Desert Experimental Opera is full of enthusiasm and ambition. Their new show Life Relegated, at an empty space (formerly Urban Outfitters) in The Gateway Mall, brings together several bands and an army of local dancers. It’s a bit like a talent show, in the best sense. Things unfold under the auspices of a plot that feels intentionally loose - each band is “dressed” as one of Utah’s national parks, who, personified, are recently out of work and facing down the “Invisible Hand” of the market, as voiced by a Stephen Hawking-esque computer voice.
Zion National Park explores its religious identity, Canyonlands submits to advertising, and Bryce Canyon sells out to a pharmaceutical company for better health insurance. The ballads of these anthropomorphized landscapes are sometimes clever, but the writing never feels like more than an excuse for the gathering. The whole experience is familiar if you’re from Utah. A place that’s still nominally a theocracy can elicit a kind of vague solidarity among those who fancy themselves outsiders.
The best thing about this show is the chance to see so many local performers all at once. Bands It Foot, It Ears and Durian Durian both shine musically. It’s encouraging to see a whole new generation of dancers who seem to be establishing themselves in Salt Lake for good. Emma Sargent partners with a panel of broken red-rock in a solo that recalls Eric Handman’s heroic soliloquies and also, somehow, the rune-like gestures of Daniel Nagrin. Emma Wilson, Meagan Bertelsen, and Amy Freitas, who we’ve recently lost to Moab, shine in some of the wilder moments when bodies fill the space. These three know how to listen and thus how to take the lead in the large group improvisations which make the rock and roll in this rock opera visual as well as aural.
That things never quite coalesce is hardly a problem - although I do wonder what some of these artists might really have to say about the politics of wilderness. We do have a bizarre relationship to the natural beauty in the southern part of our state. That this production doesn’t have much more to say about it than the craft beer bottles that celebrate hoodoos and arches is perhaps intentional. But I look forward to some of these artists making a deeper foray into some of the thornier questions.
Deseret Experimental Opera’s Life Relegated continues through Sunday, May 19, at The Gateway Mall.
Samuel Hanson was born in Salt Lake City in 1988. His recent work has been seen in NYC at Triskelion, the Reckless Theater, Weis Acres, Green Space, Danspace through the Movement Research Festival, and in Utah at the Rose Wagner Center and in the Mudson performance series. He has performed for an eclectic mix of artists including Simone Forti, Isabel Lewis, Yvonne Meier, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Mina Nishimura, Alexandra Pirici, Ashley Anderson, Diana Crum, and Yve Laris Cohen.