Support Structures | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Support Structures 

Utah Presents and LAJAMARTIN get creative to keep performing artists working

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  • Chris Burke

"The show must go on" is one of the most enduring principles of the performing arts, a collective mission statement that no obstacle is impossible to overcome. But we're living in a time when many shows can't go on—and that reality has had a profound impact on performing artists, both psychologically and financially.

This week, Utah Presents hosts Off Season, a virtual dance theater performance by LAJAMARTIN Dance Company. While the live streaming event is free with online registration, both Utah Presents and LAJAMARTIN have designed the event as a fund-raiser to support creative work—and as an example of trying to explore what kind of performance work is possible during a pandemic to keep artists working.

According to Utah Presents executive director Brooke Horesji, a lot has changed since the organization first began responding to the pandemic in March and April. Where the initial focus was on canceling and re-scheduling planned events, eventually the focus turned to the realization that things still likely wouldn't be "normal" by the time the next season would typically begin. "For us," Horesji says, "we're thinking about not just trying to hold on until things get back to normal in terms of the performing arts, but in terms of evolution if mass gatherings can't be habitual or regular. It's hard to evolve at any point, but having to evolve under pressure is even harder on your brain and emotions."

That evolution meant trying to figure out what kinds of performances could exist virtually, even as people started to recognize the "Zoom fatigue" of interacting over the internet. "I know we're all getting a little bit burned out, but it's a place where we're going to have to invest more of our energy," Horesji says. "As a presenter, we can be working with artists willing to exist in two realms."

Horesji reached out to the creative team behind LAJAMARTIN—Laja Field and Martin Durov—as one such possible contributor to creating a virtual performance. Utah Presents had an established creative relationship with LAJAMARTIN, which was originally commissioned to create a live piece for Utah Present's planned season launch party before it became clear that event would need to be cancelled. "We didn't want to put our relationship with them on hold," Horesji says, "so we let them know when you're ready, we'll figure out how to get it out into the world."

Field—a Salt Lake City native and University of Utah graduate who danced professionally in Europe and New York before moving back to Utah with Durov, her husband, to found LAJAMARTIN—acknowledges that there are unique challenges to staging a performance during the pandemic, including the kind of choreography that can be performed safely by the dancers. "A lot of our work, we like seeing people close together," Field says. "That's all out. So it's been challenging how to find new ways to convey the same type of relationship, or the dense physicality of when you see a group moving together so tightly. You can't do that anymore."

At the same time, she recognizes that the virtual space presents opportunities, specifically for a company that does consider itself "dance theater." That includes the chance to incorporate pre-recorded material, and to stage choreography in a way that takes advantage of the intimacy of up-close-and-personal videography. "When we're thinking about [a live] audience, we're thinking about the big picture of the stage," Field says. "With a camera, we can be tighter, focus on smaller parts of the stage. ... We want a cinematic look, something visceral."

Perhaps most importantly, it's a chance for artists to work—and in this particular case, to support the future work of young artists. Funds raised by the performance in Off Season will go in part to the scholarship founded by LAJAMARTIN for a dancer's college education, focusing on communities and demographics that might not otherwise have that opportunity. I have watched some talented young people perform at a level beyond some professionals, but they don't necessarily have the resources to continue," Field says. "How many artists do you lose because of that?"

Financial realities will be facing artists of all kinds for some time, and Off Season represents part of Utah Presents' attempts to keep the engine chugging, along with providing physical space for artists like LAJAMARTIN to rehearse and perform. "Artists need to get paid," Horesji says. "If we just suspended everything and went into hibernation mode to survive the year, we don't know coming out into spring of 2021 what will be different, and it doesn't help artists survive.

"Artists are the original gig workers. And we don't have social safety nets for artists. They don't have ways to protect themselves during times like this."

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