November was an outstanding month for performing arts in Salt Lake City, including programs by the Repertory Dance Theatre, Opera Contempo and the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation.
REPERTORY DANCE THEATRE: VENTURE
So far, it has been a season of premieres and the closing night performance was stupendous, a significant observation considering the stellar unveiling of Natosha Washington’s evening-length I AM… in October. Venture is now available for purchase as a streaming video on demand, through Dec. 31.
All five premieres were popping. The new works included 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.
Ruger Memmott’s шесть (the Russian word for ‘six’) put the dancers into new movement language territory and they pulled it off with tight rhythmic flair and music by Michael Wall. Memmott, who won this year’s Regalia competition, established Venture’s scintillating pace in the evening’s first six minutes. It has perfect audience appeal but Wall’s music and Memmott’s deft grasp of counter rhythms and complex counts also formed a miniature showcase of how dancers can adapt quickly to a choreographer’s specific movement language. The work featured Caleb Daly, Trung “Daniel” Do, Lindsey Faber, Jacob Lewis, Ursula Perry and Caitlyn Richter.
Following in perfect segue, Rachel E. Barker’s Six Is A Crowd was smart, whimsical and put the spotlight on the dancers’ personalities: a true audience pleaser. With a balanced mix of comedy and emotional responses that were fluid in their intensity, Barker tapped into a literal theatrical sense about what it means to act and respond compassionately in a tightly-knit community.
With a soundtrack of music by Albert Mathias, The Juju Orchestra and Andrew Bird that percolated with Latin rhythms, sincere ambient moods and a swing dance vibe, Barker and the dancers clearly defined the moments where a spat or disagreement pops up or when someone is concerned about their own identity being eclipsed in the group. There were scenes where dancers spoke briefly, laughed or vocalized their emotions. Six Is A Crowd makes a good testament to the fact that the wonderful chemistry we audience members see on stage is not automatic, but organically cultivated by how compassion, respect and integrity evolve to smooth out the rough spots in a group relationship. The featured dancers included Caleb Daly, Lindsey Faber, Jonathan Kim, Jacob Lewis, Megan O’Brien and Caitlyn Richter.
Shane Urton’s Sweetspot was a brilliant organic study of sweet spots in dance movement that grew in metaphorical complexity, along with dazzling lighting design executed by Pilar I. and an impressive solo piano score by Adam Vincent Clarke and performed and recorded by Olena Mozil. Urton’s piece was as compelling for its intelligent demonstration about how the physical logic of dance movement is leveraged to be lucid and specific in articulating emotions and themes, as it was designed for its approachable entertaining quality.
We recognize the preeminence of listening in sensitive, effective communication but Sweetspot also enriches the logistical importance of acknowledging, responding to and timing our nonverbal body language. The lighting design beautifully paralleled Clarke’s excellent score, marking how discrete phrases of music appear and eventually form a melodic line, in the first section. As manifested in the lighting, the music accelerates to its most intense drive in the middle section before losing its momentum in the closing section, while calls for a response or affirmation are left unanswered, as they fade into silence. The featured dancers included Caleb Daly, Trung “Daniel” Do, Jonathan Kim, Megan O’Brien, Ursula Perry and Caitlyn Richter.
Meghan Durham Wall’s Poetics of Aging, performed by participants in RDT’s Prime Performance Workshop, was elegant, poignant and sagacious, which also included music by her husband (Michael Wall) and Dom la Lena. The performers, between the ages of 55 and 82, communicated the touching mood behind the poetic text that framed the work, Breath by Mark Strand. There are moments in Strand’s expressions of “breath” blooming and shining in the dance movement and the walks back and forth across the stage and then there are instances where the “breath” of the spoken verse becomes faint almost to the point of invisibility. We often think of dance performance as ephemeral. But, there is a perfect philosophical connection evoked in Poetics of Aging with the omnipresence of opportunities for renewal, especially when we realize that age does not need to hinder our yearning for the expressive power of dance movement. The featured performers were Jenn Gibbs, Deanna Harward, Julie Johnson, Tami Knubel, Loren Mitchell Lambert, Susanna Risser, Linda Roberson, Skye Sieber and Karen Thompson.
Featuring the company of eight dancers, the finale was amazing, with no qualifications needed. Kate Skarpetowska’s Oktet: In Situ, set to a string quartet arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, was as perfect a performance by RDT as I have seen in years of reviewing. This is the definitive choreographic visualization of a great Baroque musical score.
RDT’s next program comes in the first weekend of the New Year, with Emerge, on Jan. 5 and Jan. 6, at 7:30 p.m. and 2 p.m., respectively. The program will feature short pieces choreographed by the RDT staff and dancers. For tickets and more information. See the RDT website.
OPERA CONTEMPO: PROTECTRESS
Ever since opera became a viable musical platform, classical mythology has been a bread-and-butter source of narrative material for composers and librettists. To this day, mythology is a popular source option. In recent decades, the myth of Medusa has received all sorts of contemporary cultural treatment. After her sexual assault was perpetrated by Poseidon in the Temple of Athena, Medusa faced being punished and transformed into monstrous form. Athena justified this because she was enraged that such an act had despoiled the sanctity of her temple.
But, in the last 50 years, many feminists, along with many creative artists in various disciplines, have rescued Medusa to conceive her not as a monster in silence but instead as a beautiful being with agency and purpose. “Using Medusa as a method for rethinking silence allows us to see disenfranchisement as the responsibility of broader political systems, rather than of individuals who go unheard,” Aimee Hinds Scott wrote in a 2022 essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books. “The silent Medusa can be a mirror for all victims of violence, of patriarchy, of systemic injustice. But make no mistake: Medusa is not silenced. She just lets her eyes do the talking.”
In November, Opera Contempo presented a minimally staged reading of the two scenes comprising the first act of Protectress, an opera in development by composer Jessica Rudman and librettist Kendra Preston Leonard.
Protectress situates the Medusa story in the contemporary period. Medusa (Aubrey Adams-McMillan) cannot rest because she constantly relives the trauma and stress of the assault. Medusa and her Gorgon sisters, Euryale (Lindsay Spring Browning) and Stheno (Emily Nelson), know that Athena has visited the nightmares upon Medusa. As they seek relief, the three Fates – Clotho (Kahli Dalbow), Lachesis (Hilary Koolhoven), and Atropos (Natalie Easter) — visit them.
The story in Protectress rotates around Medusa’s attempts to have her voice of agency restored, unlike the account in Ovid’s Metamorphoses where Medusa was petrified into silence. Medusa seeks to persuade Athena to reform her ways and end the vicious harassment. Artemis (Mandi Barrus), the Olympian goddess of the hunt and sister of Athena, appears, as do Hera (Julie Wright-Costa), Hecate (Kristin Chavez) and Aphrodite (Thia Marie Harris).
The contemporary details are evident in the clothing worn by the singers and in the bedroom staging. Hera, who teaches self-defense and anti-harassment, realizes that she is still part of a patriarchal system that perpetuates such abuse.
The staged reading made clear the potential known for completing this opera and its contributions to a new canon of works that reframe the Medusa legend. The production featured Gerta Wiemer on piano and was directed by Anthony Buck and conducted by Christopher Ramos.
The singers were excellent, especially Adams-McMillan, whose impressive range and vocal power filled the Thompson Chamber Music Hall at The University of Utah. At some points, however, the exceptionally bright acoustics of the hall were not flattering to some of the most densely written parts of the score, when a majority of the cast ensemble were singing. It was in such moments that one needed to rely on the supertitles to discern the libretto, while not watching the stage action.
In the talkback after the reading, both the composer and librettist made clear that adding male characters and voices would not be an option, as they pursue writing the second act. Rejecting patriarchal modes of communication is central to the rejection of misogyny as well. The question becomes where do Rudman and Leonard take the second act, particularly if the opera is to reach a broader audience that clearly comprehends the muting powers of trauma under sexual assault. In her essay, Scott cited Miriam Zoila Pérez’s essay Not That Loud: Quiet Encounters with Rape Culture (which was published in 2018 in Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture, edited by Roxane Gay), “in which she lays out the contrast between the noisy political talk about sexual assault and its insidiously stifling effect on its victims.”
Regarding the wave of films and other creative productions revisiting Medusa, Scott added, “these characters are not silenced by men or unable to break past the suppression of the patriarchy. These modern Medusas are ultimately not disenfranchised or voiceless.” She expanded on the point, “The meaningful silence of speechlessness is not the same as the empty silence of a snub to solidarity, of course demonstrating the intersection of power and proclamation. When victims of assault or other injustices are silent, this does not mean absence or a lack of emotion or pain; when governments and lawmakers are silent, this can be translated as a refusal to effect positive change.” This seems to be driving the underlying foundation in progress, with Protectress.
The first act of Protectress poses tantalizing questions and possibilities but by the end of it, the revealed territory also has many complexities that will need to be resolved with utmost clarity, in the process of completing the opera. Nevertheless, the opportunity to see an opera in development brought a large audience, which was engaged and enthusiastic in its response. That alone should help the creative team secure funding to complete the second act.
This production included funding from the Salt Lake City Arts Council’s Artist Career Empowerment Grant as well as The University of Utah School of Music and the National Endowment for the Arts.
GINA BACHAUER INTERNATIONAL PIANO FOUNDATION:José Ramón Mendez
It was a refreshing joy to hear the second half of pianist José Ramón Mendez’s concert last month, presented by the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation, dedicated to music from Spain, his homeland.
Mendez opened the second half with a pair of sonatas by Padre Antonio Soler, an 18th century Catalan composer who followed in the style of Italian composer Domenico Scarlatti: Sonata No. 84 in D major and Sonata No. 88 in D-flat major. Mendez’s performance sparkled with the elegant runs and a fine elucidation of the sophisticated harmonic structures and chromaticism found in these works. He added the right dash of Spanish pungency in his interpretation, to remind audiences that the Spanish musical enterprise in the Baroque and Classical eras was just as productive as their counterparts in Germany, Italy and France.
With three selections from Isaac Albéniz’s Iberia — El Puerto, Evocación and Triana — Mendez became the wise, comfortable travel guide for the audience, transporting everyone to the Andalusian landscape, with exquisite ease of musical athleticism. The jaunty rhythms and sounds of the busy fishing village near Cádiz in El Puerto were visualized to perfection and the distinct nostalgia of Evocación was painted in delicate hues. Triana, one of the most technically challenging movements for any pianist, came off just as easily. Mendez never seemed to labor over the music, putting us directly into the famous dances of the Seville neighborhood referenced in the movement’s title.
Likewise, Mendez took the audience directly to the imagery of the two Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes paintings which inspired portions of Enrique Granados’ Goyescas: El amor y la muerte (Love and Death) and El pelele (The Straw Man). Granados completed the entire set of Goyescas in 1912, just a few years before he drowned in an accident in the English Channel. It was the great pianist Alicia de Larrocha who reminded the world of the catalog of great solo works by these Spanish composers and Mendez has taken up the baton of musical ambassador with exquisite skill and sensitive worldly interpretation. Mendez’s rendering of various Chopin works in the first half whetted everyone’s appetite, emphasizing that he was eminently suited to the task of handling a repertoire that challenges the world’s elite class of pianists.
One of the most pleasant encores was his arrangement from the soundtrack of A Fistful of Dollars, the 1964 Western film directed by Sergio Leone and starring Clint Eastwood in his first leading role. The music came from Ennio Morricone and one could not have asked for a better bonus at the end of this splendid concert.
While Bachaeur will return to its concert series in March, the first rounds of the 2024 Bachauer International Artists Competition will take place, beginning today in Hamburg, Germany and continuing in New York City (Dec. 14-16), Hong Kong (Jan. 5 and 7) and Salt Lake City (Jan. 19-20). From the largest pool ever to apply for the comeptition (nearly 350 pianists from 40 countries), 119 were selected for the preliminary rounds, where they will perform 30-minute recitals in one of the four cities listed above. The jury will then whittle the list to 36 finalists who will compete in June 2024 in Salt Lake City. Two weeks of performances will culminate with two evenings of concerto performances with the Utah Symphony. Bachauer also is looking for host families for the competitors. For more information, see the Bachauer website.