Not long after Daniel Charon arrived from New York City as Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s new artistic director, he began researching possible dance collaborations with local artists. “I always am looking for ideas, because collaborations really push you as an artist,” he says.
Through his research, he discovered Salt Lake Electric Ensemble (SLEE), a group dedicated to a broad variety of experimental ambient, rock, and electronic music along with the works of minimalist and postminimalist composers such as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley. In fact, some of the original members came from The Rubes and The Tolchock Trio.
Five years ago, SLEE released a widely praised recording of Riley’s In C, a 1964 minimalist classic that critic Janet Rotter called the global village’s first ritual symphonic piece. The group has performed at many notable venues, including two appearances at the Utah Arts Festival, events at The University of Utah and Brigham Young University, the Tower Theatre and on KUER’s RadioWest program.
After several discussions with Matt Starling, one of SLEE’s founding members, Charon asked the group to collaborate on a new work featuring a live performance of Riley’s minimalist masterpiece. The work titled 53 Rooms, after the 53 modules which comprise the musical score, will premiere at Ririe-Woodbury’s spring concert in three performances (April 9–11) at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. In addition to the company dancers, Charon has choreographed the work to include 13 dancers from The University of Utah’s department of modern dance.
Indeed, it will be an unprecedented performance of the Riley classic. Normally, the work has been performed by musical ensembles of 35 players or more, but SLEE always performs it with six or seven musicians as a “laptop orchestra,” using electronically synthesized sounds and tones accompanied by electric and acoustic instruments. For this performance, SLEE has rebuilt the laptop orchestra, taking advantage of recent enhancements in electronic sound tools and quality, along with various instruments including electric bass guitar, the traditional drum kit, electronic drums, stand-up bass and flugelhorn.
A rehearsal of 53 Rooms
The real complexities come in harmonizing the movement vocabulary of contemporary dance with Riley’s musical score which is deceptive in its simplicity. Each performer moves at a different pace through the modules, while gradually shifting and reshaping the musical tones, timbres and textures of the piece. There is, musically, no clear leader at any point in the music.
However, Starling explains there are distinct landmarks throughout the piece which prove helpful for both the dancers and musicians to work through the complex logistics involved with rendering the music for a repertory dance concert.
Charon, who typically wouldn't use structured improvisation in his choreography, embraced the flexible possibilities of Riley’s music and has essentially created his own sets of modules or loops of movements for the dancers.
Likewise, Charon initially was undecided about where SLEE’s seven musicians would be placed for the performance. Typically, the musicians would be in a traditional orchestra pit, but Charon realized early on in rehearsals that the best spot for the musicians would be on stage. Plainly, 53 Rooms exemplifies the fruits of creativity when two entirely different performing arts groups come together.
The concert also will include the premiere of a 27-minute dance composition titled Norwegia by New York City choreographer Netta Yerushalmy, a long-time colleague of Charon. A review of her work Helga and The Three Sailors last fall in The New Yorker captured the bold, passionate, in-your-face style of her artistry. Andrew Boynton wrote of her performance in New York City’s St. Mark’s Church:
“Sometimes everything about a dance performance seems right. It’s never apparent beforehand, in a verbal description of the choreography, the collaborators and the dancers; and it’s not necessarily discernible in the first minutes of a piece. But, at some point in the progression of a great dance, each choice makes sense, and you find yourself thinking, Yes. At the end of such a performance, there’s not a thing you would have liked more in the world than to sit in that space and allow yourself to be transported.”
For more information about the Ririe-Woodbury spring dance concert see here.