Never one to shy away from risk: Repertory Dance Theatre’s newest twist in Regalia: So You Think You Can Choreograph

In its 58 years, Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) has never shied away from taking risks on stage. Likewise, RDT has embraced risks for its annual fundraiser in ways that few dance companies would dare attempt. In 2006, Charette was launched, in which guest dancers from the community worked with a choreographer to set a movement piece within one hour. Emboldened by Charette’s popularity, RDT took a cue from the popular Iron Chef television competition for its own version where guest choreographers were prompted to set a piece with “secret ingredients” of dance artistry and music. In 2016, for its 50th anniversary, RDT recast the fundraiser as Regalia, where four choreographers had four hours to create their own short dance composition. Audience members voted with their wallets to select which choreographer would win a commission for a full premiere in the next RDT season.

In 2024, RDT has opened the doors to the community for its newest version of Regalia — So You Think You Can Choreograph. Making their debut as choreographers will be a local restaurateur, a worker’s compensation and disability attorney, a retired radiologist who has attended RDT events for more than 50 years, a teacher who leads classes for refugees and their families resettling in the area, and a University of Utah academic program coordinator. Regalia will be held March 2, beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts. 

Linda Smith, RDT co-founder who also is artistic and executive director, said that while every edition has been a success for its biggest annual fundraiser, it is always on their minds to keep it fresh. But, Regalia also has been about showcasing not just what audience members have come to expect from the productions staged every season but also about its statewide Arts-in-Education programs; the RDT Dance Center on Broadway which offers classes and workshops on every imaginable form of dance, and a major foundation of community projects that frame dance as a lifetime activity, which anyone, regardless of age, dance experience or ability, can pursue. 

Nicholas Cendese, RDT artistic associate, said the company “always is evaluating how we can do things better for Regalia.” As for this year’s turn to the community for choreographers, Cendese added that preparing for this year’s Regalia “is more than what we anticipated,” but that it also “has reminded us, as dance professionals, the many things that we sometimes have taken for granted,” especially as choreographers and dancers strive to make the creative process comprehensible and elucidating for audiences. Smith adds that as an elaborate lecture demonstration, Regalia does a lot to demystify dance and make audiences feel more comfortable about engaging with a performing art form that really encourages individuals to discover their own connection with new choreographic expressions.

Prudently so, Smith and Cendese decided not to leave the quintet of new choreographers to their own means and devices in an artistic wilderness but they saw instead an opportunity for them to experience first-hand what can actually happen in the creative process for setting a dance piece. Each choreographer also was tasked to raise $2,000 to support RDT programs. They took a course in the process of choreography which Cendese led and each has been paired with a mentor from the professional dance world to prepare them for the March 2 event. 

Alexander Cendese.

In addition to Cendese, the other mentors are Jacque Lynn Bell, a University of Utah department of theater faculty member who has an extensive international portfolio as a choreographer and performer; Sarah Donohue, associate chair and associate professor of dance at Utah Valley University and a faculty member with Integrated Movement Studies; Elle Johansen, a former RDT dance artist who also is a certified teacher in Progressing Ballet Technique and a realtor, and Nathan Shaw, a former RDT dancer who also has been performing with SB Dance for more than a decade and is director of admissions and activities at Judge Memorial High School.  

Unlike previous Regalia events, there will be no commission winner but there will be a panel of judges to offer constructive insights and make awards. The evening’s hosts will be Alexander Cendese, American/Canadian film and television actor, writer and producer who is a Salt Lake City native and has appeared both on Broadway and Off, along with narrating nearly 700 audio books, and Gabrielle Miller, an actor widely recognized for her lead roles on two of Canada’s most successful series: the runaway hit CTV series Corner Gas, which inspired a feature film in 2014, as well as an animated series, and the critically acclaimed series Robson Arms.

Regalia audience members are invited to arrive as early as 6:30 p.m. go to peruse auction items and register to bid, which will be available throughout the evening. At 7 p.m., audience members will be directed to the Jeanné Wagner Theatre for a short introduction to the guest choreographers and the process they followed. A cocktail reception with drinks and appetizers provided by Utah Food Services will be held in the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts lobby between 7:20 p.m. and 8:20 p.m., when audience members are directed to the theatre for the performances. Audience members also will have opportunities to donate to RDT programs. The evening will conclude with a dessert reception on stage where audience members can meet the choreographers and dancers. Tickets are available at the RDT website.

Gabrielle Miller.

If there was one individual who could be credited for the spark that led to this year’s Regalia format, it would be Dr. Richard Jaffe, a retired radiologist who has attended RDT programs since the early 1970s and served as board chair of the company. Smith said that Jaffe once mentioned that “as many shows as he had seen, he could choreograph a piece.” The prospect intrigued Smith, Cendese and colleague Lynne Larson, along with the other RDT staff. Incidentally, Jaffe is one of the five individuals making their debut as a choreographer. 

Amplifying a point that readers will note below, in this preview, Cendese said the group quickly realized just how extensive the steps are involved in building a dance. For example, “they quickly learned to break away from the idea of creating dance as pantomime,” he added. 

The Utah Review asked each of the guest choreographers about their experiences in preparing for Regalia. No doubt: Their responses will hearten professional dance artists and teachers, for their fresh appreciation of the choreographic process.  


Richard Jaffe,

A retired radiologist at Primary Children’s Hospital, Dr. Richard Jaffe has attended RDT shows for a large part of the company’s history and evens earned as board chair. “I have enjoyed almost all forms of dance for over 70 years, particularly ballet and modern dance.  During the 51 years of attending RDT performances, I recall specific dances and dance movements that resonated strongly with me,” he explained. “When the opportunity arose to choreograph a number with RDT, I envisioned using certain dance music of my youth, rock ‘n’ roll, and combining them with modern dance movements, yet retaining some elements of the original rock ‘n’ roll dance. Never having any opportunity to choreograph any movement pieces, I thought this was a wonderful way to challenge myself, certainly out of my realm of comfort.

Likewise, preparing mentally for the challenge came easily for him: “This was not difficult for me as I was able to quickly identify iconic rock and roll music that would lend itself well to modern dance movements.” He added, “I formulated a plan over several weeks, that I brought forward to RDT associates.  They then worked with me to refine this vision.”

Cendese serve as mentor for Jaffe, whose work was created in advance with the RDT dancers because of a prior schedule obligation. “This was the most difficult part for me expressing my vision in language that the my mentor and dancers could understand,” Jaffe noted. “As I did not know specific dance movement terminology or labanotation, it took my mentor to translate my vision to the dancers in terms they understood.  During rehearsal my mentor served as the bridge between me and the dancers to refine my vision.”

Jaffe summarized the revealing epiphany he had in creating the work. “I have always appreciated the professionalism in any art performance, be they actors, musicians, dancers, etc.,” he said. “In choreographing this dance I became aware of the large time commitment for such a production: One hour of setting the dance and rehearsal for one minute of stage time.  I never knew the large time commitment as it related to dance performances.”

Eddee Johansen.

The owner of Yoshi’s Japanese Grill in Murray and self-described “Professional Dance Snob,” Eddee Johansen is direct in talking about the motivation to join Regalia this year: “I love art. I love to paint. I love creating.:If I was able to sing or play an instrument maybe I could say the same about music.:The opportunity to create something in a medium I’ve never explored excites me.” He added,  “Also, I’m apparently a dance snob (Elle’s words; Johansen, a former RDT dancer who is one of the mentors).  Time put my money where my mouth is 🙃. I hope to not be that restaurant critic that can’t cook.”

Johansen said he has become obsessed with listening to music that might be ideal for choreography. “I’m not sure what exactly that means but I’ve been trying to get in a head space thats creative and open so when the day comes I can use the talent of the dancers and Nathan (Shaw, one of the mentors) to move the audience.” Music has always been his starter with painting and drawing: “Turn on the tunes, think about color and then find that thing in me that needs to be heard. Some kind of emotional outcry of sorts. I love abstract expressionism.” 

Johansen added that he has been thrilled with working as Shaw as a mentor: “I was so happy how Nathan was really listening to me and how he moved on my ideas.  So rad!  I’m sure it’s a part of the process but it’s cool to be a part of.” From the vantage of the observer. Johansen noted,  “I look at a performance or maybe even a piece of artwork and reflect how it makes me feel and where my thoughts drift.  I try to take from the ‘art’ what I think it gives me and less what the choreographers might be trying to convey.   Moving forward I want to be more in touch with the other side.  There’s definitely more there and and should be open to it. I want the audience to be moved by the story we are trying to tell and be open to receiving it.”

Loren Lambert

A worker’s compensation and disability attorney for the past 3years: Loren Lambert explained how it made total sense to enlist for Regalia: “I love dance, I love dancers, I married a dancer, I’ve attended a lot of dance performances. My daughter was a dancer and I loved going to her concerts when she was in high school. He added that he always has been involved with competitive and artistic movement, including wrestling, karate, climbing, kayaking, musical theater, ballroom, ballet, modern, jazz, etc. “But I have never focused on dance. I’ve had an idea for a dance kicking around in my head for a couple of years and saw this as an opportunity to bring this from my concept to the stage,” he said, adding that he has participated in RDT’s prime movement class and a couple of performances through that class, as well as attending many RDT productions.”

As for the challenge of setting a short dance piece within the space of just four hours, Lambert said, “I will prepare as much as I’m able beforehand by graphing the movement of the dancers in the space, designing some movement and movement sequences, finalizing the music and then working with the dancers in crafting the final number.”

Lambert said his creative interests are broad: “I write, act, film make and dance and am highly in tune with all internal and external stimuli and all the beauty and turmoil on earth. What I see, feel and experience causes me to desire to expand that beauty and express what I feel will lessen life’s turmoil.” He added that working with a mentor has emphasized how artistic expression can be a collaboration. As for the impact of the experience upon him as an audience member whenever he attends performances in the future, he said, “We are all on the brink of genius yet at the edge of disaster. It is often only as a team that we are able to reach our potential and steer clear of the edges over which monsters lie. Also, when the uninitiated attempt what others make look so easy, we of course come to appreciate it all the more.” 

Lorie O’Toole

Lorie O’Toole, who teaches family and parenting classes to refugees and immigrants as they reestablish themselves in Utah, said that she has worked with children for many years in dance, but has never choreographed a piece for adults. “This dance piece has been on paper for over six years,” she explained. “I started sketching the movement on paper after a life-or-death surgery. When RDT reached out with this opportunity to choreograph, I knew I needed to try.”

As for preparing for the events of Regalia, she noted, “Once you start putting the music and movement together you mentally cannot stop thinking about this project. So, preparing mentally is happening every day.  Now, it is the execution.” As for her own creative process and what motivates her, O’Toole said, “The gratitude I have for our bodies. Seeing a child play in a puddle, a person who cannot walk very well taking a walk, a mother swinging her child, a dog playing with a child.  The world around us motivates me.”

As for her biggest epiphany about the process so far, she said. “For this particular experience, I would say breaking my piece down. We have been given a maximum of five minutes for our performance piece.  Breaking down ideas, concepts and movement to fit into this time frame has been the greatest task for me.” As for how th experience has shaped her perspective as an audience member, O’Toole added, “Just appreciation. Some pieces may hit us differently than others, but appreciation for the effort that an artist took to place their art into the world blesses us.”

Abbie St. Vaughan

While she grew up dancing, Abbie St. Vaughan, an academic program coordinator at The University of Utah, said “I have choreographed before in college and a little bit afterwards and have always loved it. I have danced for many years, but choreography was always particularly challenging for me, which is what makes it exciting.” She was motivated to enter this year’s Regalia when she learned that it was tailored for non-professionals. “I haven’t been able to keep dance in my life in an active way for a few years, and it seemed like such a unique challenge, I didn’t want to pass it up!,” she added.

As for preparing for Regalia, she noted, “I’ve noticed my mind has been shifting between ‘oh my god, this day is rapidly approaching and I haven’t even worked with any dancers yet’ to ‘I’m okay. I’ve been given all the tools to prepare and have been planning and generating ideas. I’ll be great.’”  She added, “I just have to trust the process, trust myself that I’m prepared with my ideas, and trust the amazing dancers who will take my ideas and run with them.

As for what motivates her in her creative process, St. Vaughan explained, “Usually, it’s the thrill at wondering what the finished product will look like. I get excited at imagining what all of the ideas will eventually consolidate into, and getting to share that with people who want to see it.” She added that music “is huge for getting me started in generating choreography.”  

Working with a mentor and other professionals, she said that she is awed by the way “professional dancers and choreographers carry their experience in their body, in general. Their proficiency shows with everything they do.” She added that she admires how they can respond so quickly in the moment.  “It’s a nice reminder that ideas don’t have to be perfect or fully fleshed out before being shared – we can just try them out without any judgments or expectations. It’s significant to see a choreographer practice this in real time,” she explained. 

St. Vaughan’s responses also emphasize how Regalia is set as a hugely entertaining lecture demonstration. “A 2-minute piece could take hours, days, weeks to create. When I watch dance performances, especially modern or contemporary pieces, I am wondering what it was like for the dancers to learn or help create this, or what the choreographer may have been thinking or what might have influenced them at the time,” she explained. “I also appreciate that an idea in my head, or even when developed and performed, could be interpreted drastically differently to any individual audience member than I expect; I don’t have any control over how people react or what they do or don’t take away from the performance. I appreciate the effort it takes to let that be, not only okay, but one of the things that makes sharing art so wonderful.”

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