Watching Repertory Dance Theatre’s Voices, a show that reiterated the company’s theme this season of “Manifest Diversity,” was a distinct pleasure. Nearly every piece was preceded by a video featuring the choreographer, or re-stager of the original choreography, providing a glimpse into their intent and process, which I found to be particularly effective and illuminating for a non-modern trained dancer such as myself. This was something I especially appreciated throughout the evening: the thoughtful, unobtrusive way in which these videos blended and drew connections through the program, which then became as much a part of the program as the dances themselves. They were like delightful appetizers followed by a sumptuous main course. The program itself was a varied menu with distinctly different flavors, some emotionally gratifying, others intellectually appealing, and all of them aesthetically pleasing.
The first piece, “Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor,” was originally choreographed by Doris Humphrey in 1938 and was “inspired by the need for love, tolerance, and nobility in a world given more and more to the denial,” according to the program notes. In the introductory video that featured Nina Watt and Jennifer Scanlon, who re-staged the piece, the audience was reminded that “Passacaglia” was originally conceived while fascism was on the rise in Europe. The significance of that historical context in today’s world was not lost.
“Passacaglia” was a lyrical piece, glorious and effulgent in the dazzling confluence of Bach’s music and Humphrey’s choreography, and transported me to a different realm. Lauren Curley and Dan Higgins led movements that found their refrain in the ensemble silhouetted in a pyramidal configuration on boxes, some seated, others standing. There was a sense of conductor and choir, song and chorus, and the struggle of dynamic leadership, as each dancer seemed to be every other dancer, an individual yet uncompromisingly part of a whole. The blue-lit background and white costumes accentuated the arabesques and turns and further underscored the uplifting nature of the piece.
Second on the program was the world premiere of “Event,” an incisive and interrogatory piece, with a distinctly different tone, choreographed by Bebe Miller. It was a joy to watch and a joy to listen to. Miller, in the introductory video, first told us that she is not a “storyteller” and that she began by observing who the dancers were together and allowing “the serendipity of interaction” to come to the fore. I found it intriguing to listen to her choreographic process. Her piece centered around the idea of an event occurring in a room of 6 people, which then gradually evolved/devolved from event into narrative, focusing more on each observer’s interpretation, feelings, and sentiments, the recall of it, and the correspondent emotions.
“Event” featured a brilliant score by Mike Vargas that highlighted a penetrating text by Ain Gordon, crisply delivered in this context by Miller. The movement was dynamic and accurately reflected Miller’s intent. Real drama was conveyed by the eight extremely strong dancers in the telling, retelling, and diverse experiences of the “event,” until the “event” became the remembered experience and no one really cared or could recall what the original “event” was. What I really loved about the piece was that I totally got it. I often struggle to understand the intent behind some modern pieces, but not here. The dancers were that effective in their spatial configurations, their energetic movements, and their convincing facial expressions (Abhinaya, as we call it in Bharatanatyam). I sincerely hope that RDT continues to collaborate with Miller.
The next piece, “I give myself,” was choreographed by Bryn Cohn and was also a world premiere. As highlighted in her video, Cohn’s choreographic process starts with aesthetic empathy and articulation. She observed, and thus is able to spotlight for the audience, the energetic traits and mutual connections between the eight company dancers. The score, which felt unbroken but was actually three distinct sections, was composed by Michael Wall.
“I give myself” began with dark undertones; there was a relentless feeling of dread in the sometimes convulsive movements and the music reinforced this sentiment. It did gradually evolve to become a more optimistic endeavour, with the sense that the dancers withheld nothing and “gave themselves,” surrendering their vulnerabilities to interactive movements and embodying a confidence and mutual trust. The stark lighting, by Pilar, and dark costumes were effective as well, further emphasizing the sheer strength and technical prowess of each dancer.
The next piece, “Voices,” was a lovingly crafted tribute to Salt Lake City’s community of dancers, teachers, and mentors, choreographed by Nicholas Cendese with input from the performers, who were dance educators from across the Wasatch Front. The piece had a gentle, lilting feel to it, and the plethora of “voices” that informed it shone through without being discordant. It was moving to see and appreciate the generous contributions of local dance educators; our community, I have come to recognize, has one of the richest, most supportive dance cultures in the country.
Israeli choreographer Danielle Agami’s “Theatre” was the last piece on the program and was “dedicated to non-actors,” according to the program notes. Incredibly athletic in scope, the piece had the dancers fittingly attired in costumes with numbers on the back, as though they were members of a sports team. There were moments where the dancers would build up enormous momentum, bump into an invisible barrier, stop, and then recede with such control and finesse; at other moments, they seemed to engage in common exercises that one might see a team do before a match, except magnified and transformed with an inexplicable panache.
The extremes to which Agami pushed the dancers of RDT, getting them to explore their limits or perhaps realize that they have none, was a powerful display of mutual enjoyment and a feat of singular stamina. Agami informed us in her video that she is interested in seeing how dancers convince her that they are engaged in her fantasy, and then uses that as a medium in creating her work. One could see RDT’s exceptional and diverse dancers rise to this challenge, and with support and encouragement, exult in exceeding any confines to create a fitting finale to the evening.
RDT is currently comprised of Jaclyn Brown, Lauren Curley, Daniel Do, Efren Corado Garcia, Dan Higgins, Elle Johansen, Tyler Orcutt, and Ursula Perry, an excellent ensemble who had us at the edge of our seats. I learned, speaking to a friend, that this was Efren Corado Garcia’s final season with the company. His note in the program thanking local employers for their flexibility in accommodating dancers’ schedules caught my eye and brought a lump to my throat: "All of you dealt with my tired body, long working days… your patience, commitment to me… helped me live a dream."
“Voices” was a banquet to be relished, and I left the theater satiated and eager for another program by Repertory Dance Theatre.
Srilatha Singh is a Bharatanatyam artiste and the director of Chitrakaavya Dance. While interested in encouraging excellence in her art form, she is also keenly compelled to explore relevance and agency through the artistic medium.