Moving as one

August 21 2023
BIG BEATS premiere in NYC, 2021 | Photo Maria Baranova BIG BEATS premiere in NYC, 2021 | Photo Maria Baranova

It is not often that University of Utah dance students and faculty find themselves side-by-side on stage. This coming weekend, they will get the chance in a one-of-a-kind public performance. 

“BIG BEATS,” is a 15-minute, free, outdoor dance performance by Brooklyn-based choreographer Joanna Kotze with an original sound score performed live by composer/musician Ryan Seaton. Utah audiences will have two opportunities to catch the free show, presented by UtahPresents in partnership with the School of Dance:

  • Friday, August 25th at the plaza outside SLC’s Main Library downtown
  • Saturday August 26th on our very own J. Willard Marriott Library Plaza. 

The cast of 24 SLC-based performers includes U School of Dance undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and professional dancers, all selected through a formal audition process. 

For Kotze, one of the things that makes “BIG BEATS” special is the relationships it fosters within the community. She has seen this in action in five previous times she has set the piece on groups of students and professional dancers: at its premiere at NYC’s Riverside Park in 2021, then subsequently at the Ailey School, University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Bates Dance Festival, and American Dance Festival. 

“I feel like I could do this forever,” Kotze said. "It feels really cool to be able to bring different parts of the community together, especially students dancing with their teachers, and with professionals. Every time I set it, I learn so much, and it gets more detailed every time we do it. You never know how people are going to take it in and communicate with one another.”

The large group of performers moves in unison throughout the entirety of “BIG BEATS.” This extended synchronicity is uncommon in choreographic works. “Often unison is just a minute or so, but this is almost 15 minutes of it,” Kotze said. “This is not normal for me. Most of my work is very individualized, and much more about creating movement specific to each person. It has been a very satisfying and challenging choreographic decision.” 

UtahPresents describes the work as “an invitation to stop and watch a group of people working together, dancing together, being together. It is also a chance to let the beat get into your own body.”

"It feels really cool to be able to bring different parts of the community together, especially students dancing with their teachers, and with professionals."

University of Utah students need do nothing more than show up at the plaza to witness the performance. Even if they aren’t planning on attending, it just might catch them off guard –– a reminder the arts on campus are just a breath away and easily accessible through the Arts Pass program. 

“The audience is on all sides of the performance area,” Kotze explained. “You can view it from any angle, as the dance keeps shifting its front. The audience is always going to feel that something is happening for them, no matter where they are standing.” Each performance will feature the piece twice, so that audiences can stay and absorb it again, and even choose a totally different perspective. 

“BIG BEATS” is also unique in that its movement is drawn from and comprises the first section of Kotze’s evening-length work “ 'lectric Eye,” which will also be performed at Marriott Center for Dance in May as part of UtahPresents’ season. Ten of the 24 dancers of “BIG BEATS” will be asked to join the “lectric Eye” cast in an exciting opportunity for students to experience a longer trajectory with a guest artist, and perform their work in a professional capacity. 

U School of Dance assistant professor Molly Heller has been dancing with Kotze since 2018 and is one of the five core performers that tour “ ‘lectric Eye,” alongside Kotze herself, Wendell Gray II, Symara Johnson, and composer Ryan Seaton, with lighting designer Kathy Kaufmann. Having been on the road with the company, she has been anticipating when the piece would transfer to her own community here in Salt Lake City. 

“We don’t really ever, except when we are teaching, have the opportunity to dance alongside one another in a decentralized power dynamic,” Heller said. “No one is grading anyone. We are all in the same boat, swimming through complex material, figuring it out. For my colleagues and I to experience it together is bonding. I can feel the excitement in our faculty meetings to be sharing this, inviting everyone to come see what we are doing.”

For Heller, the nature of Kotze’s movement is perhaps a new exploration for students. “I have been thinking about our students’ relationship to unison movement. It is often experienced as erasing an individual –– in a way it can have that framework or feeling.” she said. “But I was feeling in rehearsal that every single person in the 24 matters in the collective energy and knowledge. The unison helps to highlight the individual without having to try for it. The uniqueness is embedded in the task.”

You can’t miss “BIG BEATS.” Be there!
(And stay tuned for more on “ ‘lectric Eye” as spring draws near!)