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Beyond bones: Dancing through history in the Natural History Museum of Utah

Published February 15, 2013 1:15 pm

Performance • Fourteen U. dancers create a multimedia piece in the museum's Canyon lobby.
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If you think of a history museum as a stuffy building full of boring relics, a multi-dimensional movement piece, "Glyph," to be performed Wednesday, Feb. 13 and Wednesday, Feb. 20 at the Natural History Museum of Utah is sure to change your mind.

Fourteen dancers from the University of Utah will begin a structured improvisation at 7 p.m. in the museum's soaring Canyon lobby. The dancers will move through the architectural elements of the building to the World's Past exhibit, where groups and solos be performed to a commissioned sound-score by composer Ryan Ross Smith. The 45-minute journey concludes back in the lobby to re-set for a second cycle.

Visitors are invited to watch some or all of the piece — or even participate. "There have been some wonderful moments during rehearsals at the museum when children joined in with the dancers and the dancers just kept moving," said Ellen Bromberg, U. professor of modern dance.

Bromberg and Jim Agutter, director of the U.'s Design Program in the College of Architecture + Planning, began working on the project last November.

Yet the idea had a much longer incubation period for Bromberg. "When I visited Egypt in 2008, I was struck by the tombs and temples and how the ancients articulated their lives on the walls of the tombs and also guided the spirit of the person to the next life," Bromberg said. "I was equally struck by that sense of 'the life that is no longer present' when I walked into the Canyon (at the Natural History Museum). Both experiences brought a profound sense of being alive in the present."

Contemporary technology is utilized in "Glyph" to explore ideas of time, and the human drive to mark one's existence. Obituaries, chosen by the performers, will be projected onto the three-story high walls of the Canyon. A camera placed in the lobby will randomly select a word from the Internet when triggered by a dancer or visitor's movement. The word will suddenly appear on top of the obituary text. The intended affect is to create awareness of time in the present.

U. dance major Amanda Newman is both a performer and a researcher on the project. Newman received funding through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, a program that provides undergraduate students and faculty members the opportunity to work together on research or creative projects. She said the two-fold workload was "challenging but satisfying."

"So how do we mark existence, and why do we mark existence?" Bromberg asked. "How do we live right now — how do we stay conscious of our experience now? The dance is about aliveness. Which is why the dance takes time — the dance allows the viewer to feel their own embodiment — their own life."

Bromberg said she was inspired by the museum's architecture. In addition, the piece was a response to "the reality of the bones and fossils as marking time. The ancient Egyptians were marking their lives with great intention, and great purpose, but the remnants of what we see in a museum are unintentional — the bones — it's what was left behind through the dying process and over time."

But for the living, there's a desire to want to be remembered by more than just the stuff of our bodies. "The hieroglyphs are really about death with a purpose, but the dinosaur bones and all the tracks and traces of our lives is the natural flow of things," Bromberg said.

Which leaves one to wonder if the multimedia format of "Glyph" will deliver answers or simply pose more questions.

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'Glyph': Moving through time

The University of Utah departments of modern dance and architecture and planning present "Glyph," a multidimensional performance piece, including a sound score by Ryan Ross Smith. For more information, contact Sara Pickett at 801-585-6237 or visit www.finearts.utah.edu and www.nhmu.utah.edu.

When • Wednesday, Feb. 13 and Wednesday, Feb. 20, 7 p.m.

Where • Natural History Museum of Utah, Rio Tinto Center, 301 Wakara Way, U. campus, Salt Lake City

Tickets • $11; U. students, faculty and staff, free with valid ID; at the museum






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