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Beginner's Mind

Lorie O’Toole steps back slightly, scanning the scene in front of her with a discerning eye. Eleven dancers move together, their limbs and torsos taking on the quality of water, their collective image becoming something like the ocean’s surf. Occasionally, O’Toole offers words of encouragement, her voice clear and strong above the melodic score. When the music stops and the dancers pause to rest, she takes a moment to expand on these tidbits, also offering corrections and suggestions.

Lorie O'Toole and cast in rehearsal for “The InBetween” for Repertory Dance Theatre's “Regalia.” Photograph by Sophie Bress

At first glance, none of this is out of the ordinary. In fact, this dance rehearsal is hardly distinguishable from any other. But that’s why it’s so astonishing. 

O’Toole is not actually a choreographer by trade, and this work is her very first foray into the artform. The rehearsal, which took place around 7:30 pm on Saturday, March 2, came at the tail end of a whirlwind day that allotted only four hours for O’Toole to set her piece on a cast comprised of members of Utah-based dance company Repertory Dance Theatre and dancers from the local Salt Lake City community. Just an hour later, her work would premiere alongside four other new pieces by first-time choreographers.

This event—officially titled “Regalia” and nicknamed “So You Think You Can Choreograph”— was the 2024 iteration of Repertory Dance Theatre’s annual gala fundraiser. AlthoughRegalia,” a longtime RDT tradition, has always had a rapid paced, creation-to-performance element to it, this year was the first time the company handed the choreographic baton to amateurs.

Abbie St. Vaughan and choreographic mentor Sarah Donohue, part of Repertory Dance Theatre's “Regalia.” Photograph by Sophie Bress

In a phone conversation one week prior to her work’s premiere, O’Toole gave some insight into her headspace: “We’ve worked through the piece, we’ve gone through the piece, we’ve peeled the piece apart. To be honest, I’ve kind of put my piece aside for the week leading up the show. And then on Saturday, we’re gonna pull it out and see what magic happens with what I have and what I’m offered with the dancers.” 

“Regalia”—in its first form—began years ago as “Charrette.” As Nicholas Cendese, RDT’s artistic associate and development director, tells it, the event was a riff on “Iron Chef”—each choreographer was given the “secret ingredients” before having just one hour to create. For the company’s 50th anniversary in 2016, the RDT team decided to up the ante, extending the time limit to four hours and making the event an audience-judged competition, awarding an RDT commission to the winning choreographer. This iteration of “Regalia” continued through 2023, with Bryn Cohn and Andy Noble as past winners. 

The idea for 2024’s “So You Think You Can Choreograph” version of Regalia came from a conversation between Cendese and Richard Jaffe, who later became one of the choreographers for the event. Jaffe, who has been supporting RDT and attending the company’s performances since the 1970s, mentioned that—should he ever get the chance to make a piece of dance—his years as an audience member had provided him with plenty of fodder. 

“I thought, oh my gosh, what if we gave all these people an opportunity to choreograph, but they’ve never been dancers, they’ve never trained as dancers, they’ve never choreographed before?” Cendese says. “[Artistic director] Linda [C. Smith] came up with the title “So You Think You Can Choreograph” and we all kind of figured out where to go from there.”

Loren Lambert in rehearsal for “We Are Human” for Repertory Dance Theatre's “Regalia.” Photograph by Sophie Bress

Jaffe isn’t the only one of the “Regalia” 2024 choreographers with a connection to RDT or to the wider dance world. Although the rules of the event stipulated that the participants could not be dance professionals, hold dance degrees, or have experience with performance and choreography, each of them do have some sort of dance connection in their past. O’Toole, for instance, has kept dance as a hobby throughout her life, teaching the art form to children and helping out with her own kids’ school productions, as well as taking class with RDT’s Prime Movement, a community dance class for adults aged 40 and up. Loren Lambert, another of the choreographers and an attorney by trade, is also a member of Prime Movement, while Eddee Johansen, a local restaurateur, became acquainted with the dance world through his daughter’s involvement. Abbie St. Vaughan cites dance and choreography as part of her college studies, although she did not ultimately graduate with a dance major or minor. 

“I definitely lost that really tight-knit community of dance when I left college,” St. Vaughan says. “It was exciting to see that RDT had opened up “Regalia” to nonprofessionals and it was kind of the perfect opportunity to try to get back into choreography.” 

Although, on the day ofRegalia,” the dances themselves came together in just four hours, the choreographers had ample time prior to performance day to brainstorm, plan, and consult with their assigned mentors, a group composed of former RDT dancers, current RDT staff, and local dance professionals. The entire process began in October 2023, with an application and virtual interview. As soon as the choreographers were accepted, fundraising began, with each participant given a $2000 goal.

Abbie St. Vaughan and cast in rehearsal for “No One Can Do Anything Alone” for Repertory Dance Theatre's “Regalia.” Photograph by Sophie Bress

In addition to the mentorship element of the process, RDT also provided the choreographers with a “boot camp” seminar focused on the technical and philosophical elements of the craft. The workshop, which was organized by Cendese, explored movement generation at length. Initially, many of the choreographers spent time grappling with the best ways to convey their central themes without making the movements too literal or relying too heavily on pantomime. They also wrestled with questions that more experienced dancemakers also explore, such as the merits of process versus product.

“Is the act of being creative about the process or the product? I think that’s an essential question that any artist has to answer,” Cendese says. “I think you approach it differently depending on how much you know about an art form. For instance, I do think that most of these new choreographers are thinking about the product, so the choreographic workshop became the way that I could teach them about the beauty of the process.” 

This focus on process was highlighted throughout the evening, too. While O’Toole’s rehearsal was underway, Lambert, St. Vaughan, and Johansen were also honing their works-in-process in the other rehearsal spaces throughout the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. RDT patrons were invited to wander the building during the rehearsals, stepping into each studio to observe the choreographers at work.

Abbie St. Vaughan and cast in rehearsal for “No One Can Do Anything Alone” for Repertory Dance Theatre's “Regalia.” Photograph by Sophie Bress

The final performance featured a panel of three judges (dance educator and former dancer Kareem Lewis, former RDT director of development David Pace, and University of Utah School of Dance professor emeritus Brent Scheider), whose role was to provide thoughtful commentary on the works, rather than to choose a “winner.”

St. Vaughan’s piece, “No One Can Do Anything Alone,” which opened the showcase, highlighted the push and pull between human and robot, especially in our technologically-driven world. Lambert’s “We Are Human” also played with the idea of humanness, but instead utilized animalistic movements and sounds in an original score. O’Toole’s work, “The InBetween” pulled from her own experiences grappling with the diagnosis of a rare tumor. Johansen’s music-driven “To Each Their Own,” set to Bon Iver, followed, and the performance ended with Jaffe’s “Beyond the 50’s,” a social dance-influenced work inspired by the era. 

“Regalia” 2024 spoke to RDT’s ethos in many ways. As Cendese puts it: “It all stems from this desire to demystify the art of dance and demystify the act of choreography to let people in on the choreographic process, to kind of pull back the curtain, literally and figuratively, on what it means to be a choreographer.”

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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