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Aspects of Dance and the Spoken Word

by Karen Webb  

The weekend of April 15 saw the premieres of two programs that integrated dance with spoken word as well as a whole range of sensory elements. That was pretty much where the resemblance ended, but this particular approach created two fascinating performances.

At the Eccles Center in Park City, the Aspen-Santa Fe broke new ground with "A Children’s Rainforest Odyssey." Down at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, the Black Box hosted Wasatch Dance Collective’s "hush," WDC’s first evening created by a single choreographer. The former, although it wasn’t publicized as such, was definitely a kids’ show. The latter dealt in emotional content to which a child (and probably a lot of teens) would not have easily related: nothing NC-17 or even R-rated, just stuff you don’t hit until you’re well along the developmental continuum posited by, say, Erikson.

"A Children’s Rainforest Odyssey" is the truncated, children’s version of the longer "Rainforest" developed by choreographer David Taylor for his own company. Reading the description at the David Taylor Dance Theatre Web site (, I really hope the Eccles Center staff will consider bringing the full production to Park City—the description suggests that the full production fills in a lot of the gaps in the kids’ version: because of the condensation, it at times does have a kind of Cliff Notes feel.

That said, it is a charming, visually striking production, held together by the narration of your Tour Guide to the Amazon, Sarah Kennedy Roth, who sounds and looks a bit like Goldie Hawn. (Roth, indeed, did appear on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which helped to launch Hawn’s career.) She has the sort of demeanor and magnetism that would light up the most jaded little kid. As for the narration, it’s accessible and informative—even I learned something.

The big selling point of the production is less the dancing than the integration of dance as one element in a multi-media production. Costumes, sets and lights are all creations that make you sit there with your mouth hanging open (even if you’re a jaded adult). The dancers don larger-than-life costumes to become lemurs, gigantic flowers, birds, bugs and human hunters. When they dance rather than doing puppeteering, they become such things as stamens popping out of the gigantic flowers. Jesse Manno’s original score is lovely: if you’re fond of the work Peter Kater and Carlos Nakai do together, this would appeal to you.

My one reservation about having Aspen Santa Fe Ballet present this particular program is that anyone who’s seen them knows the dancers are technically capable of a whole lot more than they’re given to do in this show. The “Night Birds” section features some nice double work, and the men portraying the human hunters get to indulge in a few pyrotechnics, but overall the phrases they are given to dance are brief and not truly satisfying from a choreographic standpoint. Still, in a kids’ show, especially a teaching and multi-media experience like this, I can understand that the developers wanted to go for balance and integration over the highlighting of a specific art form.

Balance and integration definitely figured into "hush." You have to respect a development team that goes so far in creating a multi-sensory experience that it includes the burning of incense as part of the ambience. Although Stefanie Slade is credited with the direction and choreography of the program, co-creators included a number of local independent dance icons like Dawn Levingston and Stefanie Sleeper; musician-composers Derek Fonnesbeck and Mattson McFarland also collaborated on the spoken word text. And in this case, many cooks created a pretty good broth.

WDC went for a total-environment experience in which dancers entered from the back of the house and recited some of the text from seats in the audience. I had the oddest feeling that the four women who make the opening entrance with washbuckets and scrub rags were not women breaking free of drudgery but messianic figures trying to wash the world clean. There was something very Lamed Vav about them.

The strongest section utilized the whole cast and broke them out of the black lace slips most of the dancers wore for most of the program. With the right lighting, it’s interesting what shapes the eye and mind create out of a sea of women in unitards getting into and out of the Downward-Facing Dog yoga position. The section conveyed the sense of a primordial sea from which life was just beginning to arise; the movement quality went from a sense of rolling to a sense of expanding to a sense of reaching Although Slade delivered many instances of intelligent construction — moments where you say to yourself, “Yes, this is how you move dancers around a stage” — it was in this section with its incense-strewn air that she took both dancers and audience on the best journey.

The omnipresent set piece used in hush was a huge burlap drape with scads of little fiberoptic twirls dangling from it: it hung above the stage a bit like a rotating Sword of Damocles. Its best use was in a solo for Kimberly Schmidt: a quiet piece without a lot of highs and lows, but it showed Schmidt at her dramatic, womanly best. She has matured beautifully, in the manner of a fine wine, in the years I’ve been watching WDC.

"Hush" is a somber piece. A friend told me not to look for the uniting theme I was expecting from an evening developed as a unit, but still I read a few things into it. The spoken text seemed less to address issues related to feminism than issues related to the human condition and the cosmic angst we all feel at one time or another. A recurrent series of trios with two black-clad ladies and one in a white gown that initially resembled an amniotic sac did seem to change and progress, perhaps taking the white-clad figure from birth through the vicissitudes of life and finally into the compassionate, cradling arms of reconciliation with one’s own best reality. It was intriguing to see that at the point where that sense of reconciliation occurred, the original quartet of women with the buckets had all been gowned in white.

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