Utah choreographer’s Penguin Lady Dance Collective takes flight
Salt Lake choreographer Natosha Washington brings 17 dancers and several arts organizations together under the same roof with her latest brainchild, The Penguin Lady Dance Collective, this weekend at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center.
Washington is a familiar figure in Salt Lake’s modern-dance scene as co-founder of the RawMoves dance company, and her choreography is in the repertoires of professional companies and collegiate national and international touring programs. But this is a first for presenting an entire evening of her own work.
"I was fortunate to be able to tap into the talented community of veteran dance artists here in Utah," she said. "They’ve not only been devoted to the hours and hours of rehearsal time but have taken on behind-the-scenes jobs from web design to costuming."
Each of the 17 dancers in the collective has performed and trained professionally. Most of them have university degrees in dance, and many are educators throughout Utah’s noted system of high-school, middle-school or college dance departments; Washington herself is the dance teacher at Northwest Middle School.
"Natosha is a master educator who dared to use the whole community," Rowland Hall dance teacher Sofia Gorder said. "She knows our strengths. She knows that when I move I eat up space; that Danell [Hathaway] crafts amazing ideas …and who could resist watching little Corinne [Selena Penka] dance her heart out onstage?"
Washington says her work is built on honesty and valuing individuals rather than the stereotypical ideal of a dancer — something she experienced firsthand and learned the hard way. "I had teachers tell me that I shouldn’t dance because I didn’t have a dancer’s body and that I should work on the combination [steps] in the back of the studio."
But while majoring in dance at the University of Utah, one of her teachers, now the department chairman Stephen Koester, asked what she planned to do after college. When Washington said she wanted to explore choreography, Koester responded, "Then why are you so worried about things that have nothing to do with choreography?"
It wasn’t long before Washington’s work was showcased in the National College Dance Festival at the Kennedy Center. The piece titled "House of Timothy" received the Best Performance award and was featured in Dance Magazine.
A piece from Washington’s more recent past in this weekend’s performance is her solo, "The Penguin Lady." The companion narrative and text describes "different events in my life, which include moments of humor, struggle and realizations." But Washington is reserving further explanation of the Penguin Lady moniker for those who attend the performance.
As important as the creative ingredient is for pulling together a performance, the administrative headaches and production costs are equally significant. For help, Washington turned to local dance advocate Ashley Anderson, whose not-for-profit organization loveDANCEmore has a remarkable track record for solving seemingly impossible problems.
"I wanted to help Natosha because I appreciate what she has done for the community. So through my 501c3 status as an arts organization, I am able to offer fiscal sponsorships to independent dance artists," Anderson said. "It’s become a recognizable need — the administrative costs aren’t enormous — but they are enormous if each independent dance artist has to purchase their own insurance or file for their own 501c3 status to make them eligible for state and county funding. But if those resources are shared, it makes a lot more sense and gives artists time to do what they do best."
Rachel Nance, the principal at Northwest Middle School, said that what Washington does best is multifaceted. "Her reach as a dance teacher goes far beyond the movement itself, using community dance to develop collegiality among the faculty and to build self-esteem in students and a sense of pride in their school."
Nance said Washington’s inclusive attitude was just what school officials were looking for when they focused their mission on "using the arts to give positive experiences to students so they would invest in themselves, honor each other as courageous people and take positive risks."
Risk-taking runs in Washington’s family. She and her brother and sister were raised in southeast Georgia, where her father was the first African-American LDS bishop. Kevin and Marie Washington and their family joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1978, the same year the Utah-based faith ended its ban on blacks serving in its all-male priesthood.
"Daddy was in the stake presidency for 10 years," Washington said. "He was just released about two weeks ago, and I am so excited they’ve moved to Salt Lake."
Her parents will be a nice addition to the dance family Washington has built around herself. In an increasingly complicated arts world, she admits it took "a lot of love and support from a lot of people" to keep this Penguin Lady balanced on the ice floe.
More dance in September
Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s fall season juxtaposes three male choreographic voices from around the world. More details at www.ririewoodbury.com/performances/current-season/fall-season.
When » Sept. 25-27, 7:30 p.m.
Where » Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets » $35, arttix.org or 801-297-4241
Movement Forum (aka MoFo) commissioned five nationally and internationally recognized artists for its Mine Goes to 11 performance. More details at www.akamofo.com.
When » Sept. 19-20, 7 p.m.
Where » University of Utah Marriott Center for Dance, 330 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets » $20, $15 faculty/staff/seniors, $10 students
Two Boots — dance artists Katherine Adler and Samantha Matsukawa — are presenting “Dylan Dances,” their first evening-length dance performance. With a troupe of traveling troubadours, the dancers will explore the myth, mystery and magic of the music legend Bob Dylan. More information at http://twoboots.squarespace.com.
When » Sept. 19-20, 9:30 p.m.
Where » Outdoors at 252 Edison St. in Salt Lake City, near Diabolical Records and Big Cartel
Tickets » Donations of $5-$15 appreciated
Happy feetThe Penguin Lady, presented by loveDANCEmore, is a project of choreographer Natosha Washington (shown at right). The evening of nine dances is 75 minutes long and explores the individual and collective identities of the dancers while challenging notions of beauty and acceptance. More details at seethepenguinlady.com.
When » Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 4 - 6, 8 p.m.
Where » Leona Wagner Black Box, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets » $20; arttix.org or 801-355-ARTS (2787)
Dancing with The Penguin Lady
Corinne Selena Penka
Rosy Goodman Tennant
Rebecca Stahr Jennejohn
Jersey Rio Riemo