.
During the 8 p.m. performance, artists could look westward to one of the city’s stunning sunsets and then during the second show at 9:30 p.m., the city lights enhanced the spiritual ambience in their unique aspects. Without choreography featuring partners or multiple dancers, the artists could perform sans mask. However, one artist did perform with her mask on, actually a specifically relevant choice for that work. With a maximum allowable audience of 40 to 50 people (masks required), the scene was surreal yet also pensive and serene, enough to stimulate one’s sense of appreciating the grace and beauty of dance from a distance without diluting the emotional impact.
Where the choreographers uniformly excelled were their skilled efforts at leveraging the creative impact of a highly disciplined movement language which emphasizes lines of arm and hand positions and gestures that convey the unique character that each dance artist represented.
Choreographer Trevor Wilde set the proper bar in the opening work, Eagle’s Wings, performed by Haleigh Larmer. An empowering tonic to set the concert’s broadest theme, the piece celebrates the renewal of strength in the despondent atmosphere of the current moment. As with the other choreographers, Wilde’s musical choice provided the elucidating context. Prominently featured was Kovei Adonai, a track from the 2018 album by Miqedem, a Tel Aviv-based group. The inspirational lyrics for the music come from the Book of Isaiah 40:31: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” Larmer’s movement phrases epitomized the meaning of this Scripture with compelling clarity.
Higgins performed two short pieces, drawing from his twin strengths as a dance and theater artist. One was a delightful palate cleanser, so to speak, in Boris, a character one might find under the big top of a circus. The musical choice appropriately was Connect The Polka Dots from The Big Top. His second work magnified the evening’s theme with another short character portrait, Brünhilda, accompanied by Robert Schumann’s Abendlied, Opus 85, No. 12, performed in an arrangement by contemporary musician Albrecht Mayer. The song contemplates the moon and Higgins’ choreography smooths out the music’s inner tension of the duple rhythm against the triple meter. It is a moment to savor the moon’s constant, faithful cycles of waxing and waning.
Jonathan Kim, a Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) colleague of Higgins, performed sundown, using a different musical piece by Toro y Moi for the first and second performances on each of the two evenings of the production. Kim’s musical choices for his choreography always are superb and for the last performance of the evening, he used the artist’s hip hop track New House from the Outer Peace album. Kim vividly interprets the song in movement that resonates with the counterpoint of the weary, exhausted individual ready for a reset and the respite from empty restlessness. There also is a subtly powerful metaphor that one can only find their respite from restlessness and anxieties when true justice, safety, love and comfort are finally fought for and found in their home (community). Kim’s work is part of a piece he is developing for RDT’s Emerge concert in January 2021, which will feature original dance compositions by the company’s artists.
Johnson’s dance composition, XIV, captured her own journey emerging from the pandemic quarantine. Likewise, her musical selection matched up perfectly: Life and Death performed by the experimental Balanescu Quartet. Dance artists in Utah exquisitely interpret the core meaning they envision in their musical selections, as Johnson demonstrated so convincingly. This track samples vocals from the vocals of Maria Tănase: “Life, dear life/When will I have had enough of you ?/When the bread is completely stale/And the glass is empty/Then I will have had enough/When the time will come.”
For the fox, a choreographed composition by Morgan Phillips, she set out several photo frames at the front of the performing space to communicate through movement the dynamics of intimate relationships. Phillips found the right instinct: In the evening, our senses often are heightened as we revisit in our minds the events and triggers of our anxieties and breakups but only then to discover fresh, even if just momentary, comfort in the golden moments of our most treasured interactions.
Phillips turned to Anchin Kfu Ayinkash, music by the Ethiopian jazz musician Hailu Mergia and the Dahlak Band, an exceptional choice that brought out a particular ethereal, dreamlike quality vibe to accompany her choreography.
Closing the concert was a sense of quiet, choreographed by jo Blake and performed (in mask) by Kristen Houskeeper. This understated work juxtaposes a profound sadness with the hope of healing light. Blake’s choreography suited the challenge precisely—to provide the appropriate hue of a grand sense of optimism without it seeming trite or cliché or overpowering. Houskeeper’s performance cemented the right effect. For music, Blake turned to former Sigur Rós band member Kjartan Sveinsson, who had collaborated with Ragnar Kjartansson on a visually impressionistic opera with a German title, which translates roughly to The Explosive Sonics of Divinity. The selection for Blake’s work is the second tableau (Teil II) from the original work. Blake’s choreography teases out the panoply of complexities in the music, which opens with a somber hymn and then ever so gradually expands into a vista that offers a slim, delicate yet obvious note of hope, welcoming us gently to emerge from the darkness of this extraordinarily difficult year.
Blake’s composition put the elucidating note on OuterSpace: live performance is returning slowly but steadily as we sort out the limitations and find new opportunities to create and express ourselves. The road in the short-term is complicated by public health, economic and harsh political realities but we also have the capacity to heal ourselves and our communities. As in recent years, members of Salt Lake City’s deep bench of gifted dance artists rose in OuterSpace to the sociocultural challenges of making their art fit precisely what the moment commands.