The Bertelsen Manor was an uncommon venue for Deseret Experimental Opera Company’s 2047. Filled with childhood photos, piles of mail, and an old dog that wandered across the wood floors, the space was immediately intimate: I felt as if I was visiting a friend rather than attending a performance. Bolstered by this informal energy, the operas themselves were presented in the home’s attic ballroom.
Founded in 2013 by Logan Hone, Jesse Quebbeman-Turley, and Luke Swenson, Deseret Experimental Opera Company (DEXO) is an artistic collective that emphasizes cross-medium collaboration. In this vein, 2047 asked four teams, each comprising a librettist, a composer, and a choreographer, to create “micro-operas” addressing a simple but open-ended question: what will the Wasatch Front be like in thirty years?
“The Beekeeper’s Journal” followed a beekeeper and her apprentice as they attempted to manage a swarm of bees that commandeered a data center, putting both the beekeepers and the data retrievers at risk. “Back Below” delved into the memories of Sarah and Rachel as they flew home to a Wasatch Front that no longer sees winter snow. A security system trapped an unhappy couple in “Open House.” Finally, “The 55 Brides of Brileen Young” profiled a group of polygamist brides as they prepared to travel east across the plains.
Written by Lara Candland and choreographed by Jasmine Stack, “The Beekeeper’s Journal” punctuated brief dialogues and audio of journal entries describing the mesmerizing beauty of a beehive with movement accompanied by layered counting in various languages. The beekeeper and her apprentice folded into mirrored positions, echoing and tessellating into each other with soft fluidity. The warmth of these dance sequences contrasted the vacantly precise gestures employed by the beekeeper during the rest of the operetta. Utilizing spacious silence, expressionless voices, and an ominous buzzing of hidden instruments, sound designer Jesse Quebbeman-Turley created an open landscape that was far from what I expected of an opera. Ending with the suggestion that the bees had disturbingly embalmed the beekeeper and workers in sweet honey, I questioned what exactly the relationship was between the bees and the humans.
With an incisive libretto by Ilana Fogelson and crisp music by Hannah Johnson McLaughlin, “Back Below” focused on Sarah, as she returned to her family and home after twenty years away, and Rachel, as she attempted to introduce her daughter to a childhood home far away in place and memory. Emma Sargent’s performance as Sarah stood out for its simplicity and sincerity. As Sargent leaned her head against an imagined window, her movement and voice’s nuanced clarity were arresting. A foil to the quiet seriousness of Sargent, Nicholas Daulton’s Flight Attendant was delightful. Full of humor and charm, Daulton’s playful gestures poked fun at the familiar pre-flight speech. I actually laughed out loud as he signaled the chorus’s direction changes while in a one-legged airplane balance.
Emma Wilson’s choreography for “Back Below” was witty and engaging. Wilson deftly arranged the chorus with movements recognizably specific but heightened just enough to make them feel futuristic. They argued over seats and climbed across rows, wove their hands like blades of grass and jostled with the turbulence of the plane. Wilson tightly forged the movement to the story and music, creating a predicted future that felt darkly realistic despite its comedy. At one point, a silver cord physicalized the connection between Rachel’s daughter and Sarah, tying one’s head to the other’s heart. Simple and poignant, the cord twisted to entangle the two, binding childhood creation of memory to adulthood’s remembering. I wondered how we will convey the memory of this place once it has changed beyond recognition. How do you tell a child about snow when they may never see it? As strange as that question sounds, “Back Below” reminded me that it is an unfortunately practical one to consider.
I couldn’t make up my mind about “Open House.” It felt like the collaborators couldn’t either. The franticly absurd energy of the two dancers portraying the rogue security system, their wonderfully silly bright red goggles, and a mid-action rave complete with LEDs, glow sticks, and light-up gloves primed me for a darkly surprising comedy. But the music and story took themselves very seriously. I wished “Open House” had gone more the direction of Carly Schaub’s quirky choreography; it was a missed opportunity.
Closing the nearly three-hour evening, “The 55 brides of Brileen Young” opened with deep voices singing navigation directions from Provo, Utah, to the Missouri site where the LDS Church places the Garden of Eden. Brides of all genders, dressed in a mixture of white skirts, silken nightgowns, and billowing sleepshirts marked with blue “b”’s, pantomimed preparing, searching, and gathering. Supported by an ominous drone recalling an electric generator, the brides seemed trapped in the repetitive forward motion of travel. Luke Swenson’s allusive libretto related a series of vignettes in the life of the group of polygamist brides.
One bride, a cappella, called the rest to prepare. Their answers were layered so thickly that individual voices were difficult to differentiate. One by one, the brides met each other mid-stage to matter-of-factly detail preparatory shopping and the quiet rigors of child rearing. Joined by a few audience members, the brides sang a rustic hymn and alluded to Mormon Sunday meetings, one of the many references throughout to LDS culture. Introduced by the ward choir director, they called upon members, all with the last name Young, to “fulfill their destiny.” Even when the brides were separated, they were distinctly united as if their lives had been entwined to the point of becoming indistinguishable. This feeling largely came from the dense compositions of Stuart Wheeler and from Meagan Bertelsen’s simple but skillful spatial arrangements. Voice and body were defined by those around them in a way that did not diminish individuals but instead honored dependency.
In a particularly absorbing moment, two bearded brides stood chest to chest, their bodies pushed into each other and sparely lit by a flashlight pressed between them. Lips nearly touching, they sang of an intimacy that softened edges and they echoed this intimacy in the boundary-blurring nearness of their bodies. The indefinable story coupled with the uncommon sight of such closeness captivated me. I relished the ability to wander through all possibilities of their relationship and did not want the tender moment to end.
As I wrote this review, I found myself talking through the show much more than usual, only able to process the performance through rambling conversation. Because only theme and medium loosely tied the four operas, 2047 did not lend itself to a neat concluding impression. Some moments made me sit up straighter and some didn’t. However, that was the draw: it was an evening formed around wondering and striving rather than arriving.
“2047,” Deseret Experimental Opera Company, Oct. 19-22, Provo and Salt Lake City, reviewed Oct. 22,deseretopera.org.
This review is published in collaboration with loveDANCEmore.org.
Mary Lyn Graves, a native of Tulsa, OK, studied dance at the University of Oklahoma. She currently dances with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company in Salt Lake City.