Nicole Kallsen reflects on the University of Utah Graduate Dance Series: Concert at Library Square from Sunday, November 1st at 6:00pm

10 November 2020 Published in News and Announcements
photography: Hailey Caminiti photography: Hailey Caminiti

It was a night of storytelling. Fragments of life experiences were stitched together onstage to allow the audience to catch glimpses into the worlds of the dancers, choreographers, and their individual thoughts. In that hour, I was brought back to my childhood daydreams where the expanse of the universe was contained in my living room. I experienced the Saturday-night atmosphere of a queer nightclub while it was a Sunday evening in Downtown Salt Lake City.

Wandering the outskirts of the venue before the performance began, I observed the backstage and audience experiences combine into an air of pre-show anticipation. There was typical audience banter, expressing friendly greetings and small talk. The dancers could be seen spread around the pavement in the plaza surrounding the stage, both warming up and greeting audience members as they trickled in. While the atmosphere was familiar, there was an underlying difference that resonated deep in my experience. As I was greeted by the usher who checked me in and handed out glowsticks, I was offered both a physical program and a contactless option. I was politely reminded to wear my mask and sit only in designated seating areas six feet apart from other households, marked by tape on cement. As the time drew near to begin, ushers went around reminding the audience of the seating and mask rules. This felt no different to the reminders to turn off cellphones before a performance, yet it added to the layers of the reality of performing in a pandemic. 

While I would like the center of this review to be on the performances, I must acknowledge that the artists worked beautifully within the realities of social injustice and medical safety that we live in. Elliott and Halie did not try to completely replicate the performing and audience experience pre-pandemic, rather they worked in and through present realities and adapted as needed. Saying that, I would like to express appreciation for the land acknowledgement both on the program and at the beginning of the performance in addition to the positionality statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. These performers demonstrated willingness to adapt to social needs and are actors of change within the artform of dace. I hope that these acknowledgements become a reality across the dance world, for what difference is there to thanking the venues and donors at the start of the performance to thanking the indigenous people for the land that we have stolen and use for performance?

The performance began with Halie’s work, Rough Cuts. The scene was set with living room furniture, only to become part of the dance as it was rearranged right as the piece began. As Halie’s work progressed, there were elements of childhood imagination-based games such as “the floor is lava”, hide-and-seek, tag, imagination, and shadow puppets to say the least. While the piece clearly explored a fragmented and disjointed movement process, the overarching unity of themes from childhood play captivated my attention. By acknowledging the natural human tendencies to create stories and define through relationships, Halie’s choreography was able to approach the concept of fragmentation in a clear fashion. 

Childhood games is one of the best nonsensical themes to express fragmented thoughts. A child’s wants and actions changes as the wind, ever shifting, yet may return to similar places and ideas. Halie and the dancers were able to express these Rough Cuts of shifting attention through means of changing lighting, setting, movement, and vocals. They retained the overarching theme by returning to different movement patterns in different contexts and settings. One dancer that caught my attention was the one who started a movement phrase with a starfish-position on a rug to then work her way up to stiff standing movements. I could relate with personal experiences of laying on a rug for hours ­– just because I thought it comfortable. This phrase of movement was seen multiple times throughout the performance, yet it was in different locations both with and without the rug. The same could be said for other movement phrases. 

In regard to the dancers and how they communicated the choreography, I felt that by focusing on the tasks of the movement, the dancers were not fully embodying the movements in the moment. As the piece carried themes of childhood play, I would have loved to see more of that joy in the performance. While I attribute to some of the loss of emotion to the required masks, I believe that eyes can carry as much weight as the expressions of mouths. Other than that, I was pleased with the world that Halie and the dancers built.

Ultimately, the cumulation of fragmented movements into a unified story occurred at the end of the piece. As the furniture piled up, one dancer mimed the whole piece in a fast manner with a mini set of furniture. As she neared the end, another set of dancers came with a barbie doll sized set and acted the dance out with fingers and flashlights. I couldn’t help but laugh and marvel at the ingenuity of the juxtaposition of these stories within the story. This finale left me pleased and satisfied as an audience member. This piece allowed me to reflect on past memories and I would love to watch it again.

The air of the transition from choreographic work to work was filled with desire. While Halie’s piece ended leaving me artistically satisfied, like how one feels after a good meal, there is always room for dessert. Elliott’s piece took that artistic space and filled it. Asking us to crack the glowsticks, I was intrigued seeing the lights go across the audience. This was a perfect transition from a piece on childhood desires to adult expression of mature desires in the context of a nightclub. The moods of the two works clearly differ, yet they complement one another in the progress of living life. 

16A375C6 8A91 4933 B996 EA901177E80DElliott’s piece is titled I Am We/You Are Me. For myself, both as a previous student and classmate of Elliott, I was personally excited to see him perform his work. From the start of my first year at the U, my artistic interactions with Elliott have included his passion for the atmosphere of the Nightclub. Not only is this place clearly of Elliott’s personal intrigue, the concept itself has permeated his teaching style and class discussions. In fact, Elliott’s classes and discussions have been the extent of my personal interaction with the nightclub scene. While I cannot compare this specific work to embodied knowledge of that atmosphere, I can see how this piece aligns in the thought process that clearly has been in the works well before Elliott came to the U. 

In addition, in discussion with Elliott, his full cast of five queer men added to the freedom feeling that is embodied in the Nightclub atmosphere. When this work is looked at in Thomas DeFranz’s terms of “being”, “doing”, and “making” the queer identity, Elliott beautifully executed “being” and “doing” queer without “making” it by over-calling out its presence. In short, Elliott’s work looked natural. The movements explored intimacy in a way that did not require touching; I was constantly shocked by the clear emotion that I felt from the audience despite the physical distance between the dancers. Elliott successfully explored emotional intimacy through the physical means of movement ­– without any need for physical contact. In fact, throughout the performance I was waiting for a moment where the dancers would get closer to one another, yet the necessary physical distance left me wanting for more expression of that intense emotion. 

Throughout the performance, the dancer’s usage of eye contact and mirroring added to a sense of cool confidence and desire that is expressed through the liberation of the nightclub. The dancers casually draped themselves on the walls, and their group movements could easily fit into the setting. Elliott sparingly and hesitantly used floor work, yet this added to the nightclub experience and honored the true movements that would take place. The experience was also built through the usage of lighting. As the dancers were front-lit and there was a cement wall behind them, the shadows created the sense that there were more people, imitating the full and mysterious nightclub atmosphere.

Elliott diverged from nightclub-inspired movements in solo and duet work. These moments expressed the emotions and underlying reality of this setting. The first solo not only reminded me of the identity mask that we wear, it brought up the need to emotionally remove it to express desire. The dancer heart-wrenchingly moved as if his mind was torn between acting on desire, or letting it go. This was only increased when the solo became a duet. As the two dancers mirrored one another, the emotional chase of one intrigued by another gave off a clear sense of chemistry. 

Unfortunately, this emotional chemistry was lacking in the first group piece that opened this work. I was not intrigued by the group choreography and I felt that the movements were simplistic to the point where I was not drawn into the setting. While I did feel the sense of cool confidence and ownership of identity, I feel that more could have been done to visually draw me in. Once the group intro ended and the work progressed, the choreography became more emotionally mature and reflective of the setting. 

As a whole, the piece I Am We/You Are Me explored different aspects of the queer nightclub experience. From collective group liberation to individual emotions, I feel that Elliott and the dancers thoroughly explored this multifaceted setting. Additionally, I found it cool to watch my previous instructor execute the movement concepts that we focused on in class, such as chest contractions and hip isolations. Elliott’s work ended the night with a feeling of inspiration to dance and be filled with confidence. 

After leaving the venue and with a day of emotional processing witnessing these works, I can gladly say that I am looking forward to these movement ideas further developing in the dance world. Halie’s concepts of fragmentation help explore and deeper understand the human search for meaning in stories. Elliott’s worldbuilding shines light on the multifaceted reality of fully embodying the nightclub experience. I cannot wait to watch more live performances, by these artists and many others too. 

Please continue to participate in the performing arts. More info on further performances can be found at www.dance.utah.edu/virtualshows

Referenced the chapter titled “Queer Dance in Three Acts” by Thomas f. DeFranz from Queer Dance edited by Claire Croft (2017)