Photo courtesy of Dat Nguyen

In collaboration with Seven Canyons Trust, loveDANCEmore has produced a summer series of performances described on their website as “dance and ecology meet in a summer performance series celebrating the Jordan River.” The first performance of this summer series entitled there were trees took off last Thursday, May 25. The work was performed at Three Creeks Confluence, which is a wooded area right next to the Jordan River with three Utah creeks running under it. The first placement of audience chairs faced the river, within view of the sun sliding down the horizon. Students from University Neighborhood Partner’s Hartland Partnership Center program for youth theatre, and REFUGES after-school program at the UU Center for Science and Math Education opened the show. Then, in a new scene, the audience rotated their chairs and Carly Schaub and Allison Shir of DanceBand BandDance performed their new work, there were trees.

The performance space, confined by trees, a fence and an audience, appears vast with never-ending, newfound details. Many tree stumps are randomly scattered, tin cans with strings hang from branches and small papers with handwritten passages on them hang about, or are stuck to stumps. As the piece begins, pairs of legs with boots gradually rise from the ground behind a couple of stumps, and a melody develops at about the same, heavy pace. Schaub is on the accordion, and Shir, the ukulele. Their legs begin to sway, and as more movement develops, their voices come in. Their first song references the stumps that surround them. They sing about ghosts of trees, and the accumulation and gradual development of sounds in their first song matches the small bounce of the dance. The piece’s introduction of contrasting tones of voice, instrument and qualities of movement had a clear mission among the stumps that drew me into their world.

The piece contains sections of original songs, covers and recordings of artists John Donne, Joseph Kosma and Jacques Prevert, Henry Purcell and Band of Horses. The duo creates effortless transitions between song and dance and then dance and song, which is exactly like their name, DanceBand BandDance. The structure of the work and the quality of performance from Schaub and Shir achieves these effortless transitions between sections that always lead to occupancy of new spots in the scene and new instruments, sounds and ideas, all in one journey. After the first song, Schaub gently drops out of playing and explores more spaces on, over and between the stumps. Their relationship to each other, the set, lyrics and whimsical tonality quickly become inviting. Schaub then surprisingly pulls a miniature piano from behind one of the stumps. Each section, or song, elicits novelty and some aspect of unexpected satisfaction. Later, Shir travels to the tree that is close in proximity to the audience. Shir appears to be reading text from the tree that informs her movement. Her voice is direct, like what’s on that tree is important and must be claimed, and with the movement a new cadence sweeps its way into the performance. This section is all in connection to Schaub’s mini-piano-playing that eventually includes kazoo playing as well. Shir completes her section by the tree by collapsing onto a moss patch near Schaub. Finishing up the tune, Schaub places the lid of the piano in Shir’s fingertips and begins strumming the high-pitched strings of the mini piano. The sound of the device is quite minimal at first, as DanceBand BandDance doesn’t shy away from filling out the whole range of volume available in this area.

Schaub pulls out a long, deep red jacket that flows with her movement in stark contrast to the earth-toned set. Seamlessly, Shir gains a red cloak as well. This section differs from all the others yet makes sense for their journey. It becomes the climax of the work as they perform isolated movements either in unison or in definitive patterns specific to each moment. The dancing keeps up a rhythmical base and becomes reminiscent of folk dance as it advances down an aisle through the audience and recedes back to the stumps. There’s a certain amount of repetition in the dimensions of space between them as they continually circle each other, which reminds me of the structure of a partnered social dance. However, the deep-red flowing attire worn in the woods—along with the variety of instruments, song and dance—transcended that concert. All of the noticeable details were just one addition to the larger world that is there were trees.

After dances and songs full of many oddly detailed instances, a record player and myriad instruments, the piece closes similarly to how it begins. Both performers drop the last song by Band of Horses strum by strum on the ukelele and hum by hum on the accordion, and their legs rise above the stumps and sway side to side. there were trees provokes wonder. It is a twist on the intangible playfulness and lucidity that sound and dance can produce. For more information on the next parts of the series brought to Salt Lake City by loveDANCEmore and Seven Canyons Trust visit lovedancemore.org/summer-series.

very vary dress rehearsal. Photo courtesy of Molly Heller

Molly Heller is a visiting assistant professor in the University of Utah’s School of Dance, an adjunct faculty member in Westminster College’s dance department, co-owner of the Tea Grotto and the director of very vary. Presented at the new Eccles Regent Theater May 11-13, Heller’s new work is a captivating display of her research that views performance as a healing practice. Her approach to the craft focuses on relationships between emotionality and physicality, which consistently results in theatricality. very vary is reminiscent of qualities that have come out of Heller’s past processes here in Salt Lake City, but while it’s an evening-length performance, it successfully transcends any unresolved itches. Watching this work felt like there were no reservations and no omitted moments, but also no unnecessary ones. In its fullness I sat consumed, which is typical while watching Heller’s creations, but this one owns a special charge.

very vary is a book with 14 chapters brought to life by performers Marissa Mooney as the doe, Nicholas Blaylock as the monkey, Melissa Younker as the honeybee, Florian Alberge as the fox, Mary Lyn Graves as the lion and Yebel Gallegos as the seahorse. The architecture of the theater exposes the city, and as the sky begins to discolor for the night, papier mâché animal heads built by Gretchen Reynolds that are rested upon tripods and begin to glow. All six of the characters arrive and suddenly introduce themselves quite firmly, as if they were to be the loudest aspects of themselves in that moment and expand the capacity of the room. Each character maintains their own flair in their hands, in the way they walk and how they interact with each other. They are each distinct in their roles from start to finish, as declared animals and by the nature of Heller’s design—but the narrative is not linear. There are chapters of audible text from the performers, which relay casual stories that evolve into descriptions of fears, bouts of yelling at the audience and bold announcements—and the narrative remains abstracted. The experiences and characteristics of the performers cue the audience into a story without revealing any exactness about it. There are hints, however, and together with live sound by local musician Michael Wall, very vary becomes about the parts of a book that aren’t read, but felt.

Throughout the tangled layers of the dance, the audience begins to discover more realities about each performer. Alberge, the fox, yells blips about yelling, and elaborate expressions run their course through each muscle. Younker, the honeybee, inhabits the space with articulate grasps of her fingertips and intense focus. Graves, the lion, carries out quick-footed movement with attack and a serene presence. Gallegos, the seahorse, leaves a trail of vibrancy. Mooney, the doe, bursts the previous structure with flickers of tension, shifting the whole body. In contrast, Blaylock, the monkey, is on the floor moving minimally within some other physical force that causes struggle. Meanwhile, the rest join in on a playful march up the stairs in the audience, even singing a melody made by various marching-band noises, leaving behind Blaylock. He appears childlike, mistaken or discouraged as the others parade themselves while he remains standing, watching. The constant flow of images in Heller’s work are strikingly clear but possess an openness about them that allows the audience to witness what they have felt heretofore.

The experiences of the performers throughout the piece quickly dissolve just in time for the arrival of new ones, instances fade and nothing that could ever be expected becomes what’s next. The performers’ animalistic sensibilities enliven in each chapter, unveiling a world of attempts, cautiousness and interruptions within each character. After following the tide of emotionality that takes over the characters, it curls back, sending them in a line fully confronting the audience. Cluttered phrases directed at the viewers beginning with “We are” come to an abrupt stop by precise statements from each one, beginning with “I am.” All powerful moments lead right to the next.   One by one, they each get drawn toward the glowing heads. The animals’ next task is to tie those glowing heads onto their own heads, and they do so by each other’s guidance. The heads cast a dim light on the surrounding faces. All the lights fade to black except the glowing heads, and they begin to appear like lanterns floating away. The magic vanishes slowly and whichever pieces the audience members cherish drift toward them to keep.

In Heller’s work, the presence of each performer in dynamic circumstances sweeps up viewers and sets them down with tears and grins. It perpetually unravels new aspects of the characters and their relationships, never allowing a single bare expression, a neutral body or any certain visual to linger.   The work is meant to be seen, as it is full of indescribable in-betweens, returns, releases, pleasures and defeat; recognizably felt parts of life and everything redolent of poetry. Donate and stay tuned to the future of very vary at fundly.com/m2/very-vary-a-new-dance-work-by-molly-heller.