Dance and education are linked out of compatibility and necessity. It makes sense for choreographers to have a regular space as well as a group of dancers to work with. And in an ever-shifting landscape of presenters and funding, it is also one of the few financially stable ways to stay in the form. An academic environment can allow choreographers to bridge teaching and the production of public creative works (Repertory Dance Theater and Ririe-Woodbury, for example, commission professors). At other times, it insulates choreographers as academic requirements overshadow the concept of a working artist. This dynamic extends, at the University of Utah, to MFA candidates, who make up a portion of course instructors. Each fall, MFA candidates typically present their creative research in a concert at the Marriott Center for Dance at the University of Utah and then, in the spring, most leave Utah. So other than a dedicated few, dance patrons see little of what emerging creative voices are up to. Molly Heller hopes to change that with an upcoming performance in downtown Salt Lake City.
After completing her BFA at the University of Utah, Heller stayed in Salt Lake City, creating work at start-up venues like Sugar Space, where she and Juan Aldape were the 2009 co-recipients of an “Audiences Award Artists” production grant. Work in New York followed, but soon she returned to Utah for graduate work.
Heller’s reasons for completing an MFA were varied: a personal matter necessitated re-location but she also felt the pressure of many young artists for securing a future in teaching. Her expectations about the program itself were equally complicated: she believed in artists teaching on campus but wanted to meet the requirements on her own terms.
In past years, a handful of students have moved their thesis works to alternative sites on campus but Heller set out to further shift the paradigm. In addition to designing a special topics course in “Viewing Dance,” Heller sought to change the way her thesis research itself could be viewed. After using the university’s Hayes Christensen Theatre last year, she felt the venue limited her work, since portions weren’t visible to the audience and the vitality in her dance-making comes, she says, “from seeing the face, the tension in the hands, even where the eyebrows are placed.” In addition to designs on how an audience might see physical bodies, Heller also wanted the audience to experience a “building with a lot of history, something old and lived in that can create an immersive experience. In my work, I’m interested in partnering with a space.”
The Ladies’ Literary Club was that space. When she discovered it in 2013, when another MFA student, visual artist Mary Sinner, used it for an interdisciplinary project (see our article), Heller was drawn instantly to the colors, textures and the duality of its reading as both a theatrical space and domestic interior. She also saw its possibility to attract a larger audience. Even though working off-campus means limited institutional support (the campus theater comes fully subsidized, with a tech crew, and marketing), Heller insisted on having a broader reach for her work. She wanted, she says, to “have a voice in the community because I’ve always believed artists can’t just isolate [themselves], although it’s easy to do.”
Together with fellow MFA student Sara Parker, she is preparing to set her new work at the club for a weekend of performances later this month. The excitement of a setting to feed creative ideas seems to have overshadowed the difficulty of locating resources and finding alternative funding for her project. Heller excitedly describes how with the large windows she’s been able to create lighting from outside and also, that she can use LEDs to give life to generally unnoticed spots, like the storage doors beneath the stage.
Part of the process of unfolding the interior has been collaborating with Gretchen Reynolds, a puppeteer:
It was interesting for my research but also a way to meet people working with similar ideas and different mediums. It’s awesome working with Gretchen because her energy in watching my piece has been vital in creating it. She doesn’t give me direct feedback but watching her face respond to my dance gives me information. She helps me make the space come alive. With the puppet, it’s like something else is present, something else in the space is awakening through the dance.
Reynolds has been on board with Heller’s ideas from the beginning, especially her idea that the puppet be an entity with a gold core while remaining malleable in a surface of wax. Because the pair use the puppet in a “way you might not expect,” Heller remains vague about its exact use, but suggests that it awakens through the dance while also commenting on the question, “Who are we performing for?” and what other things can blossom in a performance space.
In this vein, the piece utilizes a lot of popular music from the 1960s — a genre which influenced Heller when she was younger. Like the puppet, the music raises questions about what can be conjured up throughout a performance and also what unexpected topics might be explored through the backdrop of the familiar.
In the end, the dance is a research-in-process, and audiences are encouraged to stay after for tea (provided by the Tea Grotto, a business run by Heller and her husband Brad) and to keep discussing it as well as companion pieces on the program. Artists can also see a work by Sara Parker and a second piece where Heller collaborates with New Yorker and recent Guggenheim Fellow Netta Yerushalmy. Heller hopes the concert at large will “be a bridge to think about continually making work outside of school” and influence her current inspiration, curating a series where undergraduates can share their work in sites off-campus. All of it seems a piece of a puzzle where an artist tackles possibilities rather than meeting structural expectations.
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.