- Greg Baird
As performing arts companies begin exploring ways to bring live audiences back to shows, they're not forgetting the necessary innovations that were part of the pandemic. For Utah County-based Wasatch Contemporary Dance Company, that means creating a production that can work as both a site-specific in-person event and as a virtual presentation for those who want or need to watch from home.
Wasatch Contemporary's Seven is offering four live performances for reduced-capacity audiences, making use of the century-old Northampton House in American Fork as a venue. At the same time, the show will be offered via livestream during those same performances. In addition to the original choreography created by company members and guest choreographer/BYU faculty member Adam Dyer, Seven will showcase an entirely original score written by local musicians Benjamin Swisher and Bly Wallantine.
A hybrid approach is actually in keeping with the way Wasatch Contemporary first approached providing dance during the pandemic. In November, the dance film Humanimali was premiered as a drive-in presentation—allowing viewers to have a shared experience of the pieces that were recorded in a variety of locations—as well as with online accessibility. According to company artistic director Jessica Heaton, the process of adapting the Humanimali pieces that had initially been planned for a theater stage, so that they could work for a filmed presentation, required a bit of re-thinking.
"They had to undergo a major transformation to go from stage to camera," Heaton says. "You film things in sections, so you're not going from zero seconds to nine minutes in sequence. I have this section, now I have to shoot it from nine different angles. There were so many different things to think about that we had people coaching us through, like figuring out the lighting. You can look at those as barriers or opportunities, and we tried to look at it as an opportunity.
"I'm really grateful for dance film, and that it's been growing as a genre for the last decade or so," Heaton continues. "We had some experience already, and contacts within the Utah Dance Film Festival. ... Instead of starting from scratch, we were able to take these pieces, which revolved around the animal kingdom, and film them in spaces that made sense, like one that was about penguins being shot at [Loveland Living Planet] aquarium."
While Humanimali was ultimately finished specifically as a film, Seven was initially conceived as an immersive in-person experience, but Heaton soon realized it simply wouldn't work that way "if the audience wasn't ready for it." Re-imagining it for both a seated audience and remote viewers presented its own set of challenges in considering how the show could work for both kinds of viewers.
"An artist's first tendency is to think about the person who's there physically, because that's always been our experience before," Heaton says. "Being an artistic director, it's been a baptism by fire. I didn't realize when we started [the company] 11 years go how much it would round out my experience—I'm learning coding, watching webinars about live-streaming and the arts. We had to figure out how to make a positive experience for both in-person and virtual audiences."
Those in-person audiences will get a chance to experience the unique environment of Northampton House, a one-time chapel which currently serves mostly as a venue for weddings. Heaton first conceived of using the location for dance after driving past it many times, noting that "I'm intrigued by unique spaces, and I'll think 'dance belongs there.'" She began planning for using Northampton House for a performance last year before the pandemic hit, but was initially concerned that the upscale location might be prohibitively expensive. "When we added up the hours we would need, it was going to be over $17,000 in rent—not feasible for a grass-roots dance company," Heaton says. "But they were great at working with us."
Heaton describes Seven's thematic focus—the "seven creative periods of the world"—as something she's been thinking about for more than a decade, yet which took on an added resonance as artistic organizations, and individuals, struggled with the realities of the pandemic. "We have hope for the future now, but there's still a lot of things to go out there and problem-solve," she says. "I believe everyone is creative in some way. [Seven] been a long time coming, but because of what we're going through, that brings new life and new meaning to it.
"I think that in one way or another, artists have always dealt with barriers—budget, resources, there have always been barriers for artists. In that way, [the pandemic] was nothing new: 'Okay, this is the new challenge ahead of us.' It's never been easy. ... I love how the arts have been resilient."