Lehi-based SALT Contemporary Dance, founded in 2013, was the first performing group to reserve space in the new Regent Street Eccles Theater this past weekend (a black box - or in the Regent’s case, a purple box). As mentioned by founding artistic director Michelle Nielsen in her pre-performance speech, SALT’s self-professed mission is to present contemporary works by local and international emergent* choreographers. While the members of SALT, and of second company SALT II, proved their technical prowess many times over throughout the evening, the programming choices themselves fell short of Nielsen’s boasts about the work the company seeks to present.
The first half of the program, three works by Ihsan Rustem, Jason Parsons, and Eric Handman, felt uncannily similar, particularly in movement vocabulary. Specifically, a leg extension in a la seconde - turned in, but with an aesthetically sickled foot at the end - made its indelible mark on each of the three. Other motifs were perhaps less memorable, but no less ubiquitous. I suspect that many of these choreographers in the program’s first half asked the dancers to input movement and that these similar choices might actually be a product of the dancers’ personal comfort zones rather than each individual choreographer’s vision.
Also in these early works, and despite the dancers’ facilities, I did not feel a kinesthetic use of weight and effort - instead, the movement seemed to stagnate at similar dynamic levels and gave the effect of many limbs gesturing with unclear intent and often at the same “volume” as each musical selection. The dancers’ internal, at times self-indulgent, foci further retracted the physical impact of the choreography from my viewpoint as an audience member.
In Rustem’s “Voice of Reason”, I enjoyed Elissa Collins’ counterpoint of stillness: seated facing the side with her legs outstretched, ankles purposefully extended like Barbie feet, she remained stalwart as duets unfolded onstage around her. However, the acoustic, singer-songwriter music that accompanied these several, all male/female duets - “But I wanna fall in love with you” - did not invite fresh perspective.
In Parsons’ “Tracing the Steps You Left Behind”, featuring SALT II, I was struck by a moment where one dancer, unveiled as the leader, controlled the all-female group to sink collectively, as if in a trance, to the floor; then upon rising, she conducted an orchestra of their seething bodies with her hands. There were several other such eerie, ritualistic moments, but their effect as a whole was diluted when the dancers walked slowly around the stage, staring warily at each other like many aimless deer in headlights.
Handman’s “Omnivore” gave glimpses of greater dynamic variation than the two previous pieces, especially in a brief opening solo for Joni Tuttle McDonald. I am familiar with a significant body of Handman’s work, having spent semesters in class with him while at the U and having seen many of his pieces for Performing Dance Company concerts (albeit mostly work set on students). That being said, I noticed significant differences between this previous work and “Omnivore”, namely the movement vocabulary (which, of course, is subject to change throughout any choreographer's career trajectory) but also the kinesthetic effect and physical inhabitance displayed by the dancers, which has always felt singular and powerful in Handman’s work but felt less so in “Omnivore”.
A section of “Ominvore” did transcend the dynamic plateau of mid-level choreography done at a moderate tempo: wild electronic music invited chaos and the change in speed viscerally heightened a group section. This section was short-lived, however, and quickly found its way back to a meandering duet to equally meandering music, rife with affectations (sometimes confusingly classified as “contemporary”) such as the turned in a la seconde leg. This new choreographic chapter Handman might be exploring has lost some of the physical excitement, involvement, and even exhaustion that characterized the old.
Opening the second half of the program, “Comes the Night” by Brendan Duggan began with a single stomping dancer, slowly increasing the tempo and setting the rhythm for the phrase the group would soon break into, also incorporating stomps. Breath was audible and one could hear bodies slapping together at times, finally giving the SALT dancers weight and purpose both in space and in relation to one another.
Duggan also defined relationships between dancers in his world more clearly, aided by dancer-delivered text about a relationship intertwined with a vigorous duet. The content paired with the male/female duet did feel campy at times, but eventually morphed into a larger group alternately delivering lines about compartmentalizing the past and letting others in: a concept much more universal, and perhaps open to investigation, than a female telling her male counterpart that he is “boring!”
Ketley spent several weeks in SLC over the summer teaching classes at Salt Dance Fest, and “A Particulate History of Friendship, The Trial and Absence of Stillard Mave” was a collage of phrases that I learned in one of these classes and spent hours workshopping. Maybe it was this prior connection to the choreographic material that hindered me from seeing the piece as a singular entity: the structure felt haphazardly patchwork, with the roster of phrases merely rearranged in time and space. Group unison was executed in contrived chaos, using different timing and facings, and duets were bolstered by swapping out partners several times.
Ketley’s phrase material itself was captivating and, by far, the most inventive on the program. He choreographs movement with an attention to, and even an indulgence in, gesture while still retaining a sense of matter-of-factness. Varying degrees of attack and delicacy further colored the surprising shifts in level, from soft gestures done standing to sudden, brash poses on the floor. As in several other pieces, an intricate duet that took place on the floor was difficult to make out, as the risers in the Eccles Regent offer a very low grade of steepness with many heads partly obscuring almost half of the marley.
SALT’s success in the community it seeks to serve is evident in its outstanding attendance. As a local dancer attending a community dance performance, I relish SALT’s success, and similarly relish all the many unfamiliar faces seen at Friday night’s performance who walked away having seen more dance and of a different kind than they may have ever seen before. At the same time, again as a dancer, I’m not sure SALT’s diligent marketing of “fresh” and “innovative” correctly describes the company: much of the work I saw over the course of the evening was familiar to the point of feeling derivative, even identical, despite featuring truly stellar dancers with a variety of backgrounds and the work of choreographers from all over the world.
In the future, let’s go easy on the qualifiers, and remember that invoking “contemporary” should just refer to dance that “belongs to or occurs in the present”, rather than dance that adheres to an arbitrary set of aesthetic standards. After all, it’s really only contemporary right now.
*I wondered what, if anything, SALT aimed to distinguish by opting for the less-used “emergent” over the common “emerging” when describing up-and-coming choreographers in a section of their program notes. I thought an exploration of the company’s semantic choice here could further shed light on their mission. A Google search I conducted for the difference between the two yielded few results, as “emergent” is not in common use. The best definitions I could find, via The Difference-Between, were “emerging”: becoming prominent, newly formed, emergent, rising; and “emergent”: arising unexpectedly, especially if also calling for immediate reaction, constituting an emergency. “Calling for immediate reaction” is probably the intended effect of invoking “emergent”, but to me “emerging” remains more relevant when describing choreographers: becoming prominent, or newly formed, but not constituting an emergency. If SALT is making a purposeful distinction between “emerging” and “emergent”, it seems a superfluous one; that is, one that does not serve to change the nature of the work presented but rather only the language that surrounds it.
Amy Falls is loveDANCEmore's Program Coordinator and regularly contributes to the blog.
Photo (at top) by Ismael Arrieta / Artwork by Lisa Marie Crosby