Imagine a favorite work of art—the color and shape of its components, the artist’s perspective, its shadows and lines, its depth. Picture its content, how the story moves you, how its message draws you in, holds you, rapt, for just a moment.
Now imagine each piece of that work moving, changing position. God floats below Adam instead of above him. Adam’s outstretched arm falls heavily to his side. He crosses his legs; covers his eyes. Thus changed, “The Creation” ceases to make sense. It has been ruined, some might say. Would it make you angry? What if you were Michelangelo? Would you be angry then? Of course. Any artist would be incensed at the idea that his work could be altered so crudely. Changed. Destroyed.
So, too, would any choreographer. Now imagine you are Michelangelo’s Adam—misunderstanding the command to reach out with one arm while leaning carelessly on another. Focusing your eyes in the wrong direction; setting your lips too wide, or too taught. Lift your head, but not too high. Hold your shoulders erect, but not stiff. No, that’s still not right. Are you stupid, or just lazy? What is wrong with you?
Implausible? For Adam, yes. For a dancer stuck in the middle of a choreographer’s artistic vision? Those few scolding words would hardly be enough.
An artist whose paint does not lie on the canvas the way he imagined has only himself to blame. A choreographer whose dancers do not move the way he imagined …
It’s quite likely not the scene most aspiring dancers pictured on their way up the ranks—I’m going to grow up and be a brush stroke, yellow paint, an angry smear across a canvas. But moving from role to role, dance to dance, work to work is exactly that—playing a part in someone else’s painting. And possibly no other Salt Lake City dance company knows the exertion required for such transience as well as Repertory Dance Theatre.
As a repertory company, by definition their work is constantly changing—expanding, to be exact. A repertory company collects dance works and holds them like a museum collects and stores art. The company’s director decides which works will be displayed at each performance, much as a curator does for a museum.
But a museum uses easels and frames to display its collection.
Chara Huckins is just one of Repertory Dance Theatre’s dancers. She’s been a member of the company five years—the upcoming season will be her sixth. And despite the strain that constantly changing roles can work on a person, she feels lucky.
“There are so many people who aren’t able to do what they want to do … and I get to do what I love,” Chara says, her hands and arms gesturing grandly as she speaks.
Back when she spent after-school hours twirling and pliéing on her family’s porch, she might have wished to grow up and be a dancer, but so did many, many little girls. Wishing and achieving, as most of us know, are two different things. And when you’re talking about achieving employment with one of the most prestigious dance companies in the country, you might as well be saying you want to get a job as an ice-cream taster—many contenders, very few openings.
At 3 she started exploring creative movement with Virginia Tanner’s Children’s Dance Theater. Miss Maureen told her to fall like a leaf, pop like a kernel of corn, wave ribbons and scarves through the air.
By junior high Chara had expanded into ballet, modern and jazz—five or six times a week, a couple of classes after school each night. Movement here is focused, trained. Each muscle must contract, extend and lift in the precise way instructed. Popping corn is open to interpretation; but a ballet pirouette is not a ballet pirouette if the knee is pointed inward, the arms slack, the foot not properly arched.
By high school Chara was good enough—trained enough—to receive the Elizabeth R. Hayes dance scholarship to the University of Utah. It’s four years tuition paid, and the first sign that out of all those aspiring children, Chara had done something—make that everything—right. Being the only child of a single mother wasn’t the most difficult thing she had to overcome to get there, either. In fact, this typically beleaguered status became a saving grace in that ubiquitous dancers’ battle—to eat, or not to eat.
“Having a close relationship with my mom definitely helped. She was conscious of [food issues], but in my house the focus was more on all-around good nutrition.” Chara was also surrounded by a very supportive extended family—her great-grandparents paid for her dance lessons. She could always talk to her family, and believes that kind of strong foundation was key to avoiding the eating disorders plaguing so much of the dance world. It gave her a sense of order, and food issues are often about struggling for control under out-of-control circumstances—like fitting yourself into someone else’s artistic vision.
“I’m grateful for a healthy body that is flexible, but is strong enough to perform demanding work and do what I love,” she says. “At some point you realize that you’re fine being exactly who you are. It’s about who you are onstage, how your soul dances versus beauty on the outside.”
Of course, that perspective didn’t come cheap. At 29, Chara’s seen the best and the worst her profession has to offer. Watching adolescent friends wither from anorexia and bulimia gave way to the personal trials of working with RDT’s ever-changing coterie of choreographers.
“Since we’re a repertory company, we work with different people every day. When they come in and they really don’t like who you are or how you dance, you have to face this person who’s degrading you as a person, saying you’re worthless. But after their time with the company, they leave and somebody else comes in and maybe you’ll have a really positive experience the next time.”
In 1974 a timid 3-year-old—having rejected all other youthful activities with rousing episodes of separation anxiety—baby-stepped onto a dance floor and fell in love with movement. She hasn’t stopped since, and, citing Martha Graham’s record of performing into her 70s, doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon.
“Roles begin to change for you, but … there is a part of you that is always involved inside of it. Everyone gives something of themselves to create a piece.” u