Moving Community: Missa Brevis and Performance Arts Festival

This weekend Salt Lake audiences will be treated to a wide range of performance experiences starting with Repertory Dance Theatre’s (RDT) season opening Legacy and continuing with the Performance Art Festival at the Main Library. Both events seek to unite local interests and artists with a more national and historical context for their respective fields.

RDT’s mission has long centered on the preservation of historic concert dance. The 2013 season opening concert is no exception. Legacy will present works by modern dance figures Doris Humphrey, Ted Shawn and notably, Jose Limón’s “Missa Brevis,” which is new to the company’s archive.

For several weeks, Nina Watt, a former member of the Limón Company, taught for RDT while re-staging “Missa Brevis” (which features not only RDT members but guest performers from the undergraduate programs at BYU and UVU — the piece will be staged later this year at BYU). She uses the word “humanism” to describe the movement style of Limón’s work. “Missa Brevis” means “Short Mass” and sprang from Limón’s visit to Poland after World War II. Limón marveled at the peoples’ hope as they rebuilt their churches and theaters in the midst of the devastation of war. The dance celebrates and investigates this hope, and while historical, its themes certainly relate to the contemporary moment where violence, particularly war, is inextricably linked to the human experience.

Throughout the piece, Limón contrasts the roles of the community and the outsider, a reflection of Limón’s own internal struggle when as a teenager he renounced his Catholic faith after the death of his mother and as he faced ongoing questions of identity. The performance could have an especially strong resonance for the local community, where many have personal experience with individuals who find themselves similarly on the outside of their circle of family, friends and community when they leave their faith tradition.

In RDT’s re-staging, Aaron Wood is tasked with the role of the “outsider,” where he must present the embodiment of Limón’s technique, central to gravity and human gestures as well as the illustration of a complex character. Wood’s performance frequently takes place in stark contrast to the larger group through Limón’s choreographic consideration of time and space. While religious symbols such as the crucifix and the imposition of ashes abound, the piece also includes common hand gestures such as reaching and opening. To foster these gestures, Watt asked the dancers to reference their personal experiences overcoming hardship.

While working in Salt Lake City, Watt complimented the vibrant dance culture in the city and said she believes a strong dance community comes from sharing with one another instead of competing. This spirit of sharing continues this weekend with the Performance Art Festival, curated by Kristina Lenzi for the Main Library. As a contrast to the work of RDT, which values historical icons, the festival brings together contemporary local and national artists currently working in varying modes of performance. As many local artists have employed the gorgeous architecture offered by the library space, the festival will be an interesting way to view diverse approaches to performance in a condensed time frame.

Lenzi chose the site for its role as a community gathering place which is able to attract a large and diverse audience. After studying performance at Tufts University over a decade ago, Lenzi has long hoped to plan a festival on this scale and hopes that anyone visiting the library this weekend will leave not only pleasantly surprised, but also with some exposure and appreciation of this live art form where the actions of the physical body are seen as the art.

Kristina Lenzi performing in Boston.

On Friday, Gretchen Reynolds, known for her work in painting and puppetry, will present a new performance with her daughter Zoey in the Library’s SHARE room. Gretchen is one of several artists included with shorter performances but other artists plan to perform for longer durations, including Jorge Rojas whose work “I Could Go On and On…” can be found in the library elevators throughout the day Saturday. The idea of having a performance unexpectedly appear as patrons venture to a different floor is sure to attract new audiences, as will Jeffery Byrd’s work for the staircases and Bryce Kauffman’s for the Attic in the Children’s Library. By contrast to these intimate spaces most of the other participating artists prefer to utilize the larger Urban Room, including Marilyn Arsem, who is back from Boston after visiting SLC last year to perform at Nox Contemporary. Her work “Lost Words” is sure to feature a contemplative nature that will incite lots of questions from the audience, although perhaps not as many answers.

Lenzi’s view as a curator is that performance is an immediate form which doesn’t allow for rehearsal. While it’s unclear if that’s the model all participating artists have followed, this belief makes her hesitant to offer too much information on what artists plan to present. Lenzi opts instead to validate the mysterious notion that anything could happen while hinting that most works look to involve community engagement and some request for patron participation. Although very different from the consistently rehearsed choreography of RDT, this style of event addresses some of the same concerns regarding community, isolation and spectatorship. As Limón searched for clear ways to share his views on society, the Performance Art Festival looks to more direct means where artists can create new relationships with unexpecting partners in unusual places using whatever tools seem to work in the moment.


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.

Categories: Dance

1 reply »

  1. Thanks, Ashely, for this illuminating article on the dance offerings this weekend.

    Last night at the panel discussion on Missa Brevis, funded by the Utah Humanities Council, the background of this remarkable dance and its implications today were stage center. Thank you to the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art for hosting and for all of the panelists, moderated by author Maximilian Werner. A video recording of the proceedings by Dodge Billingsley, founder of CFR Media and coincidentally one of the panelists, will be available soon online.

    Meanwhile the concert LEGACY featuring “Missa Brevis” and several other historically-important(and thrilling)dances opens tonight at the Rose Wagner (Oct. 3-5)

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