A beloved book inspires a place-based dance.
When I arrived at Bend-in-the-River Park by the Jordan River, Liz Ivkovich and Ashley Anderson were busy unrolling a huge bolt of white fabric along the Jordan River trail. The two women were deep into a creative process, working out details for an immersive dance experience inspired by Terry Tempest Williams’ book When Women Were Birds. They had already put in a year of work to raise money, form a creative team and get permits. In less than a month a live audience would come to see the show, titled Those with Wings.
“The dancers are going to follow the path,” Anderson explained. “The floor gets rolled up while the dance is happening and when it’s rolled up the dance is over and it’s gone.” The disappearing “stage” and fleeting experience relate to themes in Williams’ book which is subtitled Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. .
Ecology and a sense of place are constant themes in Williams’ writing, and the “stage” for the dance performance is the whole park. The audience follows the dancers as they travel through the different spaces, sometimes integrating the audience.
Bend-in-the-River was selected as the site because it is what Ivkovich terms an “in-between” space— an uneasy mix of wildness and urban neglect. Majestic old cottonwood trees grow alongside dilapidated constructions of wood and rocks that might have been intended as artwork. A shabby pavilion labeled “Urban Treehouse” was dedicated for Earth Day 2001, intended as an outdoor classroom. Mallards floated on the brownish river which gave off an un-fresh smell, and iridescent blue dragonflies hovered overhead. As we talked, people passed by on the Jordan River trail—kids with skateboards, couples holding hands, moms pushing strollers, people on bikes. Nobody lingered except for one man in filthy clothes who stopped to rifle through the trashcan.
One idea behind Those with Wings is to restore a relationship between the westside neighborhood and the environmentally damaged Jordan River. The dance performance is a collaboration between Anderson’s organization loveDANCEmore and Seven Canyons Trust, a nonprofit with a mission to restore the seven creeks in the Salt Lake City watershed.
“I think that every dance is about ecology,” Izkovich muses. “It’s about space. This is going to say something specific about conservation and the wilderness in your own backyard.” Anderson concurs, adding that performing outdoors allows unexpected things to happen. “When we did the last show, there was the beautiful dance happening and there was this fridge floating down the river and it was sort of horrible and wonderful and Brian said you mean that it was sublime? Which it totally was.”
Ivkovich has done this kind of thing before. Together with Alysia Ramos she created The Mists, a magical immersive dance based on the legends of King Arthur, performed in 2015 at Red Butte Garden as part of the Garden After Dark Halloween event. The scale was considerably larger—60 performers with a sum total audience of 7,000 people. “This time we are going to have a super intimate audience—only 25 people per show.”
Anderson says her ideal audience wouldn’t just see the show and leave; they would be people who live in the neighborhood and have an ongoing relationship with the place. Ivkovich says her ideal audience would be Terry Tempest Williams. “She’s a genius. My deepest hope and desire is that she would come to the show.” She laughs and admits, “I don’t think it will happen. “