‘Dance, like any work of art, is not interesting unless it provokes you—where you say, “I never thought of that,” and have some new experience … When I see dances where I can perceive from the first five minutes what they’re going to be, my interest drops 50 percent. What’s interesting is exactly the way many disparate things are brought together. That’s the kind of world we live in, and that’s the way I work.’ – Merce Cunningham (1919-2009) (in Liam Julian’s ‘Considering Merce Cunningham’)
In the performing arts, eight seconds sometimes is long enough to transform a creative work from the ordinary to something unforgettable in its power to communicate. It could be a musical phrase, a line of dialogue, a pause for silence, or a small yet sudden shift in mood or tone.
In modern dance, certainly in the way that Merce Cunningham – one of the field’s greatest artists, teachers, and choreographers – envisioned it, the expressive quality of even one simple movement could be lifted from its ordinary or pedestrian place to become a creative building block for a performance piece.
And, at this year’s Utah Arts Festival, the Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) – the oldest company of its kind in the United States dedicated not only to performing but also preserving the largest collection of American dance in the world – is offering festival visitors a chance to experience ‘8 Seconds of Fame.’
During each of the four days at the festival – from1 p.m. to 2 p.m. at the Festival Stage – members of the RDT company will be videotaping anyone attending the festival who wants to share eight seconds of movement, which can be anything from simply walking across to the stage to demonstrating a gesture to executing a dance or ballet move. It could be a pirouette or a swagger.
‘However, we want to emphasize that people should not think they need to have something down or practiced in advance,’ Linda Smith, RDT’s executive and artistic director, explains. ‘And, anyone – regardless of age or ability – can participate and share any movement that is part of their own movement language.’ As Cunningham would have suggested, human movement has limitless possibilities, Smith adds.
The company will review what Smith describes as a ‘creative bank of movements’ and see how they could be incorporated into a world premiere dance composition that will be presented in October at the company’s ‘Embark’ concert as part of its 47th season. As a bonus, the individuals who provided the selected movements will be acknowledged and invited to see the completed work in the fall. (PHOTO: ‘Gamut,’ choreographed by RDT dancers, Scott Peterson)
Smith believes this innovative approach to audience engagement is not only a good way to remove a lot of the misperceived and esoteric mystery that often is associated with modern dance. And, more frequently in an age where many seek out social media outlets and Internet channels such as YouTube to catch performance videos in many artistic genres, the ‘8 Seconds to Fame’ project is yet further acknowledgment that performing arts companies such as RDT always will benefit by give audiences a greater sense of ownership in the larger sense of the creative experience.
One of RDT’s most popular events is the annual Charette – the dance world’s version of Iron Chef competitions on the Food Network – in which audience members have a first-hand look at the creative process of creating and choreographing a dance and performing it within the span of an hour. Audiences are introduced to five pairs of choreographers and nearly 40 dancers selected from RDT and the community who then are given prompts that they must use in creating their dances, which then will be scored by a jury.
While the teams of dancers go to their respective studios to create their work, audience members enjoy food and beverages as they mingle and observe the creative process in the studios. After an hour, the audience returns to the theater for five world premieres and votes on their favorites. The winner is dubbed the ‘Iron Choreographer.’
In addition to ‘8 Seconds of Fame,’ RDT will perform two works on Sunday, June 24, at 6:30 p.m. on the Festival Stage. One is ‘Karyo,’ a 1996 piece developed by the late Susan McClain, a dancer, education, and choreographer who had ties to Utah. The 16-minute work in three sections – which features seven dancers from the company – takes it name from the biological compound prefix that refers to a cell’s nucleus. And, Smith says the choreography reflects symbolically the types of structural patterns one might see in different types of cellular movements and paths.
The other work is ‘Gamut,’ a work that, in effect, is always a world premiere each time it’s performed. For those participating in the ‘8 Seconds of Fame’ project, this will be a good example of what modern dance can achieve with a potentially infinite set of possibilities.
Created by RDT dancers, the work is predicated on Cunningham’s idea of collecting a ‘gamut’ of movements and materials that conceivably can be placed in a composition. However, Smith emphasizes that the work is not a purely chance or improvisational work. Instead, the work is structured more like a game where the rules ultimately permit elements of chance or indeterminacy. (PHOTO: ‘Karyo,’ choreographed by Susan McLain, Jeff Zhang)
Each of the seven dancers is given the opportunity to develop a section of movement where it can be precisely dictated or it can give the dancer a specific set of actions or movements that could be performed for that section. The real fun comes in the music where performers will click an iPod button and the music will randomly be shuffled to a chance target. It could be of any musical style or it could even be street, machine, or routine sounds. ‘The work is different each time it is performed,’ Smith adds.
Even despite the forecasts for hot weather, the dancers look forward to a major outdoor venue such as the Utah Arts Festival. ‘Performing at an outdoor festival provides the dancer with an expansive, flowing feeling,’ Sarah Donohue explains. ‘I love looking out to the crowd, the mountains, the sky, the setting sun. That setting sun can present some challenges, as it can drop down to eye level, making the dancers tap into their kinesthetic senses a bit more.’
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