Artist Graham Brown (now based in Provo, UT) wrote for Life as a Modern Dancer three years ago. This week, we reconnect with Graham, and he shares an update on his current dance path.
The past 3 years/ the most major change in my dance career:
By far the biggest shift has been to dive into immersive theater as my primary mode of research/presentation of my work. It must have been only a couple of months after I wrote my profile on here that I saw Then She Fell by Third Rail Projects in NYC, and it completely changed my life. It is an immersive show for only 15 audience members who are each brought through a very specific and individual experience, spending about half of the time alone with one performer or another. I was intensely impacted by the intimacy, both of being inside of an experience with them, and of the power of seeing dance from such close proximity. It was so meaningful and emotional for me. It felt like a personal gift, in a way that no stage performance has ever felt.
My show You that I was working on at the time (referenced in my profile) was all about this question directed to the audience - “Do you see yourself in it?” On my flight home from NYC it hit me that there would be no more direct and potent way to achieve my goal of helping the audience to “see themselves in it” than to literally put them in it. It’s one thing to watch people on stage dancing like they’re at a club, it’s a whole different experience to actually be at a club and the performance happens around you; and with you.
And so You as an immersive experience was born. We removed the seating in the Rose Wagner Black Box Theatre, and the audience and performers shared the large black box space, with furniture and set pieces moving in and out in coordination with the different scenes. The show ran for one very successful weekend, January 2015. When it was over, rather than feeling finished, it felt like time to begin the next and final chapter - a fully immersive advancement of the work.
The title changed to Sonder (look the word up in the dictionary of obscure sorrows by John Koenig, www.dictionaryofobscuresorrows.com) and took two years and some crucial artistic collaborations to realize. Dramaturg/writer Rick Curtiss and I spent countless hours re-writing the show and adding scenes to accommodate a multi-dimensional experience in which, rather than exiting, characters split ways providing a choice for the audience of who to follow into which scene. We also integrated as much audience interaction as possible into the work. There were 58 total scenes in the show with at most eight happening at the same time and about half had some level of audience involvement, be it simply holding something for a character, or being transformed for a time into a character themselves.
Another crucial connection was with the production company Sackerson, directed by David Mortensen, Alex Ungerman, and Daniel Whiting, who produced the show. Among a host of miraculous work they did, perhaps the most significant was to land an incredible historic building in Downtown Salt Lake City as the venue. Many know of it as The Bay - a nightclub that has gone in and out of operation over the years. We occupied three stories of this building creating the many environments of the show including a nightclub, a restaurant, and two different homes with bedrooms, living rooms, kitchen, office, etc. Installation artist Aundrea Frahm (www.a-frahm.com) created much of the design work - approaching set design as installation art. Sonder ran March-April of 2017 for a 6-week sold-out run of shows, seen by over 1,200 people, with many returning two, three, and even four times. There’s an infectious feeling to this type of work where the audience has agency, intimacy, and is directly involved with the events as they unfold. It creates a deep level of connection to the characters, experiences, and the world of the show. And because there is so much happening at once, you can come multiple times and see a whole new show each time, deepening your understanding of and relationship with the work.
A scene from Sonder - Eliza Tappan on top (she played the character Charlie), Connor Voss on bottom (video)
Beyond my professional choreographic work, I created or curated 3 evening-length works with the BYU dancEnsemble:
- Only Now - A made-from-scratch collaboration with fellow faculty member Caroline Prohosky, composer Gavan Ryan, and the students
- Ordinary Festivals by Sara Pearson and Partik Widrig – PEARSONWIDRIG DANCETHEATRE’s glorious signature work filled with hundreds of oranges and Italian folk music. Lehua (my wife) and I set the work on the students off of the video, and Sara and Patrik spent two weeks refining it with the students. Lehua and I also performed in the show. This is the first time the full work has ever been set on another company.
- A Mobile Excursion – An epic collaboration with Aundrea Frahm (it was intended to be our warm-up for Sonder and ended up being an immense accomplishment of its own) and the students in which we re-imagined the spaces in and around the Dance Theatre as a combination of site-specific dance, installation art, and immersive theater. Audiences moved through several experiential environments ranging from laying on the floor on a pillow while the dance happens around them, to moving through a duet between double doors in which audience members sometimes get trapped inside. The music was composed and played live by a team of student musicians.
For the BYU Theater Department, I choreographed Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale directed by Lindsay Livingston. In terms of performance I toured with PEARSONWIDRIG DANCETHEATER in 2016 to Havana, Cuba where we collaborated with the Compania Rosario Cardenas. I also performed a solo from Sonder in that show.
In regards to teaching at BYU I’ve created two new classes - A Contemporary Partnering class using contact improvisation as its primary reference point, and an Urban and Street Forms class. For the Urban class I created and organized it, but contracted with the SLC based B-boy Federation (www.bboyfed.com) to provide teachers in the different styles including b-boying, popping, new jack swing, and house. After two semesters of this we hired one of the teachers - Marc Cameron, aka Big Chocolate - to take over the class as an adjunct faculty member. This class has a huge waiting list every semester.
My calendar this academic year:
Sackerson is producing The Little Prince, and I will be choreographing it. We’ve identified certain scenes for which we will generate choreographic content with the actors, furthering the narrative with an unexpected abstract physical layer. That will open in Salt Lake City in November.
I have started on my next big professional project called Apple Falling. A re-imagining of a stage work I made a few years ago, it will be an immersive experience set in a house and centered around ideas of family, inheritance, and legacy, asking the question - “Can we control how far the apple falls from the tree?” It will be a multi-generational cast of 6 and an audience of 18. Each audience member will follow one character for the full duration of the show, getting their side of the story. Sackerson will be producing it and we are working with a team of writers to realize the story and script. We don’t have a time frame set for opening, but I’d guess it will be within the next year or so.
On balancing career and family:
The truth is I failed at this during the Sonder process. It took a huge toll on my family and marriage. I learned some important lessons about how much is too much… rehearsals five days a week in Salt Lake City (45 minutes away from Provo where we live) is too much. Also being in the thick of such a huge project really took over my mental and emotional space, leaving me pretty absent from my personal life. Moving forward with Apple Falling I am very aware of not falling into that again. Having writers frees up hours of time, not jumping into a set calendar right away relieves stress, and when we get to the point of setting a calendar I will keep it in mind to space things out enough to be able to stay present in both my art and my real life.
The family-work balance has flipped now, and I am making more sacrifices because Lehua has started an MFA program in dance at the U of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. She was gone for 7 weeks over the summer, so I kept my calendar clear to be home with the kids, including turning down a tour to Germany with PEARSONWIDRIG DANCETHEATER. She is now home taking 12 credits, both online and 2 classes at the U of Utah, so I come home every day after teaching to shuttle kids, clean house, and make dinner. She will also be gone for a few weeks in February touring the Nikolais work with Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Basically it ends up that we take turns.
It’s a constant juggling act of needs, wants, opportunities and responsibilities between not only Lehua and I, but also the four kids, two of which have arrived at the opportunities and challenges of the teen age years. We look forward (with slight chagrin) to the day when our oldest can help out by driving herself and other family members around!
To read Graham's original artist profile, please click here.