The diverse, multilingual sphere of dance in Salt Lake City succeeds because choreographers and performers continuously take the risks to translate their movement into elucidating expressions that compel audiences to see dance as enhancing how we communicate about the issues, emotions and experiences that affect us.
Introducing Sphere: Phase One, Natosha Washington told the audience that this was the first concert in a series that will explore the spectrum of what the community of dance in Utah offers. The four dance compositions collectively set a benchmark that merits Washington’s objective for continuing this exploration.
An excerpt from Pinot Noir, for example, is like a chapter from an autobiography told in movement, the subjects being Laja Field and Martin Ďurov, the principals of LajaMartin. Resonating with earthy authenticity and their customary breathtaking physicality of movement, the piece invites the audience into the performers’ lives off the stage. Their restless energy never really retreats into the background, even as they settle on the couch, trying to decide what movie to watch or enjoy a glass of pinot noir. A call pops up about an audition or a performance. We discover their fondness for the 1958 cinematic adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
In one scene, Ďurov is reeling in Field, his romantic catch, with a fishing pole. Field met Durov six years ago, when both were full-time performers with Johannes Wieland at Germany’s Staatstheater Kassel, a group known for incredible displays of acrobatic physical movement and their capacity to contort bodies that seem effortless as they redefine the space in which they move. In another, they’re dancing a csárdás . Ďurov, whose formative training was in folk dance, is from a Slovakian town, Veľký Krtíš, which also has ancestral Hungarian roots. By the end of this excerpt, we have a wonderfully detailed grasp of these two exceptional dance artists, who run LajaMartin, a physical dance theater company they established in 2017. With Parno Graszt, Ďurov composed the music for their piece.
The audience also heard snippets of spoken text in an excerpt from Take Us As We Are, featuring a dozen dancers from Weber State University’s Moving Company and choreographed by Joseph “jo” Blake. This was an engrossing composition, rich in symbolism as the dancers moved among, on top and in between tables, which were separated, joined and shifted continuously throughout the work. We often associate the progress of feminist enfranchisement and empowerment in the context of the glass ceiling. However, Blake’s choreography and the use of the table props make the telling of the struggle that much more potent, as the dancers translated effectively the swings in emotion and resolve that eventually lead to the hard-earned joy of overcoming obstacles and triumph, even as we know the work continues.
The snippets of text heard came from familiar voices, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Michelle Obama and Emma Watson, as well as others that should be on everyone’s radar, such as Rupi Kaur, an immigrant from Punjab who is known for finessing the art of instapoetry on social media, and Yusra Amjad, a Pakistani writer who emphasizes that female empowerment should not be universalized just between various cultures but also between two different women. Likewise, the selected music parallels the evolution represented throughout the piece, with excerpts from Ludovico Einaudi, Maria Callas, Lesley Gore, Aretha Franklin and Zoe Keating.
The thematic complexities are handled well in Blake’s choreography, which wisely acknowledges the duty of transcending the notion that art needs to be created for art’s sake and that it can be unapologetic as a political statement. The expression of movement, therefore, is unquestionably political but not prescriptive or dogmatic. There is plenty of space for choices that are emancipating and allow both males and females to defy patriarchal-oriented stereotypes. The work is an excellent artistic expression honoring the centennial of one of the most important developments in the women’s suffrage movement.
Blake followed up the performance with a poignant solo in only he might know?, a piece that expresses the tensions and challenges of freeing oneself from the constricting conventions of masculinity. In the opening, he is seated on a bench, his back facing to the audience – a sight that reminds of being in a locker room, where gazes and any gesture suggesting something other than conventional masculinity can be scrutinized vigorously and confronted. Initially, the movement is tight, rigid, scrupulously controlled, as Blake stays within a strictly defined plane and space of movement. Once he stands, the movement morphs from hesitant short, sharp textures to more fluid expressions, as the artist gradually expands the space for the dance. Slowly but steadily, Blake reconfigures the space, tossing aside the boundaries, revealing a more authentic self that strives to overcome the harassing imposition of discredited standards that never really communicated one’s potential for inner strength. Featuring music by Max Richter, the solo premiered in Seattle’s Men in Dance Festival.
Closing out the concert, Pluck, choreographed by Washington and artists with The Penguin Lady Dance Collective, is an excellent companion piece to Blake’s Take Us As We Are. Washington’s choreography animates nonverbal gestures and eye contact as significantly as body movement on the stage. Pluck offers a narrative that reclaims the symbol of the apple from the traditional interpretation of the curse of the human fall in the Garden of Eden.
The costumes reinforce the women as the authoritative, legitimate interpreters, rehabilitating an ancient narrative that had been defined exclusively from the male perspective. The act of biting into the apple affirms the free, fully conscious choice that Eve took and should be celebrated, not denigrated. The liberating act underscores the resilient bonds of sisterhood that thrive. The takeaway is to comprehend that the real temptation is the attitude of bitterness, which threatens the human soul, not Eve’s personal and conscious choice.
Amplifying the thematic progression perfectly, Washington’s musical selections, edited by Trevor Prince, included Big City Orchestra, Double Negative, Olafur Arnalds and Alice Sarah Ott, Frederico Albanese, Violence and Divinity and AVA Waves.