Immersive dance piece coming to Salt Lake City asks, ‘Can you see yourself in it?’

First Published      Last Updated Jan 25 2015 09:15 am

Dance » BYU prof leads the collaborative, immersive dance-theater project “You.”

Immersive theater, a genre-bending theatrical style that blurs the lines between audience and performer, has exploded in popularity in the U.S. over the past several years.

There are seven immersive shows running in New York City alone, including "Sleep No More," a hallmark production by British theater company Punchdrunk that wordlessly leads audiences through six floors of a Chelsea warehouse to tell the story of Macbeth.

This week, Utah choreographer and Brigham Young University dance professor Graham Brown will initiate Salt Lake City with his own brand of immersive dance-theater, a work three years in development titled "You."

Many immersive shows require the audience run up and down stairs and in and out of rooms. Brown chose a different route while also taking a more personal approach to the narrative, which shifts between the nightlife and home lives of four friends.

"Rather than moving the audience," he said, "the theatrical elements are moving the thing. It is about creating environments — very quickly the audience is in multiple places existing at once — we are in a dance club, a living room, a restaurant."

The coordination of this kind of dance-theater is complicated, so in addition to the usual costume and lighting designers for most dance performances, this team includes a dramaturg, an acting coach, set designer, sound/music composer and a stage manager. Yet Brown says his choreographic intention has remained the same: "Can you see yourself in it?"

"I've always wanted the audience to see their lives reflected in the narrative," he said. "It's not a version of 'Macbeth' or 'Alice in Wonderland' or some spectacular mythical character, the immersive part of 'You' is seeing the beauty in the mundane. Rather than watching a couple onstage arguing at a restaurant and thinking, 'Oh, I've seen a couple arguing at a restaurant like that before,' the set places the audience in the environment so the experience becomes, 'Oh, I remember arguing at a restaurant with my wife like that before.' "

University of Utah graduate Emily Terndrup has danced in three immersive shows, including "Sleep No More," since graduating in 2011 and moving to New York City. In a phone interview, she said the question all immersive theater asks is: "Does changing the form make the material touch you in a different way?"

"You have to be very honest as a performer because the distance has been taken away, and you have to be very adaptable because the audience can change the course of your performance," Terndrup said.

One night, for example, an audience member picked up and began to examine a prop right when Terndrup needed to use it. Or she said something as simple as the smell of someone's perfume can be distracting. But Terndrup said the music and sound is one of the most important elements.

"I would rather have the lights go out or the worst wardrobe malfunction than have the sound goof up," she said. "Since there is no dialogue, the music is particularly important."

When Brown began work on "You" as a graduate student at the University of Maryland, he used pre-recorded music. As he developed the piece with the BYU dance ensemble and then as a professional piece, he knew it would require an original score. Brown had previous professional ties with composer Michael Wall, who, along with an impressive résumé of composing for choreographers, had coincidentally taken a job at the U. of U. dance department around the same time Brown moved back to Utah for his position at BYU. Wall also has an online site, soundFORMovement.com, that provides a large range of music in a variety of meters and tempos in a "pay-what-you-like" model.

"The biggest difference with this collaboration is that Graham and I have been able to sit down regularly in person," Wall said. "Most of the work I do is done remotely with choreographers and filmmakers."

Graham Brown's brother Joel also composes music and is familiar with Wall.

"Graham loves his brother's music and really wanted to bring in more of it, so I remixed elements of his music in different parts of the show," Wall said. "That was fun. Graham worked with Joel and [me] to find creative ways to bring the two of us together."

Mikayla Ellison, Keanu Brady, Jersey Reo Riemo and Shawnee Jo Haycock are the four leads in the show, which also includes group dances that audience members will be invited to join.

Ellison is a graduate of BYU who studied ballet growing up and traveled the world with the college International Folk Dance Ensemble. In "You," she and Brady portray a married couple.

"Folk dance is a very inclusive style — very social and interactive — which is exactly what this show is," Ellison said. "In most dance rehearsals you don't spend time on performance quality to the same extent. In 'You' I've learned to be expressive in my face and have a clear purpose for what I'm doing."

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Here’s looking at ‘You’

When » Thursday, 5:30 and 8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 7 and 9:30 p.m.

Where » Leona Wagner Black Box, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City

Tickets » $20; arttix.org 801-355-ARTS