Isn't This Familiar? | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Culture » Arts & Entertainment

Isn't This Familiar?

Sounds Familiar challenges choreographers to turn vintage symphonic music into new movement.


  • Dat Nguyen

A few years ago, when thinking how to incorporate classical music to appeal to the masses, Repertory Dance Theatre's artistic director Linda Smith and composer Scott Killian developed a concept to spark the imaginations of local choreographers. The resulting celebration of vintage music combined with innovative dance interpretations has now become RDT's latest production, Sounds Familiar.

"For more than 50 years, RDT has pushed the boundaries of modern dance, while preserving and celebrating its legacy," Smith says. "We present you with a diverse range of modern dance styles and choreographers paired together in dynamic and unexpected performances."

Twelve local choreographers—with backgrounds ranging from university professors, dance teachers, RDT staffers and even an aerialist—were invited to choose from a list of 36 recognizable compositions and create a dance performance of two to eight minutes in length, utilizing a cast of their choosing. The choreographers include Marilyn Berrett, Nancy Simpson Carter, Nicholas Cendese, Molly Heller, Dan Higgins, Stephen Koester, Sharee Lane, John Mead, Sara Pickett, Nathan Shaw, Luc Vanier and Natosha Washington.

However, choosing choreographers was only the start. Transforming the mood of the music into a series of movements was left entirely up to their discretion. With unique skill sets and methods of sculpting dances, they were asked to create pieces inspired by their song choice.

"As a company member, we work with so many movement aesthetics, and many of them trickle into this work for Sounds Familiar," says Higgins, an RDT performer as well as local teacher and choreographer. "The overarching theme for us was to make something simple and silly for the two dancers to have an enjoyable and goofy opportunity."

Creating customized choreography is much like an architect designing a structure, and involves more components than a layperson might envision. Enlisting dancers, formulating steps and mapping out moves are just a few elements a choreographer uses to illustrate music and how they wish it to be expressed.

Heller, assistant professor at University of Utah's School of Dance and 2018 Regalia finalist, likes to explore the relationship between physical expression and emotion by creating special spatial structures for her dancers. "I work heavily from designed improvisational practices that allow the performers to access paradoxes in their bodies and within space—precariousness and stability, buoyancy and density, ease and resistance, containment and expansion, etc.," Heller says. "Making dances from these practices requires patience and listening to what emerges from the performers."

In contrast, aerialist, dancer and teacher Simpson Carter takes her style to a completely different level. Choreographing a bungee dance to Bach's "Little Fugue in G minor," she felt inspired by seeing how different collections of instruments changed the feel of the composition, and began the process of shaping it into a narrative relating to a larger cultural or social perspective.

"Bungee has a particular rhythm and feel to it, and I would like for audiences to see beyond the basic excitement of having dancers in the air, to actually feel how their bodies respond to what is happening on stage," Carter says. "I always want to encourage viewers to let go of literal interpretations when watching dance and to just let themselves be taken on the journey."

With an eclectic and overflowing résumé, Berrett, Department of Dance chair at Brigham Young University, mingles more than 40 years of teaching experience into her choreography. Featured in award-winning films and stage productions across the U.S., as well as internationally, Berrett chose a lively concerto by Bach to complement her choreography and evoke a "family reunion romp at the park" feeling. Leaning toward techniques of modern dance masters Martha Graham and Jose Limon, Berrett has performers reveal emotions through contractions, dramatic movements and fluid transitions within her number.

"I would describe my approach as more collaborative and choreographing from the inside out," Berrett says. "And with some playful contrasts to those techniques, I have juxtaposed the vocabularies and styles of classical modern dance with some lively and quirky moments in this piece."

Fusing movement and music into a story, a dancer's physical interpretations allow people to see the music more clearly. With RDT's reputation of creating alternative art forms, Sounds Familiar offers the chance to experience music visually and not just process sounds—perhaps creating a newfound love of an overlooked art form in the process. "RDT Dance is all about art," Smith says. "Art in motion, expressed through our bodies as modern dance with immediacy and intimacy that can be both thrilling and profound. Art that challenges you, and art that you won't see coming."