UTAH (ABC4) – History is part of the curriculum for most college dancers, but they don’t usually get to be a part of making it.
This year, however, Utah Valley University dancers get the opportunity to do just that. UVU’s department of dance is partnering with Salt Lake-based professional dance company Repertory Dance Theater to present two rare, historic dance works – and one of them has been performed by only eight dancers in the last 90 years.
The first dance, titled “Steps in the Street,” was choreographed in 1936 and the second, a solo called “Ekstasis,” was created in 1933. The steps for “Ekstasis” weren’t well documented, however, and the piece was lost in time until dancer Virginie Mécène used archival materials to reconstruct it in 2017.
Both works were choreographed by Martha Graham, a pioneer in the development of modern dance techniques and an icon in the dance community. For dancers of all ages, performing a work by Graham is both a seminal moment and an honor.
“I’m at a loss for words,” says Jadyn Nelms, one of two UVU seniors who was selected to perform “Ekstasis.” “Just getting the opportunity to do Graham itself is amazing and having the opportunity to audition for this really special piece is even more amazing.”
Nelms joins a list of elite dancers who have also performed the work, including Sara Mearns and Aurélie Dupont, who are star ballerinas with the New York City Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet, respectively. UVU senior Rachel Miller will also dance the role.
“When I tried on [the costume for the piece], I had to keep pinching myself because it was the same dress that was worn by anyone who has performed it before,” Miller says. “It really was surreal to wear the same garment that had been worn by such talented and accomplished dancers.”
Angela Banchero-Kelleher, the UVU professor of dance who helmed the project to bring “Ekstasis” to Utah audiences, will also perform the solo. Nelms and Miller will perform “Ekstasis” at the university’s dance concert in spring 2022, and Banchero-Kelleher will dance as part of RDT’s Compass, a mixed bill performance which also features “Steps in the Street,” as well as pieces by Bebe Miller and Ishan Rustem. Compass will be presented at the Rose Wagner Theater in Salt Lake City from November 18-20.
Not only is performing a work by Graham an honor for dancers, it is also a rarity. Graham’s eponymous dance company, based in New York City, holds the rights to the vast majority of Graham’s work, and the licensing process is long, arduous, and expensive.
“It really is difficult to get a Graham piece. With the copyright, paying for it, and making sure that your dancers have the technique, it’s a big investment,” says Banchero-Kelleher.
The presentation of “Ekstasis” and “Steps in the Street” marks the continuation of a long, fruitful educational and performance-based partnership between RDT and UVU. In 2019, when RDT’s executive/artistic director Linda C. Smith got the approval to present “Steps in the Street,” she asked Banchero-Kelleher to recommend some UVU dancers to fill in the cast. Then, the pandemic hit. During lockdown, Banchero-Kelleher thought about the performance often, and suggested to Smith that they add “Ekstasis” to the bill when performances were possible again.
“Angela was with our company for over 17 years, and we’ve had a close association with her as a faculty member at UVU,” Smith says. “About 3 years ago we got together and said: ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a work by Martha Graham?’ Utah Valley University had the vision and understood the importance of making sure people saw those works.”
Though both “Steps in the Street” and “Ekstasis” are time capsules in their own respect, Smith and Banchero-Kelleher believe that the dances have importance in the present moment, too.
When Graham created “Steps in the Street,” she was responding to crises that were occurring in her era.
“When Martha choreographed this, she was coming out of the Depression and was aware of artists and intellectuals fleeing Nazi Germany,” Banchero-Kelleher says. “It was a call to arms, to pay attention to what was happening.”
Smith likens the mood of the piece to the feelings society has experienced during the pandemic, and the way that having a united voice can bring strength, hope, and encouragement in times of crisis.
“It speaks across generations and becomes kind of a fresh, new way to see,” she says. “It has a reality today that is really powerful.”
“Ekstasis,” too, bears weight for dancers in 2021.
Beyond shedding light on the origins of Martha Graham’s groundbreaking dance technique, for students, learning “Ekstasis” has been a lesson in dance history like no other.
“It’s a very special and very different kind of movement and I feel like it resonates really well in my body,” Nelms says. “I’m hoping that I can keep the legacy going by telling this amazing story to the audience of Utah.”