Ain’t No Mountain 

Stephen Brown scales a new creative summit in the multimedia biography This Mortal Coil.

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Mountaineer and lecturer Alan Burgess has told audiences worldwide that every time he set off to summit a new mountain, he felt like a condemned man. Spectators are often shocked to hear such a grave statement from a seemingly fearless alpinist famous for his sense of mirth and adventure.


Dancer, choreographer and SB Dance founder Stephen Brown'whose new production This Mortal Coil was inspired by Burgess’ exploits'has been a friend and admirer of Yorkshire, England, native and current Salt Lake City resident Burgess for several years. Brown was instantly captivated by Burgess’ irreverent sense of humor, steely athletic discipline and unwavering commitment to explore some of the world’s most rugged and inhospitable terrain. Above all, Brown was fascinated by the disparate elements in Burgess’ accounts of scaling mountains and boldly traversing desolate areas. How could Burgess be so blithe and hilarious'quick to recount episodes of carousing with twin brother and revered climber Adrian on and off famous mountaintops'yet simultaneously articulate a thinly veiled death wish?


Brown began to detect the drama and pathos of a great work of theater in Burgess’ stories. He became especially interested in the factors that motivated Burgess to continually place himself in potentially life-threatening situations. What type of emotional tsunami drives a young, healthy person to willingly expose himself to possible calamities such as starvation, dehydration, subzero temperatures, avalanches, heat stroke, unanticipated encounters with poisonous snakes and ferocious animals, broken bones and other harrowing medical emergencies?


Brown decided a theatrical production that explored the emotional underpinnings of some of Burgess’ most memorable travels might be instructive. Brown assembled a team of dancers and actors and invited revered writer, director and choreographer Winnie Wood'who has been a luminary in Salt Lake City’s performing arts community for more than two decades'to work alongside Burgess to create an interdisciplinary autobiography of sorts.


“I didn’t want a literal telling of Al’s stories,” Brown said. “I wanted to This American Life it, and in order to do that, I needed help. The key to a successful collaboration is choosing to work with someone more experienced and a lot smarter than you are. And, let me tell you … Winnie Wood is definitely a lot smarter than I am.nn

It was Wood'a Mount Pleasant resident and teacher at Wasatch Academy'who identified the Shakespearean themes in some of Burgess’ most trying tales. The production’s title comes from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy reflecting on mortality. Like the young Prince of Denmark, fate often catapulted Burgess to the outer limits of tolerable earthly experience, such as the time a dear friend died on an expedition to the labyrinthine Karakoram Mountain range that borders India, Pakistan and China.


Wood peppered Burgess’ naturally fantastic stories with references to Shakespeare because she wanted to explore the psychological rigors and rewards of climbing. “Most of the time, we focus on the sport of climbing a mountain: the equipment, the technique, the physical ability required to do it successfully,” said Wood in a phone interview. “But it can be a very introspective experience. At times, you are totally stripped of your humanity. You’re like an animal. That can be terrifying and exhilarating.nn

Like Brown, Wood also sensed the duality of light humor and dark drama in Burgess’ tales. The death scenes in many of Shakespeare’s plays feature clowns, and that same contrast appears in many of Burgess’ stories. The simultaneous appearance of humor and drama in Shakespeare’s plays is something that Wood has been interested in for many years, and she believes that this same dynamic will make Burgess’ story incredibly engaging theater.


Burgess will appear onstage, flanked by actors, dancers and photos of his various journeys. Brown even devised an unconventional way to simulate climbing on stage. “The best way to describe this production is say that it’s storytelling made theatrical. There will be some elements that are different than usual, but the dramatic framework of a classically good story is the foundation of the whole thing,” Wood explained.


This Mortal Coil will be performed in conjunction with two free SB Dance-sponsored events meant to examine the emotional peaks and valleys of human experience'an exhibition of the work of famed mountain sports photographer Scott Markewitz Jan. 24, and a presentation of new pieces from University of Utah modern-dance faculty member and choreographer Stephen Koester Jan. 25. They’re part of Brown’s interest in celebrating some of Utah’s most talented residents, one of the reasons he added a January production last year to a schedule that had previously included only a single annual production. This year’s documentary-style program demonstrates Brown’s ongoing commitment to cultivating a sense of community.


“We have all of these amazing people with international reputations of the highest caliber in our midst,” Brown says, “Mountain climbers, dancers, photographers, choreographers … it is such a privilege to work with them and live near them. There are so many cool things going on in Salt Lake City at any given time. I just want to give some of these illustrious people some exposure and invite the community to meet them.”


nSB Dance
nRose Wagner Performing Arts Center
nBlack Box Theater
n138 W. 300 South
nJan. 26-27
n8 p.m.

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About The Author

Jenny Poplar

Jenny Poplar is both a dancer and a frequent City Weekly contributor.

More by Jenny Poplar

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