Choreographer Ann Carlson has a longstanding relationship with Ririe-Woodbury, originally studying modern dance under company co-founders Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury at the University of Utah in the 1970s. While there, Carlson also studied under the late Elizabeth Hayes, who brought the dance major to fruition at the U in 1953. Since Carlson began her choreographic career in the 80s, Ririe-Woodbury has added a couple of her works to their repertoire: “50 Years” (1996), most recently reprised in 2016, and now a world premiere for the company’s spring season at the Rose Wagner, “Elizabeth, the dance.”
I’ve only seen these two dances by Carlson, but even without the context of her entire body of work, I feel as though I know her voice - so singular is her style of piecing together vocalized text, a never-ending stream of new ideas, and movement that often seems to stem from a natural physicality.
“Elizabeth, the dance” truly delighted me, and so it’s almost a struggle to pin down the why and the how.
“Elizabeth” is like a collage by a well-known artist that you might convince yourself you could or would make: so many different components and references that you can clearly identify throughout, yet, strung together in a masterfully unique arc, the effect is truly producible only by that artist.
I use “arc” loosely here, because there was not one obvious narrative throughout. “Elizabeth” chronicled individual experiences, in real time, of each performer in reaction to a spectrum of challenges, prompts, and experiences. Sometimes autobiographical, sometimes abstract, the dance constantly glanced across a soaring range of emotions and qualities. Carlson’s structure laid each performer bare for us, while simultaneously allowing them to exist as a collective unit.
Multiple layers of whimsy and diversion were interwoven throughout, beginning with the dancers’ costumes. The base was a black skirt and leotard combo, the same for both the three men and three women. The skirt was then tied into pants, thrown over the head, tied up into a toga, and more. A tutu, tiara, and clown costumes were also donned at various points.
The set by Torry Bend added another layer of visual interest. Oversized, stackable foam blocks formed a wall that the dancers then disassembled, reassembled, pushed around, threw at each other, and launched themselves into over the course of the dance.
The array of visual elements never felt overdone to me; if anything, the costume and set changes always felt natural, like unearthing and assuming new roles from a dress-up chest in the attic. The changes re-directed the dance in unexpected and surprising ways each time, and I found myself wondering when the dancers had the chance to stock the next costumes or props behind the always-moving wall.
Throughout, images were suggested to me and then affirmed by some signifier soon after. This made the dance feel deliberate and well-crafted - an aware dance, that was able to anticipate and acknowledge its impact at any given time. This was achieved in tandem with the sound score - live, onstage accompaniment by multidisciplinary musician Matthew McMurray. He used quite a few recordings by The Beatles, which often connected to the images on stage.
Dancers in formation planted their hands on the ground, scurrying around with their feet while their black skirts swooped over them. I thought they looked just like a flock of birds descending upon a field. Immediately after, McMurray introduced The Beatles’ “Blackbird” into the mix. It was a simple connection, but one that gave me goosebumps.
“Lady Madonna” (“...see how they run..”) accompanied the performers running frenziedly throughout the space, in varying, cartoonish ways. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (”...gather ‘round, all you clowns...”) was slowed down and warped by McMurray as the dancers donned clown accoutrements and slumped along the foam wall in a sad yet mostly comical procession.
It’s difficult to talk about the dancing in "Elizabeth" as a whole because so many puzzling and amusing things happened.
Mary Lyn Graves had a solo for which she appeared en pointe, leaping spritely from side to side, and bourrée-ing yearningly. She then began crashing into performers, which caused her to practice a melodramatic gasp-and-fall on loop, until she reached the perfect cadence of gasp and fell for a final time.
Bashaun Williams had a moving solo, beginning with a skillful basketball dribble, that featured a recording of him telling a story, concluding with “...angels exist, bro.” It was funny to hear him deliver that sentence, but the story and solo were both touching and thoughtful.
Melissa Younker, Yebel Gallegos, and Alexandra Bradshaw, their skirts fashioned into draped togas, took turns balancing upon a single foam block quoting and describing an inspirational, though unnamed, woman. Posing and gesticulating, they appeared like three muses or the ancient Greek chorus.
Bashaun and Daniel Mont-Eton strode onstage holding three white balloons each, while McMurray’s sound became a down-and-dirty, bass-heavy track. The mysterious orbs and the visceral, vibrating music made Daniel and Bashaun seem so cool and powerful.
There were a lot of these moments for me: captivating visuals that also seemed to vibrate with something deeper. Maybe you could pinpoint what that deeper element was, or maybe not. But I loved them both on their own and as a part of the larger accumulation of many working images.
Ultimately the dance ended, as they do, but for me it could have gone on into the night (never mind “too much of a good thing”). Carlson seemed to anticipate this with her false ending. We clapped, but the dancers returned to the blocks and began a rather meditative section.
Then a popcorn machine appeared. The smell of butter wafted over the theater, and suddenly the dancers descended upon us, crying out like concession hawkers, “Popcorn! Popcorn for everyone!” A free-for-all ensued: Dancers aimed kernels into audience members’ mouths, everyone munched from their personal bags, and the dance seamlessly melted into a rambunctious post-show gathering of performers, family, and friends.
And it was truly magical; we had made it to the end and were duly rewarded.
Carlson remembered her dancers in crafting such a human work, with so many moments for each to shine. She remembered her mentors and the past through the era-traveling patchwork she has created with “Elizabeth, the dance.” Finally, she remembered us, the watchers, without whom the dance would exist only for the do-ers.
Writer's note: Congratulations are in order for company dancer Alexandra, on a fantastic final performance with Ririe-Woodbury. Salt Lake City will miss her dearly, both onstage and off!
Amy Falls has been loveDANCEmore’s program coordinator since 2014, transitioning Mudson from its original home at the Masonic Temple to more recent venues such as the Marmalade Library. She can also be seen dancing in projects with Municipal Ballet Co.