What determines how we view identity? This question lay at the heart of La Mela, a program recently presented by Austin Hardy that featured works by local artists Rebecca Aneloski and Stephen Koester. Presented in the intimate black box in the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Arts & Education Complex at the University of Utah, the evening explored questions of performance, affectation and affection, memory, and interpersonal relationships. The works focused on how individuals may relate to social space both within and around themselves, and how those relationships drive who we are and who we become.
“Man Dance,” choreographed by Stephen Koester, modern dance chair at the University of Utah, was a thoughtfully crafted work that delved into what it means to be a man. Beyond just being a man, what does it mean to look, act, sound, and exist “like a man”; who successfully gets to be a man and what drives that success? With extremely physical partnering representative of Koester’s style, “Man Dance” was a duet between Micah Sir-Patrick Burkhardt and Austin Hardy, and kept me engaged throughout.
The piece opened with Burkhardt and Hardy performing a warm-up. Dressed in gray and black sweatsuits, the two seemed unaware of the audience’s presence until they were suddenly hyper-aware. While their voices dropped from their natural registers, the two continued to say, “I’m a man!” entertaining the audience at first, but eventually forcing a question: why did the two men feel the need to repeat this phrase? Even though Burkhardt and Hardy were performing versions of themselves, they were still characterized and performing affectations.
I appreciated Koester’s range of references in “Man Dance,” with movement motifs spanning from a western gun battle to superheroes, cavemen, a traditional Jewish wedding dance, and finally to MC Hammer. Each presented its own interpretation of what manhood means and, more importantly, each existed specifically to define masculinity. Burkhardt and Hardy, through these motifs, became the fighter, the savior, the provider, and the arbiter of “cool.” By presenting these motifs in a male duet, “Man Dance” exaggerated the men’s roles and forced the audience to view them as hyperbolic and impossible to embody.
Through Koester’s partnering, we were shown authentic weight transference between the two bodies, negating the role of the lonesome male figure. We were shown two bodies relying on each other in a way that was both intimate and clear in its connections. While some of the partnering was meant to be comedic, it maybe only seemed so because of a sense of machismo the dancers were attempting to personify.
I felt discomfort for the performers as they tried to manifest these roles with hunched backs and sharp angles, dressed in their sweat outfits, clearly uncomfortable. Toward the end of the piece, we experienced their real physical discomfort as they caught their breath, literally, in a spotlight. Their inability to completely embody the fictionalized, hyper-masculine roles was presented with nothing else to look at.
I questioned the role of mishaps in the piece, both of ones that were choreographed and others that might have been accidents. Though sometimes questioning them because of the performers’ reactions, Hardy made me feel his mistakes truly, in a way that enforced an impossible binary. At the end of the piece, both dancers embodied a groove in their pelvis, and I felt Hardy let go of all other roles he had been playing to exist in this physical element for himself. It was appropriate that this came at the end of the piece, as it was an immense relief to see the dancers stop fighting to become something and to simply be themselves.
A second work began after a brief intermission, this one choreographed by Rebecca Aneloski, a performer and teacher with SALT Contemporary Dance. I am unsure of the title of the work, but I assume it was “La Mela,” which translates to “the apple” in Italian. This seemed to be a deeply personal work for Aneloski and focused on memory; having worked with Aneloski in the past, I am familiar with her Italian roots. Complementary to this background knowledge, the stage was set with a table and chairs and a bookcase, all in constant shifting motion, furthering the idea of memory through a familial context.
The piece opened with a quartet, featuring Burkhardt, Hardy, Nell Rollins, and Natalie Jones, and quickly grew to a larger cast, adding Natalie Border, Amy Fry, Allie Kamppinen, Haleigh Larmer, Chang Liu, Megan O’Brien, Laura Schmitz, Bayley Smallwood, and Sarah Stott. The large cast engulfed the stage with their presence and with Aneloski’s expansive movement vocabulary. The dancers constantly reached for and pulled each other, seemingly in slow motion even when the pace was brisk. They provided both physical and emotional support, remaining completely connected throughout the piece. Approximately an hour long, the piece presented moments for each dancer to shine.
I was struck by the thought of rediscovering the familiar, by way of memory and of caretaking throughout the entire piece. Regardless of who was being featured at the moment, the rest of the cast continuously arranged and rearranged the set: moving books to and from the bookcase; rearranging cups, plates, the tablecloth, chairs; finding new ways to see these everyday items. I often found myself entranced by what the next configuration on the table was going to be, and was surprised when my focus returned from the dancers to the set and it was completely different than I’d last seen it.
Though not explicit, specific motifs were repeated throughout the piece that lent themselves to an exploration of childhood memories. Natalie Border had one of the clearest moments of this, as she could often be seen traipsing around the stage with one arm reaching up and behind herself, her gaze toward the sky, as though flying a kite. She even brought a sense of lightness to some of the heavier moments, her white-blond hair breathing fresh air into the scenes, as well as anchoring them. She gave the audience something to hold onto.
A feeling of foreboding and death surrounded Sarah Stott from the beginning of the piece through to the end. She was the only dancer to appear in color at first; from her initial entrance, she created drama, as she fell and the other dancers threw flower petals at her body. Throughout the rest of the piece, she swan-dived into the others, trusting them to catch her and seeming not to care what happened to her if they didn’t. At the end, she collapsed again, this time for good, as the titular apple appeared.
During the whole piece, we were presented with a style and vocabulary that was uniquely Aneloski’s, though with clear input from the performers. I was continually struck by moments and lines being cut off abruptly and almost awkwardly to create a sense of visual, and probably physical, discomfort. Chests were almost constantly forward, with arms reaching past shoulders, heads raised to create room for protruding appendages. The air surrounding the dancers had a tactile feel. Hands were often held at the hip, seemingly ready for action. During a duet with Burkhardt and Jones, this vocabulary was brought to a writhing climax in Jones’ body as her movement picked up pace and the discontinuous and tactile sensation continued. This hindered her ability to stay on her own two feet and led to beautiful partnering.
One moment that stood out to me was a duet between Liu and Stott. They moved with such clarity and assuredness that, even with all the shifting bodies and scenery onstage, my eye was drawn only to them. Amid chaos, their clarity of line, precise unison, and powerful stage presence was completely engaging.
Overall, because of a large cast and constant movement, the work was chaotic. But memory is also chaotic. How we define ourselves derives from memory, both personal and external, and that perception is constantly shifting, much like the stage in “La Mela.” Without being able to pinpoint one specific element, the work felt autobiographical, like Aneloski was telling a story about her life through memory. It felt authentic to the dancers’ stories as well. I appreciated this deeply personal work and know that we can expect to see more from Aneloski in the future.
This article is published in collaboration with loveDANCEmore.org.
Natalie Gotter is a performer, choreographer, instructor, filmmaker, and researcher. She recently completed her MFA in Modern Dance at the University of Utah and is on faculty at Utah Valley University, Westminster College, and Salt Lake Community College.