Repertory Dance Theater’s production of “Land” presents four pieces focused on and dedicated to the western landscape. It is intended to advocate for the preservation of Utah’s natural geography and is “part of RDT’s commitment to exploring, defining, and honoring our western landscape” says Linda Smith, executive and artistic director of the company. RDT has fulfilled a vital role as the physical embodiment of historical works by innovative originators of modern dance like Isadora Duncan and Doris Humphrey, and more recent choreographers like Merce Cunningham and Anna Sokolow. Dance is a living art form that is difficult to preserve in the same way that a static, tangible piece of artwork is preserved. The company is comprised of strong, intelligent performers whose versatility is invaluable for a group whose repertoire is so varied. The works presented in this particular show, however, left me dissatisfied with the very literal ways in which the idea of land was represented and honored, despite the skill with which they were executed.
The first piece, “Desert Sea”, was choreographed by Molissa Fenley, a dance faculty member of Mills College. It began as all nine dancers formed a symmetrical set of poses, some with arms in a half-box shape and others balanced on one leg, the other jutting out in arabesque. The program notes say that Fenley was inspired by the culture and history of native people living in the Colorado Plateau, and that she used the surrounding geography and the geometric designs of this culture’s woven blankets to create the piece. The angular movement abstracted and dehumanized the dancers effectively to demonstrate their connectivity as one landmass. The movement vocabulary was also very comparable to what one would encounter in a westernized yoga class. Phrases involving leg lifts and arms at right angles were repeated almost endlessly, but didn’t outwardly achieve any of the sort of dynamic or energetic evolution that is so satisfying to see in repeated movement. The meter stayed consistent as did the effort put into moving— of which this lengthy piece required a lot. The work would probably be more satisfying to execute as a dancer than it was to watch. The relationships between the performers remained static— in general, the work lacked arc. “Desert Sea” seemed primarily an investigation of abstract shapes and poses, and could have been more engaging had it not exhausted this idea so soon and gone on for such a long time.
The second piece was created by Zvi Gotheiner, an Israeli choreographer who spent his formative years dancing in New York City (the site of many artists’ rite of passage into the creative “world”). His piece was titled “Erosion” and was similar to “Desert Sea” in that the dancers represented omnipresent aspects of land commonly encountered in Utah. The work began with a red, backlit cyclorama silhouetting the company, who were posed as if they were petroglyphs. When the lights finally illuminated the fronts of their bodies, they began a procession of different poses downstage with a sensual hip-swinging movement that made it look like the petroglyphs were shaking off sand from the stone from which they were excavating themselves. This piece was similar to what a written treatise on its subject would have been, in that it was filled with very formal and systematic representations of the land. The dancers pulled on elastic bands coming from stage right that looked like layers of the Earth. One gesture that was alarming for its randomness in the formal, stoic nature of the piece occurred near the end where the dancers stretched their own mouths on either side with their pointer fingers. It was an intriguing image, but it seemed out of place and underdeveloped as it was introduced near the end for maybe twenty seconds and then never referenced again.
Another component that should be mentioned is the show’s use of projections. In Gotheiner’s piece there was a series of images of slot canyons and other geologic formations found in Southern Utah scrolling through slide-show style. They made the piece, made in 1993, look tremendously dated. The integrity of Gotheiner’s work lies in the physical dance, not the media embellishing it, which did not relate to the movement other than in that the slides seemed to be solely for the purpose of showing the audience that the dancers were emerging from rock. Each slide appeared for the same amount of time and the images were smaller than the backdrop, making the projections seem like a presentation intended to display someone’s vacation rather than a necessary part of the dance.
The projections in the next piece, however, were a bit more integral to creating the forest that Ze’eva Cohen envisioned. They filled the stage, making them look less foreign than the projections in the former piece. Cohen’s “Rainwood” originally premiered in 1977. It too embodied the characteristic aesthetic ideals of its time–– tie-dyed unitards and bright colors— but here, these components related to each other well. Physically speaking, the dance was another exploration in abstracting the human performers in order to achieve an accurate representation of a natural element— in this case that element was the flora and fauna of a forest. The dancers had an innate ability to personify the collage of tree frogs and fluttering leaves that Cohen pieced together. There was also a ritualistic sense to the piece, beginning with the dancers revving up the movement in a circle and then expanding from there. “Rainwood” is an anomaly within Cohen’s other work, which investigates a vast array of human emotions and states of being; for a time she primarily worked on solos for herself and did not use large groups of people as she did with this piece.
The last piece in the show is “Turf”, choreographed by Daniel Shapiro and Joanie Smith, who have collaboratively created work since 1987. This piece ended the show in an overtly comical way, eliciting a few laughs from the audience in response to the dancers’ obvious intent to be funny while doing things like running in slow motion and playfully pushing each other out of the spotlight to gain attention for themselves. The piece began combatively, even incorporating a few “booty bumps” as a means of “dance-fighting.” “Turf” eventually evolved into a more introspective, personal investigation. A pair of males, then a pair of females, partnered to slightly melancholy music. It was an energetic, humanizing end-to-the-show, because of it’s almost overly presentational nature.
“Land” as a whole, was homogenous in it’s often literal representations of various environments. Perhaps this is the nature of environmentally-based pieces; the land speaks for itself already and does not need an artistic interpretation. However, I do not think that environmentally engaged pieces should be limited to true-life representations against a backdrop of photos of what they’re trying to emulate. The breathtaking scenes in southern Utah can initiate a dance piece, originating with that first gasp and then going anywhere from there. Dance can speak for itself upon being inspired by nature and does not need to attempt to be nature. Nevertheless, I commend RDT and its collaborators for a heartfelt tribute to the land that we live on.
Emma Wilson is an undergraduate in Modern Dance at the University of Utah. She recently performed for Meghan Durham Wall in PDC. She is also an intern at loveDANCEmore.