Great Salt Lake Fringe: Margam the Path, Red Lake, Declivity, Magazine St. #22 and Filament

Below are reviews of several dance works and movement-based opera that took place in the 2016 Fringe Festival at Westminster College. Some are by Liz Ivkovich and others by Amy Falls. 

Margam – The Path began with ChitraKaavya’s founder Srilatha Singh and artistic director Raksha Kapoor standing amidst the audience. Facing the empty stage, their eyes hold a laser-like preparatory focus while opening music keens overhead. Proceeding down the black box aisle, they take center stage and begin. We see the distinctive footwork and mudras of Bharatanatyam: from the home base of feet slightly apart and bent knees making a diamond shape, the tail hangs heavily from an emphatically curved spine. Interspersed with the quick slap of footwork on the black marley, the artists spiral from the base of their spine into a luxurious twisted lunge, right index finger clasped in left hand, arms overhead. They return to quick movements, punctuating the music with a staccato beat. As the piece unfolds I glimpse a kind of narrative, a classroom maybe with the overhead rhythmic chanting; ‘da, de, dim, dakadaka,’ as one of the dancers seemingly offers instruction to the other. The piece dramatically concludes when the dancers toss flower petals to the shrine situated downstage stage left, what appears from my seat to be a dancing Shiva cast in bronze. At the conclusion of this opening Pushpanjali and Harinarayana Kauthuvam, which the program describes as ‘an offering of flowers and salutation to Indian Gods, particularly the lord of dance Nataraja.’ The program also notes that this dance is a salutation to their dance Guru; perhaps a Guru-student relationship is the gist of which I was catching in these first moments.From this opening, Margam continues with five additional sections, alternating between pure rhythmic pieces (nritta), and emotive/narrative dances (abhinaya). The remaining dances – all duets and solos - were performed by Srilatha, Raksha and the rest of their company; Chandana Palukuri, Shrivatsav Pattabhiraman, and Malavika Singh. Before the two abhinaya pieces (Thumaki Chalata and Sakhi He), Srilatha and Raksha came onstage to offer the audience context for the solos, briefly demonstrating the way that the mudras used would tell the story of the poem being sung. In Thumaki Chalata Raksha Kapoor dances an ode to vatsalya - motherly love - through mudras, gestures and facial expressions. Raksha distracts her imaginary toddler; the Lord Rama, telling him with her hands of the flapping wings of a bird out the window. While he looks outside she aims a finger dipped in red ink at his forehead, firmly affixing a bindi between his two eyebrows. Later, in a humorous moment, Raksha delicately pinches her fingers together on the edges of Lord Rama’s diaper, wrinkling her face in disgust. The audience chuckles as our own memories of changing dirty diapers flood our noses.

One stand-out aritta piece was Mahadeva, a solo danced by Malavika Singh to a musical composition by Anushka Shankar. Shankar’s music praises Lord Shiva, the lord of the dance. Malavika played between adept footwork with satisfyingly crisp sounds, and sustained balances on one leg. In a lovely moment she dropped to the ground for a series of startling knee spins, whirling like a top in a large circle around the stage, one knee knocking the other out of its place.

By now the adornments associated with Bharatanatyam have become so dominant that they seem to overtake the Western concert dance imagination, interpretation, and reading of contemporary Indian dance. It seems critical to honor the beauty of ChitraKaavya’s costumes without limiting the description of their work to just it’s seemingly ‘exotic’ or ‘traditional’ qualities in ornamentation. In Margam, the black and red saris, painted fingers and toes, heavy gold loops hanging from nose and ears, as well as crisp technique and storytelling were all aimed towards the intent of the company: to foster innovation and excellence in Bharatanatyam, while making and sharing relevant, intercultural work. Through Margam, ChitraKaavya thoughtfully navigates tradition and contemporaneity in the unexpected context of the Great Salt Lake Fringe. I hope that this context seems less surprising as we see more work from this company in this, and other similar venues, in the future.

Liz Ivkovich edits the loveDANCEmore performance journal and has presented her research at the American Society for Theatre Research, the University of Utah’s Conference on Diverse Excellence, and at the American Theatre in Higher Education conference, where she received an Emerging Scholar Award from the American Theatre and Drama Society.

In Red Lake, presented by Deseret Experimental Opera Company as part of the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival, Producer/Librettist Luke Swenson, Composer/Performer Stuart Wheeler, and Choreographer/Director Emma Wilson created a post-modern marriage of music, poetry, and dance. Each creator wore multiple hats and multiple layers of costuming—the musicians were clad in brightly colored, slightly grubby skirts over pants while the singers and dancers sported layers of well-worn gowns in different shades of green, red, and white. The aesthetic effect was circus-meets-hiking-hippies.

The performers made a grand processional entrance from the upstairs box office into the auditorium, dancers, musicians, and singers deliberately placing their weight heel-to-toe across the stage. A single violin note keeled in repeat, affecting an oceanic trance on the audience. Such extended durational moments, as well as monotonal music, was a theme repeated through the work.  

 dancers from Red Lake courtesy of Emma Wilson

dancers from Red Lake courtesy of Emma Wilson

Red Lake unfolds a dystopian, disrupted tale of three campers—Ian, Melody, and Judith—on an ill-fated trip to Antelope Island. The characters arrive at the Great Salt Lake, hike around, fall in love (kind-of), get lost, and ultimately - die. Presented in five ”Images,“ each character was played by both a singer and a dancer. The dancers’ roles fluctuated between their human character, a Greek chorus, and different creatures of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. This interplay of human, dancer, and other-than-human sparked compelling images, as when Judith (sung by Hannah CJ McLaughlin) faced the audience straight on, singing about the rain while her counterpart (danced by Amy Freitas) playfully tapped raindrops along her arms. Later, Ian(s) and Melody(s) floated back-to-back across the extremely salty North arm of the Great Salt Lake, their heads resting boom-box style on each other’s shoulders, making it difficult to see whose head belonged to whom. In these moments, I felt the duets became something more than a dancer translating the libretto into movement. In other moments, the relationship between singer and dancer felt aimless. I began to consider what mechanisms help a dancer having an experience onstage (such as the feeling of a bird in flight, or being dehydrated on a beach) to give the audience a comparable sensation. When the performers frantically threw lawn chairs and wood pallets into a large bonfire, my actual fear of being hit by a chair amplified the ambience of the wailing music and thudding set pieces. But when the dancers lingered in repetitive improvisations, disengaged from their singing partner, I was a bit lost at sea. The detailed program notes offered multiple anchors for the live action, yet I wished that more had been left to the stage rather than the page.  

What ultimately struck me about the work was the unique way the creators complicated Thoreauvian wilderness tropes. Between the narrative, the fluid casting across gender and species, and dystopian flavor, Red Lake was a refreshing counterpoint to the overly romanticized way in which I’m used to seeing ”Wild Utah” represented in performance. As the work closed, Melody (sung by soprano Katie Kelley) chanted a poignant love eulogy to herself/the Great Salt Lake/her dancing alter ego Meagan Bertelsen. As she sings, she gazes at herself dancing. As she dances, she raises her arms overhead, crossed at the wrist and palms touching, forcing her shoulders into her ears. Straining, she stretches backwards, chest flayed open to the ceiling, taut with the complexity of the Great Salt Lake. In this moment, the singer and dancer become not just themselves but also the ancient microscopic bottom-dwelling cyanobacteria, the brine flies and shorebirds, the free-floating algae Dunaliella, the brine shrimp and waterbirds. The Great Salt Lake is more than a static backdrop against which local dancers can take photos of themselves. In this moment, it becomes a living, breathing organism whose presence fills the theater.

“Red Lake,” Dumke Student Black Box Theatre, Westminster College, Salt Lake City, Sunday, July 31, 4:30 p.m.

Liz Ivkovich edits the loveDANCEmore performance journal and has presented her research at the American Society for Theatre Research, the University of Utah’s Conference on Diverse Excellence, and at the American Theatre in Higher Education conference, where she received an Emerging Scholar Award from the American Theatre and Drama Society.

The following three Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival shows all took place on Saturday, July 30 at Westminster College, and each was produced by a different Salt Lake City choreographer. The Fringe Festival model encouraged and facilitated longer, more fleshed out work by providing hour-long slots for each performance.

“Declivity” was choreographed and performed by Repertory Dance Theatre’s Daniel Higgins and a cast of ten others, billed as Daniel Higgins Dance. It was gratifying to see a large group of dancers onstage in an independently-created show, as logistically it is often hard for independent dancemakers to make the finances and schedules work for a cast larger than several. Higgins demonstrated good command of the large group throughout space and formations, often negotiating it into solos, duets, and trios seamlessly. Higgins’ movement language was sophisticated in its full physicality threaded with memorable gesture motifs. Command of the language varied between performers, and perhaps just needed more time to resonate fully with all. Higgins’ RDT-mates Ursula Perry, Lauren Curley, and Tyler Orcutt demonstrated the most confident command of choreography, paying attention to the in-betweens and punctuating aggressive, grounded gestures and grand plies with effortless classical lines. Higgins also was so fluent in the vocabulary of the dance that I assume most, if not all, the choreography was of his own creation (while some choreographers may ask dancers to generate a lot of their own choreographic material). I also couldn’t help to think it must have been a great challenge to be a choreographer and performer in a piece with so many members, and to know the dance from eyes outside the dance as well as inside; I think Higgins did quite well in this department.

For me, “Declivity” was reminiscent in several ways of “Dabke”, a dance by Israeli-born choreographer Zvi Gotheiner recently performed by RDT. “Dabke” employed elements of the eponymous folk circle dance performed in several Eastern Mediterranean countries, perhaps most frequently in Palestine; I noticed nods to “Dabke” both in group formations and in certain musical selections throughout “Declivity”. Higgins wrote in his program notes that the “fracturing of cross cultural understanding is a current issue that Dan Higgins Dance is in dialogue with” and I imagine that any references to both existing choreographic work and to the culture of the Eastern Mediterranean is a way to plug into said cross-cultural dialogue. I am curious to know more beyond this brief note about Higgins’ interest and how his choice to invoke it informs his own narrative about “Declivity”’s unnamed “community that finds hope, [and] encounters hardship”.

“Magazine St. #22” included choreographer/producer Natalie Gotter as a performer. Program notes introduced the dance as taking place on bus (which I read only afterward) but due to Gotter’s meticulous specificity, I found I easily reached that conclusion on my own. A flurry of background bus noises introduced the scene as four women, strangers, moved from chair to chair, the four chairs morphing in arrangement from “bus stop” to “inside the bus”. The straphangers embarked on a journey of solos that became interconnected, until they ended in the women disembarking from the bus as strangers once more. Meagan Bertelsen’s solo was a pleasingly gentle experience, featuring tiny gestures, soft steps, and flickers of a smile. Tender lifts with the onlooking women evolved into more weight-sinking interactions as the solos continued. Gotter’s solo entered explosive territory, as she jumped up onto a chair and put her shirt over her head, revealing a hot pink bra underneath. Exciting floorwork led her back to the others who took her hair down, unleashing her mop of curls into the mix.

Gotter’s choreographic interest in the subtleties of movement and of relationships between the four women found a nuanced route throughout the dance. As the women progressed from strangers to close companions, Gotter captured this through both choreography and expressions. Brief touches and quick smiles evolved into more purposeful hugs and more comfortable smiles. Gotter seemed to smile at the others the most at first - maybe as choreographer she was the dancers’ ringleader, or maybe as the more daring woman on the bus she was the straphangers’ ringleader. Following her lead, the women worked up to whirlwind solos, weaving amongst each other, and ending with reassuring hugs and smiles all around. Breaking off into their individual gesture phrases from the dance’s beginning signified the end of their time in the dimension of bus friends, and they exited the bus seemingly as strangers once more. I enjoyed a closing image, in which one of the women brushed Bertelsen’s hand off of her as they exited the bus - a subtlety that signified a change back to reality.

“Filament” was performed by Cat + Fish Dances, a choreographic project of Cat Kamrath. The program notes told me that “Filament” was the second installment of Kamrath’s “Fibers” series, though I have unfortunately missed out on the first installment. The four dancers (Kenzie Allred, Micah Burkhardt, Daniel Do, and Madeline Maravillas) began on a fairly dark stage (happily, the lighting progressed in intensity throughout). The dancers felt emotionally distant from one another at the beginning, which evolved into more physical partnerships and relationships through focus toward the end. I found Kamrath’s choreography to be the most varied, visceral, and inventive out of all three shows, and which all four dancers performed incredibly well. I particularly loved a step Burkhardt did on a few occasions; he would slide out into a lunge, flip his torso over while pivoting to the other side, and do it again and again, like an automaton. Burkhardt also had a lovely solo moment pulling and tracing filaments from one body part to another; I could have seen more of this moment, despite its literal connection to the title. Throughout, the dancers’ execution allowed the narrative - simultaneously over-simple and a perfectly tied-up package - to peek through the choreography, avoiding movement for movement’s sake and melodrama at the same time.

Musical selections for the piece started as mostly instrumental or ambient in nature; I found this really allowed for the qualitative choices of the performers to shine throughout intricate series of slides to the floor, attitude turns en plie, and attacked lunges. As more and more filaments wove themselves between the dancers (the narrative arc: progression from no relationship to intertwined relationships, similar to “Magazine St. #22” except in its conclusion), a couple songs with noticeable lyrics were chosen toward the end. For me, the presence of lyrics, especially given what they were, changed the resonance of Kamrath’s choreography and of the dancers’ relationships (or lack thereof) to one another. One vocalist sang, “We know not what we do”, as part of a song’s chorus; this to me was both appropriate (the dancers’ connection to each other had been sparse in terms of focus, as though they were going about their movements without thought to the effect on others) and ironic (irony in that the singer’s observation detracted from the dance at hand for me - too literal to add dimension to the dancers’ relationships). Going further, though, maybe Kamrath intentionally evoked hyper-sincerity by matching the attitude of the song closely with that of the dancers, instead of going for the oft-used irony (in juxtaposition) that many post-modern and contemporary choreographers opt for. Regardless of intent or success of this musical pairing, I love the observations and questions it brought up for me. I would definitely be curious to see the first, and any future, installments of Kamrath’s “Fiber” series, to see what other movement tales she weaves.  

Amy Falls is a program coordinator for loveDANCEmore and regularly performs around SLC.