It was May 2017 when Oquirrh West Project held their first dancer auditions. The company—the brainchild of ArtisticDirector Alyssa Fujimoto and Associate Director Sharlee Peay—came together quickly, and by August of that same year, they held the company's premiere performance at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. Soon after, they began planning their next concert and their second season. But round two didn't exactly go as planned. In a September 2017 post on their Facebook page, Oquirrh West Project wrote, "Due to unforeseen circumstances we are sad to announce we will be postponing our next season. ... We are sorry for any inconvenience this may have caused."
"There are a lot of challenges facing new, small dance companies," Fujimoto explains during a phone interview. "The biggest challenge for any company, of course, is funding. We would like to someday be a non-profit, but at this point we are essentially self-funded."
Money, however, was not Oquirrh's main hang-up during their second season. The problem (and the joy) was babies. "Our particular challenge that year was that me and Sharlee, and two of our dancers, got pregnant. You can do it all at once, but for us, it made sense to wait," Fujimoto says.
Now, Oquirrh West Project is finally ready for their revival concert on Friday, March 22, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. It's been worth the wait. In addition to some new dancers (previous members of SALT Contemporary Dance, SALT II and Odyssey Dance Theatre) Oquirrh has a lineup of new choreography by Fujimoto, Peay, Logan McGill and Myles Woolstenhulme (the company's former guest artist and choreographer). But the real gem of this show is the Oquirrh West premiere of Hello, My Name Is Ree, a brand new piece created for the company by award-winning choreographer Ching Ching Wong.
Wong is a national name in dance, sought after both for her work as a dancer and increasingly for her work as a choreographer. In 2010, she joined the highly regarded Portland, Ore.-based modern dance company NW Dance Project (she has since left to pursue independent work). In 2015, she received the Princess Grace Award for emerging artistic talent. And the following year, she was recognized by Dance Magazine as one of 25 young artists to watch. In their praise of Wong, Dance Magazine wrote, "Control and abandon are difficult for any dancer to navigate, but NW Dance Project's Ching Ching Wong masters both in a single movement."
"It means so much to have her here working with us," Fujimoto says. "Wong has already made a name for herself. We are a young company that is still making our mark."
The match came about toward the end of last year, when Wong was in town performing in the fall concert with SALT Contemporary Dance. Oquirrh's assistant director Peay had worked with Wong in the past. "It was actually Wong who reached out to us," Fujimoto says. "That was really exciting. She was intrigued by what we were starting. She is very giving and really wants to see us be successful."
The company had two weeks with Wong. During that short time, she worked with the dancers, teaching them to look inside and pull inspiration and ideas from themselves. Then she molded these movements into her own style and fed them back to the dancers.
Fujimoto says that in watching Wong work, she saw the innovative young choreographer always pushing the dancers to the next level, challenging them to match her vision. Fujimoto describes Wong's movement as strong and liberating. "Hello, My Name Is Ree is different than anything else we have created before," Fujimoto says. "That is exactly what we love about the piece. It's unique in its flavor and the way it delivers its message about rebirth, renewal and the journey of accepting all that life has to offer."
Like most young Utah dancers, Fujimoto grew up on a diet of jazz and ballet at a studio that prepared little girls for competition stages. Later, studying dance at BYU-Idaho, she explored contemporary dance and choreography. Most of the dancers with Oquirrh West Project, she says, followed much the same path: from children's studio to dance degrees from BYU or UVU. Then came that tricky place after college. "It's difficult as adult artists to find opportunities for training post college," Fujimoto says. "Most dancers aren't ready to step into a full company from the start, but if you don't have that opportunity then you tend to get lost. With nowhere to go, the training and learning and expressing stops."
Oquirrh West Project fills that gap, Fujimoto says. And with choreographers like Wong giving their attention and expertise to this new creative enterprise, chances are that this company—and also its dancers, whatever they choose to do next—are ready to keep pushing dance to new heights.