When it comes to memories and material from which to construct his art, modern dancer/choreographer Eric Stern has plenty to draw from. “I feel like I’m a jumble of interests,” says Stern. “I have a degree in biology. I love literature. I’ve worked as a musician. I’ve always been interested in theater.”
But first and foremost he’s a dancer.
“I’ve done all these things, and yet I feel like dance is kind of the lens through which I view the world,” says Stern. As an artist, one can only draw from one’s own experience, knowledge and memory to create. That means feeding off of it all, no exceptions. “I really think that dance, for me, should be inclusive of my universe—not sequestered, not a thing that’s rarified. It doesn’t mean that dance isn’t worthy in-and-of-itself, but I view all of it—music, theater, literature—as dance.”
Gathering that kind of cross-disciplinary lifestyle into a staged performance sounds potentially chaotic. But with this weekend’s performance, Muscle Memories, Ogden native Stern has seemingly accomplished just such a staging, with tremendous artistic clarity.
Accompanied by a cast of 10 performance artists, Stern presents seven pieces of choreography developed outside his nationally-recognized, California-based company, Dr. Schaffer and Mr. Stern’s Dance Ensemble.
Although he paints with every color of the spectrum, one particular piece—”The Moat”—focuses on the darkest shades. Stemming from a story that his mother told him when he was a child, the piece tells the true tale of the worst civilian massacre committed by the German army during World War II. “But the piece is not a history lesson. I used the very deep impressions and feelings that I got from the story, that I simply could not shake, and took it in my own direction,” says Stern.
Set to two spare, dissonant piano pieces by composer John Scoville, “The Moat” features soloist Jennifer Beaumont in the role of an aging woman. She recounts the horrendous story to a younger companion (Marin Leggat) and her chorus of two (Eileen Wingfield and Repertory Dance Theatre’s Angela Banchero-Kelleher), passing on the lessons of history so that they won’t be forgotten. As the story unfolds, the soloist shifts between old age and youthful beauty, providing a stark contrast for the movement.
With simple stage props, spoken text written by Stern and Jewish folk melodies played on concertina and tambourine by musicians Aaron Chavez and Scott Halford, “The Moat” highlights Sterns eclectic sensibility. One other piece also incorporates spoken word (“Portrait of Choreographer as a Misguided Gunslinger”). Several others contain props—including the opener “Table of Content,” which features a duet with a table; “Jugstaposed” a dance/percussion piece for five dancers and five empty water jugs; and “Pishogue,” featuring a trio making use of those colorful foam pool noodle toys. The program’s sole premiere, “The Swing of It,” begins with a complex, six-minute video developed in collaboration with dancer/videographer Jared Elliot Cardon, before moving on to an ensemble piece for all ten performers (including Sara Christensen, Jill Yeiter and University of Utah faculty member Meghan Cooley) set to French music.
“A lot of the pieces are based on this idea about the body knowing and remembering. We recall more from the neck down than from the neck up,” says Stern. “The dance with the pool noodles isn’t literally about kids in a pool. We take it to a different place, but there’s still that muscle memory idea. The video I did with Jared takes place on a swing set, but with adults. And also, a lot of these dances are older so I had to literally rely on some of my own muscle memories to pull this thing together.”
That is why the performance works. Stern clearly feeds off of all his varied interests, yet still allows a pure spontaneity to flow throughout. Muscle Memories might be rooted in past experiences to give it depth, but it easily transcends time to comment on modernity.