Two SaltDanceFest Reviews

What Just Happened?

A review of the Guest Artist Concert Series for SaltDanceFest 2011

There are lots of new performers in town right now, as part of the University of Utah’s SaltDanceFest, a first annual for the Department of Modern Dance. It is wonderful. I hope it comes back next year. The artists (three sets of married couples!) are teaching masterful classes for a wide variety of local and from-afar participants. This past weekend, each couple presented work in the Concert Series at the Marriott Center for Dance.

Sign of the Sparrow, performed Friday night by esteemed improvisers Chris Aiken and Angie Hauser, may be a harbinger of things to come, but only if nothing much is coming. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Aiken and Hauser are poised and quietly graceful, and if they do not bring fireworks then perhaps explosions are not the point. I was never nervous for them, which speaks to their palpable confidence, though I did suffer in moments of lift-off which never quite managed to soar. Throughout the 50 minute improvisational evening, which they shared with a musical collaborator, the fabulous Jesse Manno, the dancers walked, they stood, they looked, they sat, they left and they came back. With finesse, they probed the thing that they were making, and with measured glances they probed us as well. Perhaps they did not find what they were looking for. In the end, I felt that the greatest risk they took was to arrive. Sometimes that’s enough.

Eiko & Koma opened Saturday evening with Duet, premiered in 2004. Time stood still. A window was opened. I was reminded of grandparents, fishing villages, and crumpled tissues on the floor by the couch. The performers, with their fierceness and their fragility, threatened to expose every part of a love story that you don’t want to see. When she bowed forward, I waited a year for Eiko’s rough hair to finally drop towards the floor. She breathed, and I saw every bone and sinew in her back pull taut. How much of the power of this duo rests upon her proud shoulders, although she is skinny as a plucked chicken and seems ready to blow away in the dust?

Duet was 20 minutes long, and I just barely had enough time to think all the things that I wanted to think about it. It is incredible that their characteristically glacial timing could hold so much suspense. In the last moment, finally the two are together, and they begin to recline backwards towards the floor. Their faces drop out of sight, like the sun setting behind a hill, making us wait for the end like a lingering twilight on a long evening in summer.

The final couple, Teri and Oliver Steele, take the stage with their formidable dancers in Still Waters Run, which was premiered in 2002. It starts in quiet, but the flouncy yellow dress gives us a hint of the coming rumpus. There will be rap music, a trampoline, and lots of smeared lipstick, but the strongest moments are in the beginning between these two veteran performers. The delicacy of an articulated foot, and an expertly paired counterpoint phrase give us a sense of the quality in the Steele partnership. This promise is not often fulfilled by the deluge of dancing to come. The younger dancers, though sweaty, are not quite vibrant. Everyone seems to be in a different piece, and when the piece hangs on group theatrics, the humor falls flat. Everywhere there are three dance moves when one would do. Occasionally, the speed and strength result in a stirring momentum. There is some tricky work with some lyrics which happen to be from my favorite song from 1991. It’s clever, but when the catchy riff comes on, shouldn’t something happen?

Kitty Sailer in a M.F.A. candidate at the University of Utah


The first annual SaltDanceFest has so far been a surprisingly rich experience. The coupled artists including Chris Aiken & Angie Hauser, Eiko & Koma, and Teri & Oliver Steele all bring unique talents and artistic views on movement, dance, and performance. It is a treat to be able to stay in Utah for the summer and have such notable artists come to the Marriot Center for Dance. The festival is small and intimate, which has allowed more space and time to interact and cultivate deeper relationships with visiting participants, artists, as well as with my own research. In particular I am savoring the afternoon performance improvisation intensive class from Aiken and Hauser titled, What Just Happened? Piggybacking the classes the festival included two evenings of performances sharing the work of the featured artists.

Performance improvisation is a fragile act—a vulnerable endeavor. I can’t help but think of this reality as I’m viewing the piece Sign of the Sparrow by Chris Aiken and Angie Hauser. What is “good” performance improvisation and how do we look at it as audience members when it straddles the ravine between the known and the unknown?  Aiken and Hauser both seasoned performers in dance improvisation previewed a workshop of a piece that highlighted the complexity of their field. Admittedly, I feel torn by my respect for them inside the workshop and having a soft heart for the bravery required to do their work, but still have to say I found myself absent from the specific content/product of the show. Maybe it was the wall and the formality created by the proscenium stage? Instead I was drawn in by my own interest in the technicalities of the process. Would I have looked at the dance differently if I didn’t know it was improvised?

The duet is a project inspired by visual artist Joseph Cornell, featuring live music by Jesse Manno, a short textured film, and 60 minutes of what they claim to be 99% un-scored improvised movement. Due to my heightened state of awareness of choice making during the performance I felt engaged by the shifting landscapes on stage and hoping for new information. What is going to happen next? They share the stage with intimate gestures and the soft catching of limbs or body parts, as if it is a translucent appearance of their off stage relationship. Manno’s vocal undulations along with his accordion accompaniment are bold, brilliant and swell the empty space while occasional shadow boxes appear for the dancers to enter.  Their silhouettes adjust from small to big adding an element of spatial perspective taking.

At once their vibrating arms synchronize while they face upstage to reveal the video, which appears to be grains of salt slowly descending. The tension of many moments were built, but lost. I could barely latch on to the substance or communication of the movement then the next impromptu lighting cue would send the dancers into a new direction.

I do have to say it is refreshing to watch improvisation where I don’t cringe or feel nervous for the performers. Both Angie and Chris can hold their own. Aiken bounds his small-framed body into many effortless inversions, while Hauser is enticing with her occasional outward gaze, confidence and easeful flowing joints. The most powerful image was her solo downstage. Her white draped costume glowed blue like a sylph as she glided across the space; light, peaceful, and calm. The physical contact section of the piece displayed their comfortablilty in playing with weight sharing while their bodies flung over, around, and on top of each; smooth like butter. But I kept asking and torturing myself…but why?

All in all, I have an enormous amount of respect for the work that they do and how eloquently they speak about and guide the process of improvisation. It’s a training that is a remarkable journey. One to love and one to hate. And when it comes to watching these kinds performances it can feel the same way. So to answer what is “good” performance improvisation is very complex, because it stands somewhere in the middle of honoring both process and product.  But what I’ll take away from this work is an introspective look at my own improvised life. What is memorable? How can I constantly re-invest myself to create those moments? I would be interested to see how this piece develops in the future as they are planning on evolving the performance under the title ‘Utopia Parkway which premieres in Chicago sometime next week.

The workshop will culminate in a panel discussion with the guests artists on Wednesday 6/8, 8PM @ the MCD and another improvisational performance with festival participants on Friday 6/10, 8PM @ MCD. I would encourage the dance community to come, ask questions and take advantage of their knowledge.

Belle Baggs holds her M.F.A. from the University of Utah