“We were changed.” It’s a phrase Zvi Gotheiner says repeatedly as we discuss his new work, “Dancing the Bears Ears,” being performed this week at Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT). It becomes almost a mantra. A rhythmic punctuation mark to pace his thoughts. It’s something he said repeatedly along the trail — explains RDT executive director Linda C. Smith — as their two dance troupes explored Bears Ears National Monument for a week this spring. Hiking a distant trail perfumed with sagebrush. Improvising movement along sandstone prosceniums. Sitting beneath a canopy of stars, listening to stories as the wind caresses their bodies. “We are changed,” Gotheiner would say.
The director of New York’s ZviDance was raised in the Mesilot kibbutz in northern Israel, a far-left commune that provided him with an upbringing he only realized later was “peculiar.” Friday-night folk dancing was his favorite activity. “I loved it dearly,” he says. Gotheiner showed an early interest in the arts, mostly music, learning the recorder and then the violin, becoming a soloist and a concertmaster. He felt destined to be a musician. Then, at age 17, he saw his first professional dance company. “It changed my life. I had to become a dancer. It was in me. I got the virus.”
Army service brought Gotheiner to Tel Aviv, where the dance training he sought out between military duties prepared him for serious study when his service was completed. A scholarship brought him to New York, and he performed for years there and at home. Then, when an injury kept him off the stage, he felt an itch to create his own work. He says it took him 10 years to come to a sense of himself as a choreographer.
His relationship with RDT goes back to 1996, when they performed his piece “Erosion.” Two years later they premièred “Chairs,” which has become a popular part of their repertoire, and this spring, Gotheiner came to Salt Lake to set DABKE, a work inspired by Middle Eastern folk dance, on the company. He returned for Bears Ears.
The current project is something he and Smith had been discussing for years. A collaboration between the two companies. Inspired by southern Utah. Water was the first focus (the kibbutz had had its fair share of drought), but when the controversy surrounding the designation of Bears Ears erupted, they chose to focus on the land, providing the work “an urgency that’s contemporary.”
“I have a very superficial knowledge of Bears Ears and the relationship of the five tribes of Native Americans to that land,” Gotheiner admits. Smith did the research for the project, finding more and more layers as she examined the history of the tribes and the European settlers, how the land became sacred to each group. But even she admits before embarking on the project she was more familiar with Arches and Canyonlands than with the country south of it.
“We changed. Something moved in us that opened us into another quarter of an inch of our humanity,” Gotheiner says of their experience. In May, two vans brought RDT and ZviDance to Bluff, where they spent a week exploring the landscape and cultures of the people who live there. Native American guides took them into the land, exploring the architectural and artistic sites, sharing their knowledge of the flora – which plants are good for eating, which for healing – and the fauna. And telling their stories.
Gotheiner was particularly moved by the story of uranium miners. During World War II, Native Americans worked the mines, unaware of the dangers, bringing their clothes home for their wives to wash. Now, husbands wives and children all suffer from cancer. But in looking back, they say maybe that was their sacrifice for the war effort. “I listened to that and my heart kind of opened,” Gotheiner says. “That was an amazing gesture to look at it that way. “
As they explored the landscape, Gotheiner would ask the dancers to improvise, to absorb the experience through their bodies. At the beginning, the improvisations tended toward fragmentation, but they eventually, naturally, would come into a kind of circle, “like a ritual,” says Gotheiner. During the first improvisation, their guide Ida surprised everyone by making a shamanic gesture of healing to one of the dancers. “This was an amazing moment,” Gotheiner says. “From then on, we saw nature differently.”
These two groups of dancers, one from a big town, the other from a massive city, became attuned to a heightened sense of nature, Smith says. They became bonded, to the land, to nature, to their comradery, to the weather, even modes of speech — “The Navajo have an indirectness in their talking,” Gotheiner remarks, “going in spirals before it hits the point.”
Before entering the land, their guide blessed the space, asking permission to be allowed into the area. From the ancestors and the spirits. Gotheiner was aware of being yet another outsider coming into this land. “Most of my work in the last few years, I move myself outside, reflecting from the outside, not presenting myself as authentic,” Gotheiner says. “It was obvious to me that my voice would not be authentically American Indian. It was not an attempt to copy any of their culture. I am not an expert. Not academically and not culturally.” The piece does not include Indian dance, does not use Indian music. “This work [is] my experience seeing their dance, hearing their sounds, hearing their voice, the way they talk, being in nature with them, having a sense of a different perception of things.”
“It changed me,” he says. “I look at things in a different way.”
The companies spent a second week back in the studio, struggling to keep the essence of their experience present. “Dancers are very, very proficient at being able to recall physical experiences or emotional states over and over,” says Efren Corado Garcia, a dancer for RDT. “It was very important for us to go back into those memories and see how we could keep the integrity of those experiences relevant and very much a part of the creative process.”
Gotheiner worked with each dancer to create material, asking them if there was anything that stuck in their memory. They found themselves tempted to make the work “dancey,” to show off technique and virtuosity, struggling to retain the simple nature of their experience. That’s when they recalled that first improvisation.
“We realized [the studio time] wasn’t working because there wasn’t any giving or receiving,” says Garcia, the dancer who received that initial blessing during the first improvisation. That transcendent moment in the redrock is now a key part of the piece’s last movement.
Another movement was inspired by the group’s second improvisation in the field. Inspired by Navajo ritual that encourages one to salute the six directions — the four points of the compass, as well as inside and outside — Garcia came up with a rhythmic movement that turns the dancers, their feet stomping in salutation.
At the end of that second week, RDT rehearsed the final piece, without costume or lighting, no soundtrack, just the stomping of their feet, the heaving of their breath. It was powerful.
“Bears Ears is now part of my flesh. It gives me a sense of heritage,” says Garcia, a native of Guatemala. “Being able to transcribe it with my body and art, now I can say I’m part of that legacy.”
The dance is a moving, physical experience inspired by a landscape and the stories that seep into its soil. “Bears Ears issues are not just Native issues,” Gotheiner says. “This is the face of America. This is at the heart of who we are. Are we oppressive people that take whatever we can with power or are we respectful of one another?”
“The land should matter to people,” says Smith. “Place should matter.” Everyone will come to Bears Ears or to this dance with a different perspective, she says, but she hopes the dance will help them find a connection to the spiritual, to the sacred. “The reason art exists is to find that link, to help people find that link.”
“Art has a tremendous power,” concludes Gotheiner. “It can mobilize consciousness, bring to the forefront things that are not talked about, not discussed. It touches a visceral connection, to think beyond politics. It can move us into our humanity in a way that we’re susceptible to being compassionate one with another.”
The world premiere of Zvi Gotheiner’s “Dancing the Bears Ears” will be part of RDT’s season opener, Sanctuary, also featuring Andy Noble’s “Monument” and Eric Handman’s “Ghost Ship,” Thursday, Oct. 5- Saturday, Oct. 7. RDT will host a free panel discussion on Wednesday, Oct..4 at 7 p.m. at Impact Hub, 150 State St. #1 in Salt Lake City.
The founder of Artists of Utah and editor of its online magazine, 15 Bytes, Shawn Rossiter has undergraduate degrees in English, French and Italian Literature and studied Comparative Literature in graduate school before pursuing a career in art.