Stress, healing, empowerment: The top 10 moments of The Utah Enlightenment in 2020

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INTRODUCTION

One year ago, when The Utah Review presented the 2019 edition of the top 10 moments of the Utah Enlightenment, it was a jubilant representation of Utah’s integral strengths as a community of the arts and the momentum that catapulted Salt Lake City as one of the Intermountain West’s most dynamic centers for creative expression and performance.

As we near 2021, the arts community has had to absorb the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic: doubt, anger, disappointment, pain, stress and fear. It is not out of place to say, in a broad sense, that prior to the pandemic, far too many people often accepted the arts for granted without considering that artists and creative producers deserve more than applause and visibility. If indeed arts are indispensable to a community, then for who those actively participate in it and make it their life’s work, they deserve from the managers of artistic institutions, companies and organizations the fruits of economic justice and the benefits that would be accorded in any profession or line of work, respectful and safe working conditions and dignity to honor their personal commitment to the authenticity of their identity and voice of ideas, principles and ethics. The challenge will be to ensure that all members of our arts community are able to endure dramatic disruptions so that everyone is not vulnerable or teetering precariously without the proper safety net. It also is an opportunity to achieve genuine equity and parity in all forms of creative representation.

Damn These Heels drive-in event, captured by The Academy photographer Nate Christenson.

In 2020, there have been numerous examples of how arts organizations have effectively accommodated stringent measures associated with the pandemic. Filmed productions and streaming events were, of course, prevalent. After postponing the 44th annual Utah Arts Festival to June 2021, organizers quickly switched gears to present artists, selections from its Fear No Film program, authors, and local musicians on a digital platform every Friday during the month when the festival is normally held.

The Utah Film Center moved nearly all elements of the 17th annual queer film festival Damn These Heels online. During the festival, it experimented with a drive-in event that was a sold-out success. Continuing for the remainder of the summer and going well into the fall, the center revived and elevated the drive-in platform, drawing capacity crowds, while adhering strictly to prudent pandemic safety measures. The films were cinephile worthy – featuring classics, recent documentaries including Sundance releases and award-winning animation from the world cinema, among others. These included films that have been nominated for Academy Awards as well as those with Utah ties, such as projects that have received the center’s fiscal sponsorship. The drive-in became an effective practical substitute in the center’s programming, which normally relies on in-person screenings, organized throughout Utah, with talkbacks featuring directors, producers, and other principals involved with a film.

Madazon Can-Can, Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival, 2020.

Adopting a complete virtual format, the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival (GSLF) marked its sixth year with the schedule of 38 shows being viewed more than 5,000 times from 48 states and 25 countries. For the ninth edition of the Rose Exposed, the six resident companies of the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts in downtown Salt Lake City picked a variant of the title of the 1963 hit from The Beatles – I Wanna Hold Your Hand – as their theme for a program of new short works that inspire and amuse audience members to the challenges of touch and intimacy during pandemic times. The film, produced by the local studio of Wonderstone Films, was seen, at least, by more than three times the number of people who would have seen the program live in person if all 500 seats in the theater were sold.

This fall, Salt Lake Acting Company (SLAC) was slated to celebrate formally its 50th anniversary but instead cleverly set a season titled ‘49 ¾,’ which in its first half has included the company’s entry into producing short films in-house (uniformly solid productions); a streaming performance of American Dreams, a play based on the premise of a live online game show and the presentation of Climbing with Tigers, a production filmed four years ago that has been updated with an educational component for young viewers. A Utah premiere of a digital production is slated for February 2021 before the company plans to open up to live performances, tentatively scheduled for the spring, with the world premiere of Elaine Jarvik’s Four Women Talking about the Man under the Sheet (which originally was scheduled for last March).

Plan-B Theatre’s 30th anniversary will be exclusively audio world premiere productions of three plays, featuring work by six Utah playwrights. This fall, Salt Lake City’s Pygmalion Productions gave White Savior, a play by Catherine Filloux, a solid, generous, satisfying world premiere in a virtual performance, directed by Fran Pruyn and filmed by Wonderstone Films.

As for the selection of the top 10 moments of the Utah Enlightenment this year, the selections build on last year’s list, which was described as “fascinating, innovative and collaborative.” To reiterate a point made in the 2017 list, “Plainly, the artistic and creative works placed under the aegis of the Utah Enlightenment do more than the purpose of ‘art for art’s sake.’ They elevate the contemporary experience – with the sum of its tensions, problems, conflicts, disappointments and crises – to an enthralling sensation of healing and empowerment.”

THE TOP 10 MOMENTS OF THE UTAH ENLIGHTENMENT FOR 2020

In recent years, Utah filmmakers and films made in Utah have made a solid showing at the Sundance Film Festival. Among the 2020 entries was The Killing of Two Lovers¸ directed by Robert Machoian, a photography program faculty member at Brigham Young University. It was a superbly crafted, well-acted, beautifully filmed story about how the difficulties of asking for space to sort things out in a marriage are magnified enormously in a town as small as the one the director chose for the film’s production. David is staying at his father’s home while he and Nikki try to figure out if their marriage is salvageable, and anyone easily can see everything going on in the lives of his wife and four kids in the home just down the street. The film premiered in Sundance’s NEXT Category program. With an impressive, understated, elegant choice of mise-en-scène, Machoian gives the viewer the utter irony of the notion of asking for space in a small central Utah town set against an impressive mountain range. The film was supported by the Utah Film Commission.

Robert Machoian, director of The Killing of Two Lovers, an official selection of the NEXT program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Rebecca Graham.

The Utah Film Center Artist Foundry has been an excellent incubator for aspiring Utah filmmakers. Unfortunately, the program suspended its physical operations during the pandemic but the filmmaker residency will resume in a new format at some point in 2021. Last February, the center presented a showcase of short films in a free, public screening in the auditorium of the City Library in downtown Salt Lake City and a standout offering was The Angler, directed by Lucy and Max Nebeker and produced by Connor Rickman. This is the second short film in a trilogy best described as an anthology of mythological or allegorical stories set in the Intermountain West region. Impressive in theme, aesthetics and technical execution, the film is about a wholly obsessed fisherman, which conveys a distinctive macabre sense associated with myth and the moral epiphany integral to a tale being told and handed down over generations. There is no spoken text but the interspersed title cards are a brilliant element suited perfectly for the story in the film. Oscar Jimenez, who also shot Machoian’s  The Killing of Two Lovers, was the cinematographer. The film is part of a Rocky Mountain Mythology Trilogy, which seeks to reposition the lens on how we imagine, interpret and contextualize the storytelling roots of a region in the American West that are more authentic and pertinent than popularized tropes that have cemented specific stereotypes. After a delay due to the pandemic, the Nebekers are set to complete the third short The Dowager about a farmer’s wife in northern Utah who will do anything to stop her dead husband from abandoning her and ascending to heaven. The first short in the series was The Pallbearer, a thrilling rendition of magical realism on the theme of retributive justice, told with the literary heft of a Chaucer tale. The Nebekers also received a Next Level Grant from the Utah Film Commission for The Dowager.

The Angler, directed by Lucy and Max Nebeker.

After all live performances came to a ground stop in March, Plan-B Theatre was the first local performing arts company to premiere a play via streaming of a video of a recorded performance. Nevertheless, in capping a season dedicated to original works by women Utah playwrights about women, The Audacity, written by Jenifer Nii, performed by April Fossen and directed by Jerry Rapier, rose as a pinnacle moment of rare distinction in the Utah Enlightenment. It was a vivid testament to Plan-B’s creative resilience at an unprecedented moment and in her single performance recorded for streaming, Fossen delivered spectacular results. Fossen’s performance was inspired as she portrayed the six characters in this solo work. The play captures an important part of Utah history with one of the characters being Josie Bassett, one of Utah’s most famous pioneer ranchers, and the resonance of her legacy in an intricately crafted story of real-life and fictional characters.

April Fossen, The Audacity, by Jenifer Nii, directed by Jerry Rapier, Plan-B Theatre. Photo Credit: Rick Pollock.

One of the last live performances reviewed before the shutdown last March was the retooled version of a show that premiered last winter: Thank You, Theobromine, by SONDERimmersive. Set in The Chocolate Conspiracy shop, near the corner of 800 South and 300 West, the show immersed its audience members, kept always on the move, in dramatic scenes incorporating dance, theater, music and samples of chocolate. After an eight-week hiatus, the show was set to return in its new form with a new title – The Chocolatier. The retooling succeeded, retaining all of its original fascinating, enigmatic appeal while opening the door wider for audience members (and chocolate consumers) to appreciate a craft where merely explaining or observing the technique and science hardly does justice to the magnificent, passionate, hard-won stories behind its creations. With a cast of seven actors, The Chocolatier amplified dramatically the eco-conscious, methodical, even soft-spoken actualities of the shop’s founder, A. J. Wentworth. Unfortunately, the run had to be canceled just as it was set to open to the public. However, SONDERimmersive’s perseverance this year was an incredible testament to finding ways of bringing live performances in unusual ways while adhering strictly to social distancing measures. There have been two other new shows this year, both of which finally opened after long delays, and they signify this wonderfully resourceful creative enterprise’s capacity for taking risks with satisfying results. They included an interpretation of the fair town of Verona from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, set in a parking garage level at The Gateway, and a set of immersive performance pieces comprising The Carousel, set in the Dreamscapes exhibit, also at The Gateway.

The Chocolatier. SONDERimmersive.

The Utah Film Center’s Damn These Heels Queer Film Festival sported its finest stiletto heels (yes, damn this pandemic!) with an outstanding slate of international films including two Utah produced feature-length documentaries. One was Same-Sex Attracted and the other was Dog Valley, an Avalanche Studios production directed by David Lindsay and produced by Chad Anderson. At its broadest categorization, the documentary is a true crime film about the 1988 murder of Gordon Ray Church, 28, a gay college student from what is now Southern Utah University. The film probes dimensions that compel its viewers not only to acknowledge but also to reconcile the reckonings of Utah’s history as a violent one where the dynamics of frontier justice and the indelibly etched hammering effects of trauma have reverberated for many generations. A documentary of significant historical value, the film synthesizes the story of Church’s life and legacy and the complex path toward grace of judgment and justice. Dog Valley excels in articulating the difficult balance of chronicling the details of a murder so gruesome that the presiding judge at trial sealed the evidence and placed a gag order on reporters while showing that the heartbreaking effects of the trauma have never subsided as both friends of the victim and family members of one of the convicted murderers confront grief, remorse and compassion, respectively. Complex emotions are integral to the film’s context, which touches on numerous issues including hate crime laws and moral questions about the death penalty.

Live performances were a rarity this year but when they occurred, the spirit of the Utah Enlightenment was easily discerned. One of the unlikeliest spots to find a tranquil sense of healing was an underpass below 600 South and 600 West in downtown Salt Lake City. The OuterSpace concert, produced by dance artists Dan Higgins and Haley Johnson, was a triumph of artistic entrepreneurship in a formidable moment. 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 work that truly drove home the theme of this concert was the final one: a sense of quiet, choreographed by jo Blake and performed (in mask) by Kristen Houskeeper. This understated work juxtaposed 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. Blake’s choreography teased out the panoply of complexities in the music by former Sigur Rós band member Kjartan Sveinsson and colleague Ragnar Kjartansson, which opened with a somber hymn and then ever so gradually expanded into a vista that offered a slim, delicate yet obvious note of hope, welcoming us gently to emerge from the darkness of this extraordinarily difficult year.

The setting for The OuterSpace concert, produced by Dan Higgins and Haley Johnson. Photo Credit: Logan Sorenson.

Another memorable live performance came in a magnificent little gem: Cherry Wine in Paper Cups – an intimate outdoor play for socially distant audiences, the latest offering by Sackerson, Utah’s exceptional micro-immersive theatrical company. Staged in one of the loveliest areas of Library Square in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City, on the southeast corner of the plaza, the play was naturally integrated not only to the surroundings of its no-proscenium stage but also with what others might consider incidental details. The play’s timing coordinated beautifully with the setting of the sun, which, of course, came earlier as the autumnal equinox approached. Working with a story of romance and love resonating with details familiar and accessible to its Utah audiences, playwright Morag Shepherd delivered a fabulous script that evoked the right counterpoint of rhythms for the two characters, Taylor and Rain, as well as the narrator, a contemporary version of Eros, who claimed omniscient authority on love and romance as predetermined events.

Shawn Francis Saunders as Taylor and Merry Magee as Rain. Cherry Wine in Paper Cups, written by Morag Shepherd and directed by Dave Mortensen and Claire Stucki. Photo: Dan Evans.

The medium of film afforded unique artistic advantages in Double Take, the film of the historic collaborative season opener for the Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) and Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Professionally produced by Wonderstone Films, the film was a flattering cinematic representation of two internationally known dance institutions based in Salt Lake City with a well-established history as pioneers. The hour-long film included two world premieres, a reprise of a work by two Israeli choreographers and interviews with the respective directors of the companies as well as the four choreographers responsible for the works. RDT presented the world premiere of Justin Bass’s Reset and the reprise of Outdoors, the first half of a 2018 work set by choreographers Noa Zuk and Ohad Fishof. The other world premiere was Autumn Sun, a work set by Daniel Charon, the company’s artistic director, in collaboration with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s six dancers. Truly an expression of cinematic poetry rendered in the company’s unique movement language, Autumn Sun succeeded, augmented exquisitely by the music and soundscape composed by Michael Wall and costumes by Melissa Younker that evoked a fall palette of earthy and muted colors. Most notably, Autumn Sun incorporated video design, enhancing an opportunity to simulate convincingly the representation of the “body’s deepest circuitry of total sensuousness.” The video design element in Autumn Sun resolved a critical problem: dance artist Nicholas Jurica was in quarantine because his wife had tested positive for COVID-19. For his duet with Dominica Greene, Jurica had his performance recorded via Skype during the production filming and projected onto the scrim, while Greene performed on stage. And, as with the other duets in the 18-minute piece, the effects demonstrated how the medium of film could be manipulated effectively. In 25, 50 and 100 years from now, this film will be an important part of Utah history documenting how some arts institutions responded to the pressures of performing in extraordinary circumstances.

Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. 2020-21 season. Photo Credit: Tori Duhaime.

As Torrey House Press (THP) begins its second decade, far exceeding the modest expectations it had when it was founded, the press has continuously ramped up its pace for new releases. Behind The Bears Ears: Exploring the Cultural and Natural Histories of a Sacred Landscape was one of the strongest in 2020. R. E. Burrillo makes a commanding debut in a consistently fascinating distillation of the unrivaled mosaic nature of the land’s history. Burrillo weaves humanizing dimensions — his struggle with Lyme Disease and a personality that echoes with the adventurist Edward Abbey and humorist P. J. O’Rourke — into a serious work of intellectual history. On one level, Burrillo sketches out a path for reconsidering the historiographical approaches in chronicling the legacy of Bears Ears and the implications for archaeological methods and public scholarship. His book is an effective prologue, amply setting the research stakes for this far-reaching cultural and intellectual project. As he explains, “scientific archaeologists and traditionalist Native Americans haven’t had what you’d call a comfortable relationship,” and while things are improving, there is still plenty of room to improve on the qualities of “respectful dialogue, collaboration as equals, and acknowledgment that traditional cultural knowledge is just as important as scientific data in puzzling out the human past.” Readers will be riveted by the historical tour, which highlights just how inadequate the Western conceptual frames have been in explaining what occurred in a land area that enthralls its visitors and supporters with its complex of enigmas and mysteries. What is most fascinating in Burrillo’s book is how the reader is invited to revamp entirely their perceptions about the land on which they live. Bears Ears constitutes a supreme point of convergence for, as he explains, “at least three nomadic peoples—Ute, Paiute and Diné —sometime between 1300 and 1600.” And, at least 25 to 30 Indigenous nations claim ancestral connections to the Bears Ears area. As the prospects grow for restoring the original designations of the Bears Ears National Monument in the forthcoming new presidential administration, Burrillo’s book makes for exceptionally timely reading for those who advocate for and will work to ensure that, this time, the designation is permanent.

Finally, Rising Tide: The Crossroads Project is a transfixing film that signifies the enlightened intertwining of science, social conscience, music and art that strikes the precise, relevant tone for the challenges of human sustainability and the achievement of human vibrancy. Presented by NOVA Chamber Music Series, the film is part of a long-term project involving the Fry Street Quartet, the series co-music directors; Robert Davies, a Utah State University physicist who also explores the dynamics of how science is communicated; composer Laura Kaminsky and artists including Rebecca Allan (painter) and photographers Edward Burtynsky, Garth Lenz and Lu Guang. The 71-minute film was produced and filmed at Utah State University, with Andy Lorimer as director of photography and editor. It enriches the captivating, lucid, personable scientific lecture and presentation by Davies with sections of art and performances by the quartet, including the exceptional music by Kaminsky, along with excerpts from two string quartets, one each by Haydn and Janáček. The six pieces of music give viewers the emotional space to absorb Davies’ words and to contemplate the humanistic dimensions of the circumstances presented in the film. The film also encapsulates an eight-year creative journey for the Rising Tide portion of The Crossroads Project. Every component is indispensable in Rising Tide. Remove one and the entire presentation would risk losing its finely tuned coherence and cohesion. A film like Rising Tide fills a critical gap especially in a news cycle where reports about political scandals, controversy and partisan rancor consistently take precedence over stories about the unique natural splendors in our environment and what humans can offer — note, not sacrifice— toward regaining and maintaining the essential sustainability and vibrancy for our planet to heal, replenish and thrive.

Rising Tide: The Crossroads Project, presented by NOVA Chamber Music Series and Fry Street Quartet.

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