“Inter Action,” a repertoire performance presented by Weber State University’s Orchesis Dance Theater, features the work of five student choreographers in addition to a special duet performance by Dance Professor Erik Stern with jazz musician and Assistant Professor of Music, Dan Jonas. The evening culminates with the choreographic debut for Joseph “jo” Blake, Weber State’s newest associate dance professor and director of Moving Company, a yearlong outreach dance project at WSU. While each of the seven performances is presented as an individual work, there is a connective thread throughout the evening as interactive relationships are explored through physical movement, audience engagement and dancer-to-dancer connectivity. Spatial relationships and reciprocal action involving props and barriers, both literal and metaphorical, add layers of texture and conceptual meaning to many of the works.
“It’s hard to describe how difficult it is to choreograph original dance,” says Stern, who is impressed with the originality of the young choreographers. “It’s a lot of movement research and asking the question, ‘How do I connect my inspiration and embody it through movement?’ Each work has a different point of view and psychological dimension. These student choreographers have the skills and confidence to go in their own direction with their own voice.”
The student works range from three to eight minutes in length, while Stern’s piece, “Sound Bites” is slightly longer. In this original work, tap dance is paired with jazz trumpet and layered with rhythmic speech and commentary, giving it a multidimensional and theatrical feel. Stern, who is the director of “Inter Action,” is a designated Teaching Artist with the Kennedy Center Partners in Education program and has choreographed over fifty works for professional and student dancers, including his piece “Demolition Derby,” performed in New York City. Jonas directs the Jazz Ensemble and Jazz Combos and teaches jazz curriculum at WSU; he is a frequent jazz trumpeter in Ogden and the greater Salt Lake City area, and has also performed nationally as a member of the Ben Markley Big Band.
The signature piece of the evening will be Blake’s “Take Us as We Are,” which is the first installment of a rich and complex project for the new-to-WSU professor and Moving Company director. Moving Company, a yearlong course with rotating instructors, is an outreach program designed to connect students, faculty and community on and off campus through interdisciplinary methods. “Art can be powerful, but only if you’re going to really do the work to make it connect on many levels such as performance, workshops, or community-engaged projects,” says Stern. “Moving Company aims to dovetail those together.”
Blake, whose undergraduate degree is from the University of Utah, has approached his role as this year’s Moving Company director with an ambitious and passionate vision. “Take Us As We Are” is reflective of the course’s first semester, in which Blake and his 12 female dancers collaborate to present a work in celebration and support of the female voice. Coinciding with the 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage, the project examines the barriers, stereotypes, harassment and fortitude that have challenged the female-identified community throughout history and in our current society.
More than prescribed movements and memorized steps, Blake’s multidisciplinary coursework is rooted in research and community collaboration. Dancers have shared personal stories while also gathering those of their mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters and other heroines in their lives who represent strength and influence, which has informed the movement and choreography for the piece. Blake has developed collaborative projects between the dancers and local organizations such as the WSU Women’s Center, YCC Family Crisis Center and others, further diversifying the voices that are heard and stories that are explored and shared. “We’ve invited women from on and off campus to come talk about their own stories in hopes of not only inspiring the dancers, but also informing them that they have a voice, a platform and privilege to share these stories,” says Blake.
Having danced for Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and NOW-ID in Salt Lake City, Blake is currently the director of joBdance, a conceptual, site-specific, multidisciplinary dance company. His choreographic style is “pedestrian-based,” in that it explores daily human connection both on stage and off. Within this framework, he encourages his student dancers to soften their rigid performance focus in order to truly see and respond to one another’s movements on stage. “Take Us As We Are” adds another layer of tension to these connections as dancers are confronted with physical barriers that play as platforms, soapboxes, enclosures, restrictors and more. These unique spatial relationships also examine how our environment can dictate or influence physical movement and emotional comfort.
While it is a completed original work in itself, “Take Us As We Are” as presented for “Inter Action” also acts as a preview of what’s to come. As the piece evolves with the spring semester it will become more interdisciplinary with videography and the spoken word, providing the audience with different pathways to explore underlying ideas. As the dancers continue their female-to-female collaboration in the Ogden area, their movement becomes more and more informed by felt experience, and is an honest embodiment of complex emotional narratives.
Orchesis Dance Theater’s Inter Action, Val A. Browning Center, WSU, Ogden, Nov. 14 — 16, tickets $8.25 — $13.
Kelly Carper is an Ogden-based arts writer with a background in Santa Fe’s commercial gallery world in sales, marketing and management. Her current freelance work extends from arts journalism to gallery marketing and can be found at kellycarper.com.