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Dances for Utah

It’s unlikely that when José Limón choreographed “The Winged” in 1966 he had the 200 different species of migratory birds that rely on Utah’s Great Salt Lake at the top of mind. And when Donald McKayle created “I’ve Known Rivers” in 2005, he was inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and by Pearl Primus and Janet Collins, not the many river drainages that are being diverted from the Salt Lake. But, what’s wonderful about great art is that it’s timeless—it can conjure many things depending on who is watching and where they come from.

Performance

Repertory Dance Theatre in José Limón’s “The Winged,” Donald McKayle’s “I’ve Known Rivers,” and Zvi Gotheiner’s “Dancing the Bears Ears”

Place

Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Salt Lake City, UT, April 21, 2023

Words

Sophie Bress

Repertory Dance Theater in “Dancing the Bears Ears” by Zvi Gotheiner. Photograph by Sharon Kain

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Repertory Dance Theatre’s season closer, “Flight,” was a testament to this, using “The Winged” and “I’ve Known Rivers,” plus Zvi Gotheiner’s “Dancing the Bears Ears”—a 2017 commission for the company which directly addresses Utah’s natural resources—to illustrate several of the ecological plights that are heavy on the mind of the state’s residents.

Repertory Dance Theater in José Limón's “The Winged.” Photograph by Sharon Kain

In “The Winged,” the first piece of the evening, the nine RDT company members, plus three guest artists, transformed onstage. In ballet, port de bras is often described as coming from the scapulae like wings, but in this classic modern piece, the dancers’s arms were not only wings, they were beaks, talons, and feathers.

Some sections of “The Winged” are playful—the fast, repetitive, and sometimes frantic movement motifs even verged on humor in moments, while other sections were distinctly more serious. The fourth movement duet, “Borrowed Wings,” which was danced by Lindsey Faber and Jacob Lewis during Friday’s performance, was particularly illustrative of this scope, while also adding the themes of nurture and care. As Faber portrayed the stumbles and falls of the young (or perhaps the injured) Lewis supported her until they could both take flight.

The second work of the evening was McKayle’s “I’ve Known Rivers,” performed by Ursula Perry. Although the work was the shortest on the program, Perry displayed as full a range of movement quality as could be expected from a longer work—moving from soft, to delicate, to powerfull in quick succession.

On RDT’s blog, Perry writes about her experience learning the solo: “While learning this piece, I was encouraged to look at my relationship with water, and what memorable and impactful events throughout my life involved water. Its power to clean, demolish, and renew were all on my mind as I dove into the movement and its meaning.”

As Perry dances, her internal dialogue is apparent, as is the deep work she engaged in to learn and perform this solo. And as she moves, Perry not only converses with water, at times she almost becomes it, sweeping and washing through McKayle’s choreography with an organic and dynamic cadence.

Repertory Dance Theater in “Dancing the Bears Ears” by Zvi Gotheiner. Photograph by Sharon Kain

Though the first two works on the program evoked the Utah landscape, it was the final work that spoke directly to it. In 2017, the company, along with choreographer Zvi Gotheiner and members of his New York City based troupe ZviDances, traveled to Bears Ears National Monument in Southern Utah accompanied by Mary Benally and Jonah and Ida Yellowman, all members of the Diné tribe. In addition to housing artifacts from over thirteen native tribes and being one of the state’s most diverse ecosystems, this 1.3 million acre parcel of land has, in recent years, become a battleground in the larger fight for protection of public lands and sacred native sites.

During the Trump administration, protections on Bears Ears and the nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument were drastically rolled back, resulting in proposals to mine and drill on the land. Although the Biden Administration reinstated the protections at both of these locations, the sites still remain vulnerable to changes tied to the priorities of future administrations.

Repertory Dance Theater in “Dancing the Bears Ears” by Zvi Gotheiner. Photograph by Sharon Kain

Throughout “Dancing the Bears Ears,” this push and pull—between harmony and destruction and between working with the land and fighting against it—is very apparent. Against a backdrop of shifting photos of the region, at times the dancers are in perfect sync, working together against a hidden force—and at others they feel asynchronous, struggling to find common ground.

Also made visible are the spiritual and healing qualities this land exemplifies for the many peoples who have relied on it over generations. As the dancers gather together in an inward-facing circle, they use their bodies to bolster one another, holding each other up and making the group whole.

Motifs and themes from the beginning of the work—and even from the beginning of the evening’s program—carry through to the end, albeit with a changed energy. The dancers focus on healing and synchronicity, and through it, are changed. As the cast forms two lines, moving in and out as they alternately strike their thighs and temples with an open palm, what felt mournful in the beginning turns resolute, even hopeful—a call to action.

Sophie Bress


Sophie Bress is an arts and culture journalist based in Salt Lake City, Utah. In her writing, she focuses on placing the arts within our cultural conversations and recognizing art makers as essential elements of our societal framework. Sophie holds a Master’s degree from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. She has been published in Dance Magazine, L.A. Dance Chronicle, The Argonaut, Festival Advisor, and more.

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