It occurred to Gary Vlasic to involve Deaf sign-language poet Walter Kadiki in a performance. And NOW-ID choreographer Charlotte Boye-Christensen took his idea (with his permission) and ran with it. (After all, he’s on her board.) As a result, we have “A Tonal Caress” running July12-14 at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
Vlasic, a noted Salt Lake City artist, designer and caterer has been having similar creative concepts for some 20 years now and typically pulls them off in style.
Never mind that the renowned Walter Kadiki lives in Melbourne and there’s no one in the Utah arts community who knows Australian Sign Language (it’s totally different from the American version). Or that it was going to take a couple of interpreters working with the Deaf poet to deal with a group of Utahns – it’s exhausting work. There would, of course, be other complications unseen as yet.
Still, it was a good idea. And Boye-Christensen has an interest in finding better ways to communicate. “While we as humans share a symphony of language, touch and fleeting looks that is truly remarkable, it still seems inadequate in the face of the infinite complexities between individuals and societies,” she says on her website.
She goes on to explain that the divisiveness of our Trumpian era (or rather “sociopolitical climate”) makes it urgent that we find better ways to connect. “The intent of combining choreography with sign language is to investigate how we communicate and alternate between the gross representations of expression and the subtle gesture as fleeting opportunity for connection,” says Boye-Christensen. “In this work, we aim to seek a deep communicative connection for both deaf and hearing audience and communities.”
Following on numerous rehearsals via Skype (can you imagine?), Walter Kadiki and interpreters Karen Clare and Mark Quinn arrived at Salt Lake International ready to work in person with NOW-ID. Gary Vlasic, it must be said, is not in any way left out here but is contributing a “moving installation,” a “mass of men”— eight of them, all tidy in tuxes and arrayed on the steps in the Great Hall of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts where this performance is being staged. (Audience members will be arranged in facing seats in the Hall and “choreographed,” as well.) NOW-ID previously has danced in such places as Saltair, the Masonic Temple, UMOCA – you never know where they will turn up, but it hasn’t been the same venue twice.
Architect and NOW-ID executive director Nathan Webster, Boye-Christensen’s husband who typically is involved with set building and design, this time has taken on the role of “production coordinator,” as well as handling most of the publicity, amicably chatting up Mary Dickson on KUED and doing coffee and an interview downtown with this writer one morning last week.
Webster really knows what’s going down – problem is keeping him from being too rehearsed about it: he’s done this many times by now. One trusts an Americano might do the trick, and it seems to be a good start. “This has been brewing for a while,” Webster says, sipping his coffee, not seeming to intend the pun. “We had the idea last year. Charlotte and I were dismayed at the state of public discourse in the country: People not hearing each other, people not necessarily feeling like they were being heard. And also a level of separation: People not really connecting in a way that was supportive of everybody.
He explains that, as live performers, they have a way of bringing a group of people together, “the audience as well as performers,” and connecting “perhaps in a different way than a visual artist with a painting on the wall. There’s a chance for a more live, contemporary expression of communication.”
Webster says that when Vlasic mentioned that he was working on an installation piece “in collaboration with a poet who happened to be deaf, we thought maybe we should combine all of these things. But we grasped that idea and it set off a few potentials and ideas in our brains. I am not a dancer or performer but I see a lot of performances and it’s always interesting for me to see how ideas might get expressed in movement, not using spoken language but it still communicates.” It also fascinates him to see how an audience tries to understand and talk about what they’ve seen. “Most people don’t have the language to speak about it,” he observes. “At least with Charlotte’s choreography; it’s very abstract, primal, emotional, in the dance world they might say it’s a kinesthetic communication. So the potential for working with a Deaf poet raised a few ideas in that it does represent a language, it represents words.”
He explains that they didn’t understand Kadiki’s sign language “as a language” so responded to it very much as they would a dance. “An emotion, something that we feel, that we see in the expression in his face, in his body language, his hand movement. That was kind of the seed of the idea, actually. We don’t always know where these ideas will end up. We definitely don’t,“ says Webster with a smile. But they combined things in the rehearsal process, and by this time had the written poems that went along with the hand movements.
Since they were doing so much of this work together online, Webster says, “It was kind of an added consciousness of how we communicate, you know?” For example, they had to be more aware of, say, having Webster and Vlasic and Boye-Christensen there together and, on the other side of the world, Kadiki and an interpreter and maybe another person.
“You know our tendency to talk all at once, or to talk over each other or at a different pace – this required us to slow down,” says Webster. “The interpreter needed to hear just one person. We had to be aware that we would speak, the interpreter would hear, the interpreter would translate to Walter, he would sign to the interpreter and it would come back to us. So an attentiveness to body language was essential; there were a lot of interesting discoveries in this process. Slow down, hear people, don’t talk over each other, there’s a rhythm to that. Charlotte has become quite aware of that, of how she’s communicating and really concentrating and focusing on one person at a time. She’s used to talking to the whole company!” Webster says.
They are delighted with the UMFA space in the Great Hall. “We’re always looking for places that speak to us, that have an architectural presence, where they want us to be there,” he says. And in that space there is an exhibit by world-renowned contemporary artist Spencer Finch. “He has walked around the Great Salt Lake and recorded colors of the landscape and what he saw around the lake and placed those little color chips around the Great Hall with a little recording of where those were,” Webster explains. “It’s interesting, too, because we’ll have the audience in a kind of U-shape which is a reference to the place in which we live. The lighting [by Cole Adams] is going to be interesting because there’s a big skylight over the whole space and the natural light will be dimming down and the artificial light coming up during the course of the evening. There’s a grand staircase in the space where Gary will do an installation. His people will come down the staircase and there will be several groups of people weaving together: Gary’s group, the professional dancers, the poet and the audience.“
Then there are those unforeseen problems and issues:
There will be at least two poems translated into English – pre-recorded into spoken language. The third will be printed in the program. “That’s been an interesting discussion for us, too,” says Webster, adding that the company has worked with spoken word in performances before. “It’s . . . challenging,” he says carefully. “Sometimes it can distract from the physical kinesthetic part of dance, take you to a different part of your brain. That’s if it’s too wordy. But it can be done. We’ve considered projection, but that takes an audience member’s eye off of the stage. It all depends on where we’re putting people’s focus.
“So we’re playing with that. Right now, we think Walter will probably sign his poetry without the words at the same time so people get to experience him and then the words will come in at a different point. At other times, we will have him sign where it won’t be interpreted at all. Walter’s performances are going to be intense. I’ve seen some interesting choreography coming out of this, as well. It seems slower than what I’ve seen Charlotte do in the past, but there are moments that let us slow down with our seeing and feeling of it.”
A graduate of the University of Utah, Ann Poore is a freelance writer and editor who spent most of her career at The Salt Lake Tribune. She was the 2018 recipient of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Artist Award in the Literary Arts.