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April 2016
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
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Dance Profile: Salt Lake City
An Uncommon Evening
Erica Womack’s Choreography Mixes "Kick-Ass Dancers" with a Rock Beat

Despite my best efforts, I was running late to Mudson, a works in progress series presented by loveDANCEmore. As I rushed into the lobby of Sugar Space, my eyes just barely caught the long limbs of a dancer, clad in relaxed rehearsal clothes, finishing a swooping movement and coming to rest in a wide stance. I heard the last few strains of loud rock melodies and, peeking through the curtains that shrouded the performance space, I realized that those guitar riffs, drum beats, and bass lines weren't just emanating from the speakers, they were coming from a band that effortlessly shared the stage with the dancers.

That small preview of Erica Womack's choreography to The Weekenders' music happened to be the first time the dancers and musicians had come together. “I was so nervous to put it all together,” Womack says. “I always get a little nervous to show my work but this was different because there was an element that I didn't have control over.” Womack has been working on this show for about a year, collaborating with The Weekenders to produce a performance that aims to bring in new audiences by reaching beyond Salt Lake City's small but vibrant modern dance community. Later this month, this collaboration between The Weekenders and Womack will fill the State Room with music and dance at the band's album release show on April 29.

Womack was born and raised in California, where she “participated in any and all sports” but didn’t have any dance training until she attended the University of California, San Diego. After graduating there with an art history major and a dance minor, she relocated to Salt Lake City to complete her MFA at the University of Utah. 

She remained, not only because life in Utah is more affordable than Southern California, but because she felt the local dance community was “such a great, vibrant scene. I felt I could be part of it in a viable way.” She’s also impressed with the level of dance in the local community, where high schools have modern curriculums, something she missed out on in California.

She has worked as a Pilates instructor to subsidize her choreography, and since finishing grad school has been an adjunct professor at Salt Lake Community College, and is currently a guest artist at Westminster College. With three young children now at home (all under the age of 6), she has had to streamline her teaching load as well as her creative and performing projects.

In 2014, she used the experience of childbirth to create “Dear Son,” a duet in which two female dancers celebrate motherhood by moving together as they create a series of gestures around the abdomen. The piece was premiered at loveDANCEmore’s Daughters of Mudson in June of that year and again in the fall at Sugar Space, for Courtney Norris’ artist-in-residence program. With Norris, she also performed “’Tis a Gift,” another touching duet for female dancers, and in 2015 was part of the troupe for Ashley Anderson’s “witch dance” at Memorial House.

While she’s been working steadily behind the walls of the college setting, she sees the current project with The Weekenders as a return to the public forum. She was able to secure two grants for the piece, which allows her to pay her dancers.

With modern dance too often seen as unapproachable, Womack views the collaboration as a way to shake things up. “There is something that draws me to choreographing to rock music,” she explains. “Maybe it is the accessibility factor.” Womack hopes the raucous but relaxed energy of a rock concert will reveal the excitement and entertainment too often missed in modern dance. Through this marriage of live dance and music, Womack seeks to present a show that is intriguing for both a seasoned dance viewer and a concertgoer seeing modern dance for the first time.

Though The Weekenders will perform live alongside the dancers, Womack created to recordings of the band, explicitly tying the movement to the vibe and lyrics of each song. Many modern choreographers balk at the idea of building dances to the music, preferring to move against music or entirely independent of sound. Womack, however, embraced a close, even dependent relationship between the music and the choreography. Creating in this way gives Womack liberty to spend more time exploring visual composition and the phrasing of movement. “I didn't have to come up with the esoteric why [hands pleading to the sky!], it was already built in.” 

Despite the strong link between her choreography and The Weekenders songs, Womack sees the performance relationship between the dancers and the musicians as more of a visual push and pull.  There are even moments of stillness built into the choreography so the audience can turn their attention to the natural, unplanned movement of performing musicians. “I have always been fascinated with how musicians move, in dance we talk about if you are going to use a prop you have to really explore it, and I think rock bands totally do this.”

As the five dancers and The Weekenders take the well-loved stage of the State Room, it will certainly be an uncommon evening of dance and music for Salt Lake audiences, whether they are drawn to the band, the dancing, or just curious about what's going on at the State Room on a Friday night. “In many other shows that I have been involved in I have hoped that people would understand my intent, or see my skill and hard work,” Womack says. “But with this show I want everyone to be jamming to the music and see how kick-ass my dancers are.”

Theater: Salt Lake City
Plan B's Kingdom of Heaven
A Mormon Roadshow with an LGBT Message

There is one topic du jour that seems repetitive: devout Mormons, lapsed Mormons, non-Mormons, all appear concerned lately (belatedly) with LGBT rights in the LDS Church. Books like the Mormon mystery His Right Hand by Mette Ivie Harrison, so many newspaper articles and letters to the editor, and now the first original musical at Plan-B Theatre Company, “Kingdom of Heaven,” deal abundantly with this subject.

Thursday night, it was Plan-B on the docket and an entertaining evening of singing and dancing it turned out to be, intentionally, it seemed, just like a Mormon roadshow of old — along with the topical stuff, of course. (Much of it confusing to non-LDS types, but all of this gets a bit easier to understand with practice, or so this reviewer has found.)

Apple’s Siri greeted us as the lights dimmed, ironically asking that we turn off our cell phones and iPads among other general announcements: the play would be 80 minutes long and if you needed to use the Ladies you wouldn’t be allowed back into the theater – that sort of thing.

Siri also told us that the book and lyrics were by Jenifer Nii; music and lyrics by David Evanoff; and the play was (extremely well) directed by Plan-B artistic director Jerry Rapier.

The plot centers on MJ (Jeanette Puhich), a seemingly happy (but nevertheless slightly frustrated) Mormon housewife.

Brenda, her best friend and neighbor (Susanna Florence) encourages her to send a vocal tape to a rocker show (“Don’t tell me you sent them a Carpenter’s song?” she asks, aghast). MJ actually has sent in a song of her own composition and is invited to perform with a group of “drag kings.”

While she loves her husband and children (even delivering powerful “testimony” at an LDS chapel to this effect – also sharing her belief in Jesus Christ and the eternal family and some other things I didn’t get – gentiles might want to glance at The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Your Quick A-to-Z guide to Mormonism” before seeing this play — things are beginning to seem a little shaky at home and she wants very much to pursue a musical career.

Husband Joe (David Hanson – pitch perfect in every way) suggests his wife get a new hairstyle, a new dress, a makeover, have a spa day. MJ questions why that’s necessary, which leads to a heated discussion followed by a charming duet:”I Love You the Way You Are.” That sentiment doesn’t last for long.

MJ suddenly appears in pants instead of her long Mormon dresses, muttering about making further transitions, more than confusing her husband and kids. Unfortunately, there simply was not enough development of MJ’s character prior to her “discovering” her masculine side for this abrupt change to make sense.  “You seemed happy before,” Brenda says. “You can seem a lot of things,” MJ retorts.

And transition she does, appearing at her husband’s office party replete with David Bowie hair and wearing a tailored “man’s” suit instead of a gown. (It was Ann Taylor, actually.) Her appearance leads to a major blow-up at home, with shockingly crude language one does not expect in an LDS household. Joe tells MJ that this is where it starts – next she’ll be demanding the priesthood.

Gender identity and the church are revealed to be at the core of the play and some touching scenes (and surprising ones) ensue, accompanied, of course, by lovely and often amusing lyrics. MJ ultimately will perform a song called “Drag!” at a place called The Pleather Club – a name which seems a little “focused” for your average gay bar in Salt Lake City. And “I Love You the Way You Are” gets an unexpected performance as “I Like You the Way You Are.” Wait for it.

On opening night there were a couple of correctible flaws: Susanna Florence’s delicate soprano, for example, often couldn’t be understood over the music, as was true occasionally of other actors’ voices, particularly when the organ soared.

But David Evanoff’s orchestration and musical direction were superb — as was expected from The Tribune’s March 27th glowing feature article on him. Philip R. Lowe’s costumes were spot-on, though it did seem that friend Brenda changed outfits more often than a Kardashian.  Jesse Portillo’s lighting was, typically, excellent and the sets by Thomas George worked beautifully. Stage manager Jennifer Freed went beyond her job description to keep things running smoothly.

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