Before the final performance of Municipal Ballet Co.’s “Oh Yeah! A Rock ‘n’ Roll Ballet,” Sarah Longoria, the company’s director, ended her curtain speech by sincerely thanking the uncommonly boisterous and large audience for taking a chance on ballet. The challenge of getting the general public excited about performances is ever present in the minds and conversations of dancers and dance makers, especially those moving in the realm of concert dance. As keepers of an art form often seen as unapproachably insular, we seem to endlessly brainstorm community involvement plans, collaborations, and outreach-based performances with the hope of enticing someone with nothing to do on a Saturday night to venture into a dance space and experience what we hope are interesting, challenging, even fun works of physical and artistic prowess.
Municipal Ballet Co. seems to have discovered the secret to drawing in an enthusiastic audience. When I came to the State Room this past Saturday, the atypical dance venue was filled to the brim with chatty, excited viewers there to see the company’s evening length performance. Sponsored by Craft Lake City, whose influence was apparent in the company’s screen printed posters and t-shirts, the show was a distinctly local venture. Quite literally every element of the evening was danced, choreographed, sung, made, or brewed with a Utah connection. Seven Salt Lake City based dancers performed the choreography of a host of local choreographers to the music of Heber City’s Holy Water Buffalo. This collection of performing artists held rehearsals open to the Salt Lake community at the downtown library. The huge Municipal Ballet Co. sign in the lobby was created by SLC artist Trent Call. The bar was even stocked with beers from Desert Edge Pub in Trolley Square and wines vented by Longoria’s family winery. Their efforts at community involvement were clearly effective. The venue was packed with a diverse mixture of casual balletomanes, Holy Water Buffalo fans, and even a few people who seemed to have wandered into the well-known State Street music venue.
Perhaps the secret to filling all those seats with excited viewers was stepping outside of traditional dance theaters. Despite being designed with musicians in mind, the State Room made an enjoyably intimate dance space. Keeping the practical, undraped stage of a music venue lent the evening a welcoming, casual quality that at times felt more like a house show than a formal performance. Between sections, the dancers occupied an open rest area that mirrored the performance space of the band. Just as you saw the musicians wiping the sweat from their faces and adjusting their instruments between songs, you viewed the intimate backstage moments and transitions usually hidden by black outs and curtains. I found myself drawn to the often missed moments of preparation and rest: the exchange between partners after a pas de deux, one dancer’s charmingly untechnical knock-kneed resting position, or the focused stretching of a dancer steeling herself for an intense solo. I would have appreciated seeing the unusual choice of venue acknowledged beyond the in-between moments and more in the actual dancing. There seemed to be a lack of consideration for the venue’s limitations that, if utilized, could have added interest to the generally conventional use of space.
Maybe the Municipal Ballet Co.’s magic formula for drawing a crowd isn’t performing in a new space but is simply collaborating with a solidly talented rock band. I must confess, I only recognized Holy Water Buffalo from occasional KRCL shout outs, but their youthful charm and impeccable, flowing manes à la Almost Famous easily won me over. The band brought silly stage banter and winning grins in spades. Their charisma was unavoidably engaging. They even got a few eager ladies in the audience to start an impromptu auction for a communal sweat rag, surely a first for a dance concert.
Holy Water Buffalo’s joviality bled into the dancing, adding unabashed fun to choreography that was widely diverse in both style and success. Ranging from classical pas de deux straight out of a partnering class to sock-clad, slippery contemporary movement, “Oh Yeah!” employed a generally classical ballet vocabulary accented by detailed gestural phrases. Much of the choreography didn’t match the live music’s verve, seeming like a loosely connected addition rather than an integral part of the overall performance. There were two bright exceptions, a trio choreographed by Jessica Liu and a duet by Sayoke Knode. Both of these sections took a cue from the music’s spirit and played in a sunny, smooth quality with brilliant, precise movement. As the dancers wove themselves into intricate, sliding partnerships, it seemed as if an elaborate game of Chutes and Ladders was coming to life. Both sections featured Jessica Liu and Brian Nelson, dancers that possessed a vividness and clarity that managed to escape cold correctness. They were delightfully uninhibited and supremely connected to the musicians. Cynthia Jackson also stood out, bringing a relaxed precision and liveliness to all her movements.
Ballet is too often a dance form stereotyped as at best uptight and at worst old-fashioned. As the last of the ten sections began, the lead singer for Holy Water Buffalo jokingly referenced this when he advised the audience, “Be quiet… The dancers are here!” The response of the dancers to the singer’s quip is likely the real secret to Municipal Ballet Co.’s success. All seven, with joyful ease, laughed as they took their starting positions and began to dance.
Mary Lyn Graves is a member of the Ririe Woodbury Dance Company