Beyond the Proscenium
NOW ID dances the Great Hall at UMFA.
When I met Charlotte Boye-Christensen 24 years ago, we were graduate students at NYU, and I’d never seen a choreographer combine complexity with precision in such fascinating ways. Fast forward two decades and Charlotte continues to be drawn to seemingly impossible tasks, or as she says, “predictability can be disabling.”
As artistic director of NOW-ID, an interdisciplinary contemporary dance company she runs with her husband Nathan Webster, Charlotte has become known for collaborative events in unique sites: 2013’s The Wedding at the Masonic Temple, 2014’s Feast at Saltair, and It’s Not Cracker (2016) at Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. This summer NOW-ID has selected another museum in Salt Lake City for A Tonal Caress, which takes place July 12 to 14 at Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA).
“I’ve always been interested in site-specific work and have done it since the beginning of my career,” says Charlotte. “After 11 years as director of Ririe-Woodbury and simultaneously doing a lot of commissions with other companies, I reached a point in 2012 where I was so tired of the same old format.”
Charlotte has created many original works for conventional theaters (those that use a proscenium arch to divide the stage from an auditorium). “Of course you could change how a theater looked,” she adds, “but unique spaces create context and tell stories.”
Collaborating with Nathan, an architect, Charlotte seeks out atypical venues that, she says, influence her “movement invention process.” Working in various settings, with audiences sitting around the performers, Charlotte becomes keenly aware of how her choreography changes depending on a viewer’s perspective.
Both choreography and architecture direct people’s movement through environments..“Architects do more than make things that don’t collapse or leak,” says Nathan. “We are trained to study the history of spaces. There’s poetry involved in design.”
Sitting together for this interview, Charlotte and Nathan have a rapport that mirrors the symbiotic process of their performance creation, riffing off of ideas and adding to one another’s sentences. “New buildings like UMFA feel different from older places like Saltair,” says Nathan. “But all places have stories and sensibilities. They have structural rhythms and they move people in ways that inspire us.”
A Tonal Caress will feature Walter Kadiki, a Deaf poet based in Australia. The word “Deaf” (with a capital D) refers to an emerging movement to embrace the cultural norms, beliefs and values of the Deaf community.
Gary Vlasic, a long-time collaborator and board member with NOW-ID, introduced Charlotte to Kadiki’s work when he was featured in the online video Poetic License: Louder Than Words on Nowness.com, a global video channel that presents stories about art, design, fashion, beauty, music, food and travel.
Charlotte was captivated by the passion and commitment in Kadiki’s poems, even though she doesn’t use sign language. Australian Sign Language, which is used by Kadiki, is different from American Sign Language, adding to the complexity of the project.
For Charlotte, Kadiki’s performances speak to the resilience and fortitude needed in times of crisis, which she connects to the election of Donald Trump and “feeling disconnected with the ways things are going.” She describes Kadiki’s work as evoking a “focused desperation,” which is “exactly how I feel.”
A Tonal Caress presents a more “focused” viewing experience for audiences. “In certain spaces, such as when we work outdoors there are many things that get lost in translation or get distracting,” says Charlotte. “The nature of this piece demanded a more controlled environment.” Audience members will sit facing each other across the hall to watch the performers, who will use both the staircase and the floor of the Great Hall as their stage.
It’s fitting to create a piece about communication in a museum, Nathan says.
Dancers Jo Blake, Liz Ivkovich and Sydney Petitt will bring the discipline of dance into a museum that has a rich display of visual arts. Come early to view Great Salt Lake and Vicinity, the work of Spencer Finch currently hanging in the Great Hall. Its tiny squares of color that describe the landscape surrounding the Great Salt Lake invite a new way of looking at colors and shape—a good visual warmup for what’s to come in the performance.
Charlotte says she’s inspired by the cavernous volume of the Great Hall and is “finding ways of accenting the ‘up-space.’” Vlasic will also create an installation Vlasic on the museum’s grand staircase. Meanwhile, Nathan has been connecting with Deaf communities in Salt Lake City to invite them to the performances.
Support for this multifaceted endeavor has been provided by Texas Tech where Charlotte is head of the Dance Program, Arts Access Victoria in Melbourne, and locally through ZAP, The John and Marcia Price Family Foundation and individual donors.
After this project, when the fall semester resumes, Charlotte will return to Texas Tech where she’s creating a curriculum in interdisciplinary performance. She sees site-specific work as an essential part of young artists’ education. As she says, “Once you’ve had experience with site projects, as artists and audiences, when you return to a proscenium, you see space differently. We see the power in eliminating the fourth wall separation, and connecting audiences to the work.”
Who: NOW ID Dance Company (Charlotte Boye-Christensen, artistic director); co-production with Gary Vlasic / V. Project
What: A Tonal Caress
Where: The Great Hall of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts (UMFA) on the campus of the University of Utah
Date: Thursday-Saturday, July 12-14
Time: 8pm (doors open at 7pm)
Tickets: $35 (student/senior discounts). Available at www.now-id.com/current
Kate Mattingly is an assistant professor in the University of Utah School of Dance. Her writing about dance has been published in The New York Times, The Village Voice and elsewhere.