Two of Salt Lake City’s historically significant dance institutions — Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) and Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company — are concluding this unusual season with new concert films. Both films end on an encouraging note, signaling a hopeful return next fall to their regular performing venue in the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts. Both companies also are saying farewell to dance artists with the close of the season. Notably, this was the first filmed performance for both companies, where the dance artists were seen without masks. Each company followed strict testing and monitoring protocols to ensure all persons involved were safe and healthy.
REPERTORY DANCE THEATRE: HOMAGE
When Jaclyn Brown joined the Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) in 2014, she did not anticipate just how much she would be able to stretch her wings, leaving behind the comfort and safety of her Utah Valley University days as an aspiring dance artist. One of her earliest challenges was learning the technique associated with José Limón, one of the modern masters of the 20th century whose work also is part of the RDT historical repertoire. One of the technique’s signature phrases was fall and recovery, representing the physical extremes in movement. “I struggled with it because I had no experience with it,” Brown says. “I have a Type A personality so I am used to controlling everything. Working with Nina Watt [who has carried forward the technique and work of Limón as well as his mentor Doris Humphrey] was such an uncomfortable transition. I even would have nightmares about it.”
But, Brown says it was a turning point in her maturing as a dance artist in a company where there are so many opposites and counterpoints in the historical and contemporary repertoire. She has grown artistically confident with classical pieces of modern dance, including Limón‘s Suite of Mazurkas (1958) and Doris Humphrey’s Invention (1949). And, her experience with the Limón technique has nurtured her connection to the Gaga movement language, as epitomized in contemporary works developed by Noa Zuk, Ohad Naharin and Danielle Agami and performed by RDT.
Homage, the filmed concert to close RDT’s 55th season produced and edited by Wonderstone Films, features four works created between 1949 and 1959, signifying the artistic roots of a company created to preserve what now encompasses 120 years of modern dance history. Brown also is making her final appearance as an RDT artist after a seven-year tenure. She will live in Orem with her husband, Terry, and daughter, Layla, while Brown pursues a master’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The program is flexible with low residency requirements. Brown also will teach jazz dance classes at UVU.
The works in Homage include Limón‘s Mazurkas and Humphrey’s Invention. Only two companies have rights to include the Humphrey piece in their repertoire; RDT and the Limón Company.
Featured in a short interview introducing the performance of Invention, Watt, who toured nearly three decades with the Limón Dance Company and has been described as “the perfect Limón dancer,” restaged the work for RDT. As previously explained in The Utah Review, Invention is a character study for three dancers (one male, two female). It arises from the male’s point of view and the unique experiences he has had with two women at different stages in his life and how those experiences are synthesized in his memory. Humphrey commissioned music by Norman Lloyd, which is resourceful for how he blends his melodic lines into the rhythms.
Brown is joined by Dan Higgins and Lauren Curley for the performance, which was so effortlessly sculpted and elegant as the trio demonstrated the physical intensity of the movement language crafted by Humphrey and Limón.
Seven company dancers were featured in the solos, duets, trios, and ensemble sections of Limón‘s Mazurkas. Created in 1958, the suite is the choreographer’s interpretation of Chopin’s mazurkas from a century before. Chopin’s music embodied the Polish national spirit and one could see Limón‘s intent to remind artists and audiences that even as Poland was an Iron Curtain satellite state of the Soviet Union, the pride, elegance, vivacity, dignity, valor and lyricism of the music and the dance form of the mazurka will never vanish. The RDT dancers did superb justice to demonstrating how deeply Limón could extract from the music and dance form in their creative interpretation.
Donald McKayle’s Rainbow Round My Shoulder, a 1959 work that is introduced in the Homage film with an excerpt from a documentary interview with the choreographer (who died in 2018), is a fully realized narrative of a Southern chain gang, told from the male point of view. The work features seven male dancers: Higgins, Daniel Do, Jonathan Kim, and Kareem Lewis from RDT, who are joined by former RDT artist Tyler Orcutt and guest artists Brendan Rupp and Austin Hardy. RDT artist Ursula Perry reprises her 2018 performance as the female dancer, who represents freedom, first as a vision then as a remembered sweetheart, mother, and wife. The songs, curated from folk music that Alan Lomax catalogued scrupulously in his work as an ethnomusicologist, accompany their arduous labor, are rich in polyphony and tell a bitter, sardonic and tragic story. Leslie Watanabe, who performed as a soloist with McKayle’s Inner City Repertory Company, reset the work for RDT.
As this was the first filmed concert to feature the dance artists without masks, Rainbow Round My Shoulder is invigorating to watch because we are not just watching the movement but also the performers’ faces and emotions. In the interview clip shown, McKayle recalled how quickly and effortlessly everyone responded to the work when it premiered in 1959, just as the Civil Rights Movement became part of every nightly news broadcast. The same intensity of passion carried through in this latest performance, just as news about the Black Lives Matter movement has become so integral to the contemporary news landscape, along with immigrants being detained in tent cities or the disenfranchisement of citizens subjected to the abuses of private prisons.
The film closes with Castor & Pollux, a work created in the 1950s by Elizabeth Waters, a vaudeville performer-turned-dance artist, teacher and choreographer. Waters, who died in 1993, moved to New Mexico, where she observed and was inspired by the Pueblo tribes’ dance rituals. Prior to moving to the Southwest, Waters had become absorbed with the technique of Hanya Holm, popularly known as one of the Big Four founders of modern dance. The technique emphasizes geometric concepts of planes, space and patterns. RDT first performed the work 50 years ago and its sense of timelessness comes through the incredible music that Harry Partch wrote for it. Partch, sometimes described as the Magellan of sound, built his own instruments for the music, including bells from glass bottles and a customized marimba.
It’s in two sections: the first, Castor and the second, Pollux, each with three duets and then the company ensemble. Simply, it is a magical fertility rite culminating at the end in the miracle of birth. One could not imagine a more apt selection to the end of a season where the original plans were so disrupted and revamped, thanks to the pandemic. In Castor & Pollux, we see total harmonization and all eight dancers in perfect conjunction with each other. It is a hopeful sign for RDT’s 56th season and the promising return of live stage performances.
The 95-minute film is available for streaming, tickets required, through May 23. For more information, see the RDT website.
RIRIE-WOODBURY DANCE COMPANY: CADENCE
One of Bashaun Williams’ earliest memories in his ten-year tenure with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company comes from a tour appearance in France, where the company was presenting work by Alwin Nikolais, one of the 20th century’s most forward-looking choreographers, in honor of the centennial of his birth. The Nikolai technique has been a central element in the company since its founding 57 seasons ago. “Being new, I didn’t realize how much we practiced to do bows,” Williams recalls. “They told me, ‘wait until you see the audience.’ It was a spectacular performance. The theater was sold out. We did eight curtain calls that night.”
As the veteran of the company, in later years, Williams has shepherded the others through the practice of bowing after a performance. This included the company’s spectacular cultural ambassador tour in Mongolia and South Korea. When he joined ten years ago, Williams says that he would not have imagined that he would be with Ririe-Woodbury so long. But, as the pandemic unfolded and other life changes occurred, Williams has decided to leave after this season to prepare for the next chapter as a dance artist, teacher and choreographer. And, of course, to spend time with Fallon and their daughter, Eko, who will soon celebrate her first birthday.
For Cadence, Ririe-Woodbury’s filmed concert to close an unprecedented yet artistically profound season, Williams also counts the highlights of two world premieres — Charles O. Anderson’s Rites and Yin Yue’s In The Moment Somehow Secluded — and the company’s premiere of Andrea Miller’s I can see myself, restaged from the 2010 original titled Pupil Suite. Williams had injured his hip during dress rehearsal but rather than face the prospect of missing his final company performance, he managed to deal with the circumstances based on the lessons of the past decade.
The company also marks the departure of two other artists who are pursuing new paths after two seasons: Dominica Greene and Nicholas Jurica. Greene, who came to Ririe-Woodbury from freelancing as a collaborative artist, says that her tenure has led to fresh discoveries about herself, with the “multiplicities of a 360-degree experience in digesting it through the body, mind and spirit.” In fact, all three departing dancers look fondly about the experience of making the lecture demonstrations for kids as inspiring and fun as possible. Greene plans to stay in Utah for the moment but also looks toward Seattle and New York City for collaborative opportunities. She will continue to work with the Dance Church movement, led by professionally trained dancers and open to non-dancers, who are encouraged to trust their own movement instincts and enjoy the ‘dance party’ at their own pace. The unprecedented pandemic impact has become for Greene a channel to expand beyond the notions of conventional space for creating art and dance. “I plan to slow down and take my time as an artist.”
Like his colleagues, Jurica experienced his own epiphanies about participating in the company’s educational outreach programs, especially about the intertwining and reciprocating effects of being the teacher and the student in cultivating expertise. Among his most memorable performances was his first season opener in 2019, which featured Ann Carlson’s Elizabeth, the dance. “She is a brilliant human being,” Jurica says, “and she reaffirmed that you can have it all.” And, the last concert film earlier this year, Home Run, a uniquely framed documentary performance that included works created by the six dancers, is a highlight for him “It was a kind of magnum opus” reflecting the COVID-19 experience, he explains, not just for its constraints but also for the chance to make creative decisions outside of the boundaries of the conventional live theatrical experience.
Jurica and his wife will move to Beaverton, Oregon, where he will pursue teaching and dancing. “It’s time to reconnect since it has been six years when I lived there and the pandemic made it very obvious how important family was for me,” he adds.
The closing concert film for Ririe-Woodbury’s 57th season is the company’s winner of the year and features some of the best cinematography by Wonderstone Films, relative to recent filmed productions. In Cadence, each work receives a flattering cinematic presentation.
Rites, a world premiere, also is the first work since the pandemic slammed the doors on live performances, in which the guest artist could work in studio with the Ririe-Woodbury dancers. Anderson, who lives and works in Austin, Texas, was on a creative residency, which coincided with the Utah Museum of Fine Arts’ special exhibition Black Refractions: Highlights from the Studio Museum in Harlem.
The filmed performance makes evident just how passionately invested the dancers were in the experience of presenting Rites, an exceptional meta-artistic commentary with precise, concise and incisive political, sociological, cultural and historical threads sewn onto a choreographic canvas enhanced by multimedia elements. The cohesion and cogency of this work are impressive, as every element fell seamlessly into its place.
Prior to the performance, a title card with Anderson’s artistic statement about Rites is displayed long enough for the viewer to read without pushing the pause button on whatever video platform they are using. Anderson’s statement reads: “Drawing upon contemporary African Diasporic movement practices, Rites is a movement meditation inspired by civil rights movements (Black, Woomen, Hispanic, LGBTQIA). It is a ritual to contextualize the pain of marginalization and disenfranchisement — the underbelly of the American Dream. And by contextualize I mean process, experience, imagine, embody and ultimately accept. Ultimately, it is a work about resilience and resistance in the face of ongoing oppression. It is about leveraging individuality in service to collective solidarity.”
The work and performance fulfill this statement to the letter. The dance artists are clad in acolyte white robes, amplifying the significance of the last sentence in Anderson’s statement. The backdrop adds textures with images from historical and contemporary scenes. Their facial expressions and gestures punctuate the context of their movement. Anderson’s curated sound design includes Frank London’s Blessed is The Eternal, an exemplar of New Jewish Renaissance music; Babatunde Olatunji’s Watusi, with its long string of hypnotic drum rhythms, and Leon Bridges’ River, an outstanding song that could have been written as gospel music a century ago but, composed in 2015, it is about Bridges’ own spiritual reckoning during a period of depression and the Baltimore protests after the murder of Freddie Gray. The score includes sound composition by Benjamin Galvan.
The other two works, presented in abridged form for the film, were originally slated to be on the spring concert in 2020. Yin Yue’s world premiere In the Moment Somehow Secluded evokes a cinematic painting, mesmerizing yet in a different visual impact than with Anderson’s Rites. Yin, who directs YY Dance Company, developed the FoCo technique that comprises the expression of five elements (root, wood, water, metal and fire) and three stages (pulse, drop and flow). Indeed, this dazzling work epitomizes this technique, especially as one observes both dancers’ posture and positioning throughout the work. The music includes Rutger Zuydervelt’s (a/k/a Machinefabriek) Wheeler and Session I by Peter Broderick and Machinefabriek, excellent examples of the oscillating moods of electro-acoustic music which defy conventional ambient categorization.
For the closing work, Ririe-Woodbury chose wisely in performing a company premiere, a restaged version of Miller’s 2010 original — a rollicking, witty, tantalizing dance composition to look back at the past year’s struggles and to see encouragement ahead, with deserved satisfaction for managing through the challenges of the last 13 months. I can see myself pops with the music of Balkan Beat Box, an Israeli band, and the dancers are clearly enjoying themselves. Ririe-Woodbury always handles mad cap energy and physical comedy well and the six dancers deliver their personalities with genuine pride and flair (Williams, Greene, Jurica, Fausto Rivera, Corinne Lohner and Megan McCarthy). And, don’t miss McCarthy’s solo, which brings the zany pace to an abrupt halt in the middle, as she struggles to recover her stance after her legs go limp and she contorts herself, only to fall back once again. Oh, to have McCarthy’s flexibility.
The 58-minute film is available for streaming, tickets required, through May 22. For more information, see the Ririe-Woodbury website.