Repertory Dance Theater (RDT) maintains a clear mission to preserve and perform historical modern dance works. This near fifty-year undertaking has required a dedicated administrative staff who are able to navigate the contexts in which these dances can be learned and rehearsed in a city like Salt Lake, but more importantly, it continues to require a group of dancers able to fully embody a diverse range of historical techniques across the span of one evening.
This season, half of the dancers taking up this task with RDT are new.* Justin Bass, Efren Corado Garcia and Ursula Perry have different backgrounds but, in conversation all agree that they feel motivated by and engaged with the current work of the company.
Bass, a recent graduate of SUNY Brockport, took the job right after school based on a strong recommendation from his teacher Bill Evans, a former leading dancer with the company who went on to choreograph 18 works in their archive, including “For Betty,” reviewed recently (see here). Bass had originally planned to move to New York to try working as an independent artist but doesn’t regret his decision to take a risk on a smaller city noting that, “Salt Lake is providing the time I need to develop as an artist and the vibe here and the art being made is really amazing.”
Efren Corado Garcia and Ursula Perry have long been part of that vibe, as choreographers, performers and teachers across the valley. Garcia is known best for his recent solo-work “Transcripts,” which won the annual Sugar Show in 2011, and for his collaborative choreographic projects around town. Perry has performed for artists as varied in scale as RawMoves and SBDance while also maintaining an ongoing presence as a teacher and choreographer for high school dance programs.
Both artists acknowledge that their transition to working full-time for a single company caused challenges (whether for finances or schedules) but that it has also been immensely rewarding, even exceeding their expectations. For Perry, having worked with many of the dancers in other contexts created “a supportive environment that was finally the right fit” she’d been searching for. For Garcia, the reward came not just through those relationships but in “adding something new to my bucket of skills and knowledge. RDT does that for me and it makes it easier to continue to stay in Salt Lake.”
Similar to Garcia’s reflection, all three dancers agree that working for RDT allows them to feel like they are constantly learning, something that had been frequently absent from their more contemporary experiences both making and performing. Garcia reflected on a particular solo by Ted Shawn that he performed as part of the season-opening Legacy, noting that “here is this man who started much of modern dance and I am doing his solo.” He went on to describe how maintaining whatever textures or imagery a given artist has requested from him gives him a newfound responsibility within his dancing. Garcia’s favorite expression to describe this feeling was actually something said in conversation by Bass: you read about it, I dance it.
Ideally the dancers’ work undertaking historical reconstructions won’t only be rewarding for the them personally but also for the company objectives and ultimately, Salt Lake audiences. RDT has fallen under some criticism for the lack of diversity in their dancers given the breadth of modern dance they aim to present. The new company members answer this call not only through a broad representation of age and race but also through their experiences and perspectives. Perry noted that this new company make-up is “more now and more current…for a long time modern dance has only been for modern dancers. More diverse casts can give new richness that hopefully pulls new audiences in.”
Perry’s comments here speak to a larger conversation about dance and the idea that expectations of what dancing bodies should look like is notoriously homogenous and any method of defying them, particularly in the case of historic repertory, can breathe new life into certain pieces. She believes that changing the dynamic of performers can change the way the dance is received in the general community and the way they relate to what is seen on stage.
That goal of audience engagement is always a challenge in an era where popular images of dance in the media are quite different from what RDT aims to present on stage but the new company members seem to believe they are up to it. Bass reflected on the different qualities each performer maintains in this new grouping, whether athleticism or fluidity, and how those combine to create a really dynamic and fresh situation. All the dancers mentioned that their cohesion has allowed RDT to consider bringing up pieces from the repertory that haven’t been performed in years for one reason or another and they feel truly invested in what’s up this season.
Almost all of their learning takes place through viewing of video with choreographers or rehearsal directors coming for only a week or two to refine the foundation the dancers have essentially taught themselves with the help of senior company members.
One particular piece, “Fines Amour” is being reconstructed for the upcoming show Lively. The dance showcases the company in duets that play to their particular strengths. In the case of Bass and Perry there is a lot of athletic partnering which seems to turn the traditional conventions of who can be lifted and who should be passive on its head. All of the dancers emphasized that the pairings amplify the relationships shared on and off stage, which provides a more intimate experience than some of the larger ensemble pieces audiences may be used to seeing. The concert will also feature a reprise of the company’s “Bolero,” which Garcia remembers watching from the wings last year as he anticipated joining the ranks of the group.
Some of the new members have toned down their independent projects while taking on their first full season. But others consider how to keep their presence in other local areas. Bass is enjoying teaching through RDT and also in a few studios but says he’s also really into fashion, another path of study from college, and he appreciates the “time to do something of the dance clock while using the women of the company as his models and muses.” Perry adds that she may be doing more projects with SBDance depending on her time-frame, and most hopefully Garcia hinted that if he decides to pursue his own choreographic work again it may be through a resurgence of the RDT LINK program which has fostered works in the past by its dancers: Nic Cendese, Sarah Donohue & Aaron Wood, among others.
See these dancers and the entire RDT company perform Lively at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center November 22-23, www.arttix.org.
*Alyssa Thompson also joins the RDT troupe this year, but was unavailable for this interview.
Ashley Anderson is a choreographer based in Salt Lake City. She is founder of loveDANCEmore, a blog and biannual journal about dance in Utah, and currently serves as 15 Bytes’s Dance Editor.