Choreographer Ann Carlson has a longstanding relationship with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, originally studying modern dance under company co-founders Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury at the University of Utah in the 1970s. While there, Carlson also studied under the late Elizabeth Hayes, who brought the dance major to fruition at the U in 1953. Since Carlson began her choreographic career in the ’80s, Ririe-Woodbury has added a couple of her works to their repertoire: “50 Years” (1996), most recently reprised in 2016, and now a world premiere for the company’s spring season at the Rose Wagner, “Elizabeth, the dance.”
I’ve seen only these two dances by Carlson, but even without the context of her entire body of work, I feel as though I know her voice — so singular is her style of piecing together vocalized text, a never-ending stream of new ideas, and movement that often seems to stem from a natural physicality.
“Elizabeth, the dance” truly delighted, and so it’s almost a struggle to pin down the why and the how.
“Elizabeth” is like a collage by a well-known artist that you might convince yourself you could or would make: so many different components and references that you can clearly identify throughout, yet, strung together in a masterfully unique arc, the effect is truly producible by only that artist.
I use “arc” loosely here, because there is not one obvious narrative throughout. “Elizabeth” chronicles individual experiences, in real time, of each performer in reaction to a spectrum of challenges, prompts and experiences. Sometimes autobiographical, sometimes abstract, the dance constantly glances across a soaring range of emotions and qualities. Carlson’s structure lays each performer bare for us, while simultaneously allowing them to exist as a collective unit.
Multiple layers of whimsy and diversion are interwoven throughout, beginning with the dancers’ costumes. The base is a black skirt and leotard combo, the same for both the three men and three women. The skirt is then tied into pants, thrown over the head, tied up into a toga, and more. A tutu, tiara, and clown costumes are also donned at various points.
The set by Torry Bend adds another layer of visual interest. Oversized, stackable foam blocks form a wall that the dancers then disassemble, reassemble, pushed around, throw at each other, and launch themselves into over the course of the dance.
The array of visual elements never felt overdone to me; if anything, the costume and set changes always seemed natural, like unearthing and assuming new roles from a dress-up chest in the attic. The changes redirected the dance in unexpected and surprising ways each time, and I found myself wondering when the dancers had the chance to stock the next costumes or props behind the always-moving wall.
Throughout, images were suggested to me and then affirmed by some signifier soon after. This made the dance feel deliberate and well-crafted — an aware dance, able to anticipate and acknowledge its impact at any given time. This was achieved in tandem with the sound score, a live, onstage accompaniment by multidisciplinary musician Matthew McMurray. He used quite a few recordings by The Beatles, which often connected to the images onstage: Dancers in formation planted their hands on the ground, scurrying around with their feet while their black skirts swooped around them. I thought they looked just like a flock of birds descending upon a field. Immediately after, McMurray introduced “Blackbird” into the mix. It was a simple connection, but it gave me goosebumps. “Lady Madonna” (“…see how they run…”) accompanied the performers running frenziedly throughout the space, in varying, cartoonish ways. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” (“…gather ‘round, all you clowns…”) was slowed down and warped by McMurray as the dancers donned clown accoutrements and slumped along the foam wall in a sad yet mostly comical procession.
It’s difficult to talk about the dancing in “Elizabeth” as a whole because so many puzzling and amusing things happen the entire time.
Mary Lyn Graves had a solo for which she appeared en pointe, leaping spritely from side to side, and bourrée-ing yearningly. She then began crashing into performers, which caused her to practice a melodramatic gasp-and-fall on loop, until she reached the perfect cadence of gasp and fell for a final time.
Bashaun Williams performed a moving solo, beginning with a skillful basketball dribble, which featured a recording of him telling a story, concluding with “…angels exist, bro.” It was funny to hear him deliver that sentence, but the story and solo were both touching and thoughtful.
Melissa Younker, Yebel Gallegos and Alexandra Bradshaw, their skirts fashioned into draped togas, took turns balancing upon a single foam block quoting and describing an inspirational, though unnamed, woman. Posing and gesticulating, they appeared like three muses or the ancient Greek chorus.
Bashaun and Daniel Mont-Eton strode onstage holding three white balloons each, while McMurray’s sound became a down-and-dirty, bass-heavy track. The mysterious orbs and the visceral, vibrating music made Daniel and Bashaun seem so cool and powerful in this moment.
There were a lot of these for me: captivating visuals that also seemed to vibrate with something deeper. Maybe you could pinpoint what that deeper element was, and maybe not. All the same, I loved them both on their own and as a part of the larger accumulation of many working images.
Ultimately the dance ended, as they do, but for me it could have gone on into the night (never mind “too much of a good thing”). Carlson seemed to anticipate this with her false ending: we clapped, but the dancers returned to the blocks and began a rather meditative section.
Then a popcorn machine appeared. The smell of butter wafted over the theater, and suddenly the dancers descended upon us, crying out like concession hawkers, “Popcorn! Popcorn for everyone!” A free-for-all ensued: dancers aimed kernels into audience members’ mouths, everyone munched from their personal bags, and the dance seamlessly melted into a rambunctious post-show gathering of performers, family and friends.
And it was truly magical; we had made it to the end and here was our reward.
Carlson remembered her dancers in crafting such a human work, with so many moments for each to shine. She remembered her mentors and the past through the era-traveling patchwork she has created with “Elizabeth, the dance.” Finally, she remembered us, the watchers, without whom the dance would exist only for the do-ers.
Writer’s note: Congratulations are in order for company dancer Alexandra Bradshaw, on a fantastic final performance with Ririe-Woodbury. Salt Lake City will miss her dearly, both onstage and off!
This article is published in collaboration with loveDANCEmore.org
Amy Falls, a Virginia native, studied ballet at the North Carolina School of the Arts and received a BFA in modern dance from the University of Utah. She currently works as an arts administrator in Salt Lake City.