Arts called into the service of protest.
The year 2017 got off to a gloomy start with the inauguration of Donald “Two Left Feet” Trump replacing the always graceful Barack Obama as President of the United States. At an inaugural Ball in January, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence shuffled awkwardly to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Sinatra (1915-1998) was a popular singer with ties to organized crime who is rumored to have said, “I’d rather be a don of the Mafia than president of the United States.”
In Salt Lake City, it was clear even before the inauguration that in 2017 the arts would be called into the service of protest.
In early January, poet Paisley Rekdal hosted Utah Writers Resist as a fundraiser for the American Civil Liberties Union featuring readings to “rekindle our citizens’ commitment to compassion, equality, free speech and social justice.” The amazing Rekdal, who won a 2017 15-Bytes Book Award for “Imaginary Vessels,” was named Utah’s new poet laureate in May. She took up the position in the true spirit of resistance, occasionally offering a writing critique to any poet willing to make calls to legislators. I hope that Utah politicians noticed some unusually eloquent citizens on the line!
In March, pink pussy hats became a fashion statement at Women’s Marches around the globe. The main event took place in Washington D.C., and Utah-based sister marches happened in Ogden, Park City, Kanab, Saint George, Bluff and Salt Lake City where an estimated 10,000 people braved a blizzard to storm the Utah Capitol Building on opening day of the Utah Legislature. Music created the most emotional moment at the Salt Lake City march when thousands of voices echoed through the marble rotunda singing “I’m Gonna Walk it with You” by songwriters Brian Claflin & Ellie Grace.
In May, President Trump and members of his administration waved swords and bobbed off the beat dancing a traditional “Ardah” with Saudi Arabian officials during Trump’s first overseas trip as president. Ardah is a symbolic display of power and the lines of men with swords represent a marching army preparing for war. The extravagant festivities seemed specifically designed to flatter Trump’s ego, and at one point he appeared to bow to the Saudi King (something he’d mocked President Obama for doing). Trump ended by announcing a $110 billion arms deal for the Saudis, but without managing to negotiate any benefits for the United States.
2017 wasn’t all politics all the time. One thing that really gets dancers excited is hardwood floors. In June Salt Lake City got not one but two new dance floors, upstairs and downstairs, at the E. W. Garbett Center for Choral Music ( an old LDS ward house on Marmalade Hill now owned by Salt Lake Choral Artists). When the Garbett Center decided to replace their old carpets, three social dance groups helped raise funds for wooden floors including Wasatch Tango Club, Wasatch Contras and Salt Lake Scandinavian Music & Dance. Materials and labor were donated by Home Depot Foundation and Underfoot Floors, and a grand opening celebration with plenty of dancing was held on June 17.
In October, Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT) presented a new commission by choreographer Zvi Gotheiner to celebrate the sacred land of Bears Ears, with much of the money raised from the community through a crowdfunding campaign. In December indigenous dancers showed up with feathers and drums in an effort to protect Utah’s new Bears Ears National Monuments from Trump’s downsizing “review,” and a dancing flash mob formed in the middle of State Street as Trump swung his National Monument wrecking ball inside the Utah Capitol building.
At least one tradition remained intact. Ballet West is the guardian of a unique Utah version of The Nutcracker choreographed by Willem Christensen in 1944. The company had been using the same old costumes for the past 30 years and they were starting to look shabby. In December the company debuted a $3 million set and costume upgrade that wisely referred back to the previous vision and gave longtime Director of Costume Production David Heuvel his third go-round at making Nutcracker costumes. The dancing bear, the mechanical doll, the mouse army and all the other beloved characters are bright and new but still familiar. Mother Buffoon has been given a particularly charming Utah twist, reimagined as our official State Emblem, the beehive. One piece appropriately preserved from the old set was the grandfather clock, a symbol of eternal time and continual renewal.
Amy Brunvand is a dance enthusiast, environmental librarian and longtime CATALYST contributor.