By Linda C. Smith
Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT), believes that each of us has a unique “sense of place” that can be explored through movement and art. Out of this impulse now comes RDT’s new initiative “Sacred Lands/Sacred Waters” and its first iteration, linked to the newly-proclaimed Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. Titled “Dancing the Bears Ears” this new commission has been hatching for over 25 years.
Americans are faced with many concerns about the future of our families and communities as well as our country’s economic and political stability. We are also faced with the realization that shrinking resources and expanding populations present challenges that stress the very fabric of our society.
We have seen destructive and inhuman actions replace rational thought. We have seen deterioration of our wilderness and the disintegration of our rural and urban landscape. We have seen a lack of concern for natural resources, poor planning of cities and neighborhoods, erosion of values, and alienation from nature and each other. As artists, we need to respond.
RDT has always sought to illuminate a deeper understanding of our world by making dance more relevant in our communities through inter-disciplinary programs. For us, the arts are tools to educate, to heal and to promote creative solutions to problems.
“Dancing the Bears Ears,” which will premiere in October, 2017, really began as early as 1993 when RDT began a commissioning work that focused on landscape. The initiative was designed to foster an appreciation of the unique physical attributes of Utah while increasing ecological awareness and sensitivity toward issues and events that threaten the environment. The Company developed choreography, lesson plans, movement exploration and curriculum inspired by the Utah/Colorado Plateau, the Great Basin, wetlands and riparian areas, mountains and forests. Support material was created focusing on the study of geography, anthropology, geology, ecology and dance. Centennial Landscape Suite, Glacier, Dancing the Green Map, and a Sense of Place choreographic competition created compelling choreography–artistic intersections of humanity and the natural world.
Our first landscape commission was awarded 25 years ago to Zvi Gotheiner. His work “Erosion” marked the beginning of a unique relationship that has resulted in our performing nine of his works, including five commissions.
For many years, Zvi and I dreamed of creating an opportunity to pair RDT and his New York based company, ZviDance, to work on a site-specific project in Utah. We discussed creating a residency in the southeastern area of the state and began to write grants. When I heard that the area known as “Bears Ears” was to become a new national monument, the site seemed perfect, and I began researching.
The new national monument is 1.35 million acres in size, including about one million acres of public land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and 290,000 acres managed by the US Forest Service.
Multiple indigenous cultures have inhabited, crossed, and built civilizations on these lands. The Bears Ears has been important to Native American people as a homeland and a place of renewal since time immemorial.
Lands within the region are among the most significant in the country. The area is world-renowned for the integrity and the abundance of cultural and archaeological resources. There are more than 100,000 cultural sites on the land that can give us a glimpse into the past, but to Native Americans as well as many others, it is also a portal to the world of something more ephemeral, even sacred.
In spite of years of disagreement, the Navajo (Dine), Hopi, Zuni, Ute and Ute Mountain Ute tribes have worked together to preserve their collective sacred lands not only for their posterity but for the country and for the world at large.
Recognizing select lands as “sacred” is an intriguing concept. Photographers, writers, and visual artists have long been inspired by the Bears Ears. RDT petitioned the NEA for funding to allow our dance company to explore the region and to create a work in response to its high mountain peaks; deep canyons; long, broken mesas; astounding arches and stately red-rock cliffs.
The six month-long project “Dancing the Bears Ears,” began May 7, 2017 with both dance companies convening in Salt Lake City in advance of a week-long tour of the Monument with two Navajo (Dine) guides, Jonah Yellowman and Mary Benally.
It’s challenging to adequately express the impact this week had on our group, but one thing was certain: by the time we returned from this sacred land we all seemed to answer the question of how it went with, “we are changed.”
In the next few posts Linda C. Smith will talk about the itinerary of the tour to the Bears Ears National Monument and its impact on the group as they prepared to return to the studio to create the new work “Dancing the Bears Ears.”
Linda C. Smith is a founding member and now Executive/Artistic Director of Salt Lake City-based Repertory Dance Theatre.