When Sarah Longoria, director of Municipal Ballet Co., stepped to the microphone last night to thank Fisher Brewing Co. for hosting their performance of The River Speaks Plainly, she mentioned it was “the first ballet they’ve ever had here.” She admitted that the company hoped to perform this piece on a river, but those plans didn’t work out: “If you can’t go down the river, go to Fisher,” she added.
Indeed, the setting was perfect: flash flood warnings were issued at 6 p.m., but by 8 p.m., the sky was clear, with streaks of pale blue, pink, and lavender adding to the dancers’ backdrop. A dance floor had been set up behind the brewery (where cornhole games are typically played), and there were folding chairs for the sold-out audience. More people stood in the back, and the atmosphere was lively and supportive.
Pixie and the Partygrass Boys, a fantastic local bluegrass band, set up their instruments at the edge of the floor, and eleven Municipal Ballet dancers turned the stage into an evocative platform for stories of river-runners: John Wesley Powell, Bert Loper, Glen and Bessie Hyde, Buzz Holmstrom, Martin Litton, Georgie White Clark, and Kenton Grua.
A narrator, Colby Frazier, introduced scenes choreographed by the company’s dancers, designers, and guests. Frazier’s writing and delivery added to the casual vibe, especially when he began with, “I don’t have any of this memorized.” His vignettes, beautifully composed, presented a balance between historical facts and resonant images, and his writing made me think of Municipal Ballet’s niche in Salt Lake City: the dancers present a compelling balance of craft and creativity, they are well-trained and inviting performers, and there’s a refreshingly diverse range of heights and backgrounds in the company. When they dance together, there are moments where they acknowledge one another and smile. This kind of camaraderie is both enjoyable and rare.
When I asked Nora Price, a dancer and choreographer, about her choice to perform with Municipal Ballet, she wrote in an email, “I think standard proscenium dance performances, and many site-specific and unconventionally-staged shows as well, hold audiences captive; I’d rather feel free to be captivated, or not. I don’t respond happily to being held aesthetically hostage as an audience member, OR as a dancer. I like feeling that folks’ pleasure in an experience is not wholly contingent on my perfect execution of unremitting whimsy/edginess/technical mastery. Even if they can expect to remain seated throughout, being in an otherwise engaging environment with beverages or snacks and a visible live local band sets a distinct tone.”
Last night’s distinct tone was enhanced by the support of a local business, the brewery, and local heroes, the river-runners. Frazier’s narration introduced an atmosphere for each scene, and the choreography extended his tales. For instance, Frazier disclosed details of the Hyde couple’s adventure of 1928, but the dancers’ performance, choreographed by Nora Price and Emily Snow, added details to his story of the couple’s demise.
Introducing Holmstrom’s adventures, Frazier quoted from the river-runner’s journal, “The last bad one above me--the Bad Rapid--Lava Cliff--that I had been looking for, nearly a thousand miles--I thought: once past there my reward will begin, but now everything ahead seems kind of empty and I find I have already had my reward, in the doing of the thing…” The ensuing dance, entitled “The Doing of the Thing,” choreographed by Olivia Mason, created an apt comparison: Nora Price, Nick Gibas, and Stacie Riskin presented images of intertwining and interdependence. There seemed to be a distinct joy in discovering what was possible and supporting one another. It reminded me of a quote from Merce Cunningham, “You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.” Similar to Holmstrom’s “doing of the thing,” Cunningham’s words conjure links between river-running and dancing.
Throughout the evening, choreographers presented different approaches to conveying the river’s propulsion and force. In the first scene, choreographed by Longoria and entitled “The River,” the cast performed recognizable ballet steps, from waltzes to chaîné turns. Her choreography conveyed a sense of momentum as the opening solo, performed wonderfully by Sierra Williams, morphed into duets, quartets, trios, and the entire ensemble dancing together.
In contrast, Jessica Liu’s choreography for Nick Gibas, called “Ballad for Glen Canyon,” drew from more modern vocabularies, with extensive floor-work and idiosyncratic phrasing. Gibas performed this swirling and spiraling choreography with compelling power and abandon, an evocative image of the Colorado River. His solo recalled the words of Wendell Berry, read by Frazier before the “Ballad:” “Men may dam it and say that they have made a lake, but it will still be a river. It will keep its nature and bide its time, like a caged animal alert for the slightest opening.”
There were other scenes that merged ballet and modern vocabularies, as in Katie Davis’s quartet, “Litton’s Boats,” inspired by the driving music of the band. As the tempo increased, so did the dancing, and the investment and stamina of the performers - Hannah Bowcutt, Katie Davis, Stacie Riskin, and Tristana Yegge - were thrilling. The quartet ended with one of the dancers giving a thumbs-up to the musicians, a moment of conviviality that made visible the collaborative spirit of the evening.
While presenting ballet in this hybrid setting - with musicians, a narrator, and an interactive vibe - may be atypical in today’s dance world, The River Speaks Plainly reminded me of ballet’s roots: in 1581, Catherine de Medici commissioned “Ballet Comique de La Reine Louise,” which is considered the first ballet. It too was an evening that merged dancing with instrumental music, songs, and spoken verses. It too was propelled by a woman’s vision.
In contrast to The River Speaks Plainly, “Ballet Comique” was an exclusive affair, designed to reinforce and glorify the power of the state. To see Municipal Ballet is to see how far ballet has come: it’s an art form that can be inclusive, inviting, and fun. My attention was drawn to the clarity and vivacity in dancing by Sierra Williams, Nora Price, and Emily Snow. I imagine that other audience members were drawn to other performers and their unique attributes, and to me this speaks to the mutability and sustainability of ballet.
Wrapping the dancers in a blanket of bluegrass, the evening’s terrific music was composed by Ben Weiss and performed by Zach Downes on upright bass, Amanda Grapes on fiddle, Andrew Nelson on guitar, Weiss on mandolin, and Katia Racine on ukulele and vocals. When I asked Grapes during one of the beer breaks about the difference between a violin and a fiddle, she said, “A violin has strings, and a fiddle has strangs.” The band’s unpretentious and powerful playing was a symbiotic partner to Municipal Ballet Co.: together they created an evening that brings ballet into the 21st century.
The final performance of The River Speaks Plainly tonight, August 23, is sold out, but you can see Municipal Ballet Co. perform excerpts at the inaugural Busker Fest on Friday, August 24.
Kate Mattingly is an assistant professor of dance at the University of Utah. She has a doctoral degree in performance studies from UC Berkeley, and has had writing published in The New York Times, The Village Voice, Dance Research Journal, Dance magazine, and Pointe magazine, among others.