Go see Doggie Hamlet. It’s a rare event, and one that exemplifies what dance has to offer our species. Last night, I drove down Provo Canyon, from a conference I was attending in Midway, to the Salt Lake County Equestrian Park. Just to watch this dance. It reminded me: viewing dance - the rarified act of looking at other bodies and identifying with them - is an irreplaceable way of knowing.
Those incredible mountains I’d just driven through lay there on their sides, bathing in the sun. The lawn was eerily verdant and flat. We sat on bleachers - like you do at a high school football game – staring at an arbitrary rectangle of grass. Dominica Greene, who you may know from Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, climbed over a fence and a haystack to casually traipse across the long, heroic diagonal. She was wearing what looked like a wedding dress made of snakes. We never saw her again, but she was followed by Imre Hunter-To, who might have been a teenaged ranch hand. He waved toward a faraway road, and moments later several dozen sheep came bounding toward us from the inaudible distance. Dogs, a shepherd or two, and more dancers followed.
Doggie Hamlet, the brainchild of choreographer Ann Carlson, is hard to describe because the action unfolds at a glacial pace – and yet there‘s always more to look at than you can really take in. You make choices. I spent a lot of time looking at Eph Jensen’s son, the middle-aged caretaker of his father’s flock, who stood still at the far corner of the field, an imposing icon with his cowboy hat, bright white shirt, and cane. (The program notes tell us that the Jensens are the only sheep outfit in Utah that still trails their ewes home each fall via a dedicated right-of-way in Box Elder County.)
Geese and airplanes cross the sky. The six human performers (including Diane Cox, the “onstage” shepherd) comprise a weather-beaten family.
One of many tableaux: the dancers call out for the dogs with a helpless enthusiasm. Their cries and useless flailing-of-limbs make the dogs’ connection with Cox seem like the epitome of ancient human-animal competence. Another: our heroes dress up in sheep-drag and perform a gruesome Vaudeville number for their uninterested ungulate co-stars. As the night unfolds, the sheep themselves react very slowly to the rising temperature of inexplicable human behavior. The dogs do what dogs do, laboring to make sense of the social predicament.
Ryan Tacata dances an entrancing solo with real or fake sign language that puts me in mind of the work of Francisca Benitez. Maniacal human-patriarch Peter Schmitz (more King Lear than Hamlet) invites us to sing. The dancers - yes! - but there’s always something else to look at. It’s not anthropology or narrative that lets us understand these humans, it’s what they look like next to other animals who also run, leap, and stare. Periodically, we even find ourselves to be indifferent to the human concerns on display. We become like the sheep and the empty blue sky.
Doggie Hamlet asks a lot of the audience. When we are not being sheep, we must work. We must accommodate several different frames, up to and including the valley in which we live. We must look at animals and people in various states of pain and confusion. A logic emerges, far outside of what a story can tell us. We learn something by imagining ourselves as a part of that grimy - dare I say, primitive - pack of humans. We learn something else through our aestheticized empathy with the dog who gets stepped on by a ewe. Another insight comes from watching how the flock acts as one slow-moving mind, but still makes room for the odd leaping soloist. The sun sets on all of us. The mountains turn azure and pink and the grass is still unnaturally green.
Doggie Hamlet continues Saturday, September 14, at 6 p.m. at the Salt Lake County Equestrian Park.
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, at Danspace through the Movement Research Festival, and in Utah at the Rose Wagner and the Masonic Temple. 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.