Two recent premieres of works by young Utah artists demonstrate their skills in developing as creative entrepreneurs in the community. Reviews of both are presented.
Will The Sheep Come to Be Cleaned – Dat Nguyen
In his most recent work Will The Sheep Come to Be Cleaned, Choreographer Dat Nguyen riffs off a metaphor that was part of The Ballad of Emotional Incompetence, a dance composition he premiered at last summer’s Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival.
In the earlier work, as The Utah Review mentioned at the time, the tone encompassed coldness, distance, aloofness and disembodiment. The dancers simulated a flock of sheep at several points, a movement found in the latest work.
His latest piece extends an intriguing reflection about Nguyen’s life as an immigrant and experiences as an artist who graduated from Sam Houston State University’s dance program which is one of the nation’s best known for incorporating technology and visual elements. From Vietnam and now living in Salt Lake City, Nguyen sets up a rich expression that uncovers his biographical canopy about the joys, passions, disappointments and challenges in his life. The notion of ‘clean’ can be an insult. Should a newcomer be purified of his roots in order to assimilate into his new home?
Nguyen shakes things up nicely, commanding even those audience members who think they are progressive and enlightened sufficiently to realize that many artists might prefer playing it safe in Utah’s peculiar culture of sanctioned perfectionism. As in his earlier piece, Will The Sheep Come to Be Cleaned is infused with sexual energy and tension. Nguyen is the only male dancer for the piece but he generously features his accompanying ensemble in solo and ensemble sections. They include Natalie Gotter, Eliza Kitchens, Nora Lang, Emma Sargent and Emma Wilson.
The rapidly paced work opens with a cabaret and each movement that follows reinforces a collage effect and the audience is surprised consistently by the abrupt switch in tone and character between sections. At one point, the audience is fooled successfully into thinking the piece has ended when the dancers line up to applause as they take bows.
Overall, Will The Sheep Come to Be Cleaned features more movement precision, thematic clarity and integration of extra elements of music, spoken text and props than the Fringe piece. In his program notes, Nguyen writes quite appropriately, “it’s like a volatile battlefield made of surreal multidimensional structures that can only be navigated from the soul.”
His artistic candor invigorates the whole-body dance movement vocabulary while offering up clear indicators. In one instance, a dancer stands in the center at the front of the stage silently mouthing the oration while her peers move about behind. There is a snippet where we hear “Gaga” and “Ohad Naharin” mentioned and a comment about the idea of teaching that movement language does not belong here. Naharin, an Israeli choreographer, is credited with creating the Gaga movement language that suits the story-telling aspects of dance. While there may be dark, pessimistic moments, Nguyen effectively sets the piece as a tableau of taking the tensions and resistance a newcomer to an artistic community experiences and articulating an honest voice that leads to joyful and gratifying moments.
There are a lot of playful, alluring elements and the dancers effectively interpret the conceptual goals of Nguyen’s work with sharp self-awareness. The music is as much a collage as any other aspect of the work. We hear ABBA, Charlotte Church, Christina Aguilera, Frankie Reyes and Rene Aubry. And, we hear Jun Mikaye, the Japanese composer whose music was featured in the Academy Award winning documentary Pina (2011) about the German choreographer Pina Bausch. She died during the film’s development but director Wim Wenders pursued the project with the approval of the dance artists from her company. Bausch’s works were exhilarating spectacles of dance theater.
Every choreographer aspires to create work that defies the temporal nature of dance and preserves the movement diction and syntax of their compositions. Nguyen is a young, ambitious choreographer and creative entrepreneur. The founder of MotionVivid, he raised funds and obtained a grant to set and create this latest piece just three months after his Fringe composition premiere. There is much promise in his expressive capacities and unquestionably he raised the bar of quality between the two works that have been created within a short time. It will be well worth watching his development.
The Wreath – Shawn Francis Saunders and Alexander Woods
Independent filmmaking in Utah has earnestly stretched its wings recently, thanks in part to various incentives including the Utah Film Center’s Artist Foundry, which formerly was the Avrec Art House.
Debuting after nearly one year’s work, The Wreath, written and directed by Shawn Francis Saunders and Alexander Woods, is a highly promising example of the potential for narrative features, a genre that has been somewhat difficult to pinpoint for quality in Utah-made films. This short film, running approximately 25 minutes, is a surreal tale that encourages a good bit of open-ended interpretation and takeaway for the audience.
Saunders and Woods have crafted an intelligent, sophisticated narrative leavened with a nuanced touch of gentle but quite dark wit that rings with the solid humanistic elements of many Twilight Zone episodes. Genji, the main character (played by Morgan Gunter) feels trapped in what he sees as a dead-end monotonous job he has done for more than 10 years. He cannot understand why others in his workplace do not share his desperate yearning to escape the soul-draining ennui. Each day, Steve, a colleague (Tyler Harris), who says he loves his assignment, looks forward to the break at noon, and seems oblivious to the man’s dire words. Genji dreads the entrenched ennui of his daily shift – the hours between noon and 5 p.m. are frozen in an excruciating repetition that apparently he only senses.
At the heart of this narrative is a candy bar, a daily treat his colleagues anticipate and enjoy. While Genji wants that bar, he fails repeatedly to obtain on his own means. His colleague gives him a bar but he never eats it and instead tosses it daily into a top desk drawer. When Ayla (played by Haeleigh Royall) enters the story, she gradually leads him to discover what really is the source of his existential conflict.
The film’s introspective tone is underscored by a minimal script (in the talk-back after the premiere screening, we learn that it was only 12 pages which is roughly half of what might be considered for the film’s length). But, it is a smart decision because many other elements take on an instrumental role in foreshadowing the story’s development. The cast adds realistic depth in presenting credible characters and the visuals (which includes footage shot in Salt Lake City and in the Pacific Northwest) are potent markers in the narrative. The cloying saccharine song The Candy Man from the early 1970s is presented at various points as a counterpoint and in this context this pop culture confection seems creepier, even more sinister than it originally intended innocent message intended for children. However, the film’s sound score, composed by Kevin Hartley, is as appropriately sophisticated and intelligent as every other element in The Wreath.
And, kudos to the filmmakers for leveraging every bit of a $5,000 production budget to make a film solid in every essential aspect. Saunders and Woods recently formed Kimble Production Company and will now submit their project to film festivals for consideration. It might be worthwhile to tighten up the film in spots to bring the length into a range where festival programmers would find it easier to slot into screening schedules. The ideal length for short films sometimes is a tricky issue. At recent Sundance Festivals, the average length of short films was 12 minutes but longer entries are paired with those of shorter lengths in block screenings that typically run 90 minutes. The good news is The Wreath has many strong elements that could sway festival programmers to consider slotting in the time that typically would be taken by a second short film. However, the length is worth some pruning to consolidate the prospects for a film with excellent promise.