Dancing From the Melting Pot
In Separate Journeys, the experiences of five immigrant ethnic groups give new perspective on freedom and tolerance.
By Kathleen Shorr
APRIL 13, 1998: Just as anti-immigration sentiment rears its head once again, Repertory Dance Theater provides us with the perfect dance for pondering that American question.
The dance company's production of Separate Journeys, coming April 9 to 11 at the Capitol Theater, is a feast of ethnic and modern dance, family history and photography set to the music of John Mitchell. Members of several Salt Lake City-based traditional dance groups provide an authentic ethnic element, dancing side by side with RDT dancers.
The photographs by Kent Miles and George Janecek were drawn from the Oral History Institute's 1982 Ethnic and Minority Documentary Project and are projected as the backdrop for the dance. They are images of immigrants whose faces reflect a poignant mixture of uncertainty and determination.
Separate Journeys, choreographed by Lynn Wimmer, is a collection of riveting family histories. In some ways, it is reminiscent of RDT's most recent production of Chairs, choreographed by Zvi Gotheiner. Chairs covered an enormous amount of territory, touching on birth, aging, joy, despair, feminism, madness and love. Journeys takes on a similar range, but in the context of oppression versus freedom. Both dances share the same meatiness and substance; both deal meaningfully with big issues.
In Separate Journeys, the experiences of five ethnic groups, Native American (Ute), Greek, Jewish, Hispanic and Japanese give us a new perspective on freedom and tolerance.
The whole debate regarding immigrationdo we welcome everybody into our great experiment, into the melting pot, or do we build a sturdier fence along the Rio Grande?is something we go through regularly. Journeys sheds light on the reasons behind the influx, as well as what people have to deal with once they get here. It raises more questions than we might have asked otherwise.
The piece begins with a family portrait and roll call of all the performers, who gradually melt away, leaving one male soloist who dances to the words of a Ute narrator. "Ute is an outdoor language," he says. "It is almost like a prayer. It helps you get along with the outside world, the real world."
The dancer becomes all of nature in movement that is spacious, sweeping and life-affirming. The movement changes abruptly as the story shifts to his government boarding school experience, until an Eagle Dancer in full-feathered regalia begins to shadow him, as though offering protection. This dance also gives the audience the chance to hear the Ute language, which is so soft and musical that it needs no accompaniment.
The Mexican family history that follows is one shared by all oppressed peoples. Here, Wimmer has her dancers beating out their desperation with their feet. In the Jewish section the narrator tells of his father's rejection by Utah's rough-and-tumble frontier culture.
The Japanese narrator relates a painful story of our mistreatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which is brought to life with traditional costumes and props. The piece ends with the struggle of a first-generation Greek-American woman to define her own identity.
In every segment, Wimmer shows us that the comfort and sustenance offered by traditions and traditional beliefs are what give these people the strength to go on.
The musical score weaves through and around the narration, which is based on hundreds of interviews conducted by the Oral History Institute. John Mitchell's music includes the deep and primitive sound of the didgeridoo, an Australian aboriginal wind instrument shaped naturally by termites from eucalyptus trees. The score also includes chanting, flutes and drums and is as evocative and powerful as the dancing.
We are, and have always been, an immigrant community. Journeys shows us why this is so, and that there is a tremendous need for more havens in the world that are free of oppressors. It is political dance at its best, and moving proof that dance can grapple with and remind us of what matters. As the rabbi says in the narration, "Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you."
Journeys choreographer Lynn Wimmer is an RDT alumna and associate professor of Dance at the University of South Florida. Her dances have been performed by a wide variety of companies including the Tampa Ballet, Barro Rojo Dance Company of Mexico, Ballet Feliz Blaska of Paris and her own company, Wimmer, Wimmer and Dancers. Wimmer's cultural dance research has earned her two Fulbright Lecturer Awards to teach and choreograph in Mexico and Costa Rica.
Appearing with RDT are native dancers from all five communities: The soloists are Camron Cuch of the Ute Tribe; Jose Guadian and Genevette Garner from the Hispanic community; Bernice Kida from the Japanese community; and members of the Zivio Ethnic Ensemble. Among the guest performers for the Jewish community are Tom Goodwin, Mladen Maric and Ernie Rand.
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