In April 2011, a dance review in the New Yorker magazine by Joan Acocella began like this:
When you go to Eiko and Koma's "Naked"—it is playing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center through Saturday night—what you see is two bodies lying side by side on a mound of soil and feathers. So this is a scene from nature, but it is no pastoral idyll. The bodies are white, gaunt, and utterly naked. They move little, and slowly, and mostly just in relation to each other...
The review made me want to see Eiko and Koma perform, but alas they were in New York City and I was in Utah. Just a few weeks later I noticed a poster for SaltDanceFest, 2011, a Modern Dance festival in Salt Lake City that I had never heard of before. The poster said that Eiko and Koma were going to be performing at the University of Utah Marriott Center for Dance where all the seats are good, and the tickets are so cheap they are practically free. I was so thrilled I dragged my Mom and daughter along to see the weirdly slow, ghostly, butoh-inspired performance.
It turns out that I'd never heard of SaltDanceFest was because last year was the first one. What seemed like serendipity, getting a chance to see some MacArthur-genius dancers I thought I would never see outside of YouTube, turned out to be the result of deliberate strategizing and vision on the part of Stephen Koester, chair of the University of Utah Department of Modern Dance who started a new dance workshop in order to give students a chance to work with cutting edge modern dancers, and to explore the legacy of great choreographers.
SaltDanceFest is primarily a workshop for serious dance students who will get a chance to work with great teachers in order to develop new ideas and techniques. The festival is deliberately scheduled right before the annual Repertory Dance Theatre Summerdance Workshop (this year with master teacher and choreographer, Susan Hadley) so students can take both and experience a month of dance in the Rocky Mountains.
There are also public events including lectures and discussions with guest artists. As Koester points out, "These are hugely important people in the field. They represent the cutting edge of what's happening in dance right now but also represent important legacies in dance."
You may not recognize the names of the SaltDanceFest 2012 guest artists: Marina Mascarell and Paul Selwyn Norton and Vicky Cortés, but you might have heard of the companies and choreographers they worked with: Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Frankfurt Ballet and Pina Bausch. Many people were introduced to the work of Pina Baush (1940-2009) recently when a film of her dances was nominated for a documentary feature Oscar (and judging from comments I heard in the audience a lot of people who didn't know they liked that kind of dance were blown away by what they saw on screen).
Koester says SaltDanceFest is one of the few modern dance festivals that focuses on the creative process, and the act of making dances. The festival concludes with a showcase of dances created during the workshop. "People will be seeing things that have been made in the moment," say Koester. "It will have been made in the last two weeks. The guest artists will also be creating works on the participants so you will be seeing new works galore." He hopes that SaltDanceFest will become a destination summer workshop that people look forward to each year. "I don't want this to be huge festival. I like the intimacy," he says. "But I think it has room to grow. This year we should have 40 dancers registered, and we are almost at capacity."
At the University of Utah, June 4-15. www.dance.utah.edu/saltdancefest/