Repertory Dance Theatre performs “Turf” by Joanie Smith

Utah State Legislature Gets Hip-Hopped

As an artist and arts advocate, I often feel as though the sector I work for (and in) is getting the bread crumbs that fall from society’s table. I suspect everyone — every sector — feels that way to some degree. Ours is an age of entitlement.

So it was hard to sit in the gallery of the Utah Senate chamber earlier this month to witness the arts group I fundraise for perform without getting the sense that we were just being tolerated. There we were, Repertory Dance Theatre — the nation’s oldest and most successful repertory dance company — being acknowledged for having made it to our 50th Anniversary.

There was a citation read and there sat the Senate President Wayne Niederhauser whose mother works as an usher in a theater up north in Logan — and therefore is a candidate, we think, to be an arts advocate (one more crumb) — sitting there in his bald head and soft-spoken way. He said something like, “and the arts, they really add to STEM subjects,” as if they were some kind of embroidery to what’s important.

The Company was given two minutes to perform something in the narrow, arc-ed space in front of the podium and in front of what I usually think of as a pretty dour group, mostly Republican (Utah is the most Republican state in the union.) The dancers filed in wearing their bold (tight-fitting) T-shirts, the ones they wear when they go into the schools to serve 25,000 students each year with free arts education. And . . . away they went.

The number is a slap-happy, chest thumping, stomping Hip Hop piece titled “Steppin’!” You can see a video of it, in the chamber here below. It was all done inches away from the front row of senators who instinctively leaned back, faces of stone — a herd of ties and clean-shaven chins, a few women senators (mostly Democrats) and James {Jim) Dabakis, God-bless-’im, our sponsor, running around with his phone taking video.

I think I saw President Niederhauser crack a wry smile, perhaps because he was entombed behind wood paneling and his colleagues were not. Instead his fellow senators, without any protective barrier, sat watching a bunch of bouncing, multi-ethnic dancers in snug attire literally demanding that we all yell affirmations about supporting the arts. (“Give me and ‘A’!”)

I guess it was our moment. Fifty years of hard-won arts programming and the collecting of America’s modern dance repertory into video recordings, notations and, literally, the bodies of nearly 100 dancers over the past half century.

I thought of how my Mormon pioneer ancestors might view all of this. How their legacy, their story, is being told in 2016, 169 years after their arrival in this alkaline valley next to a dead sea. I’d like to think that all the glistening glass towers of downtown Salt Lake City; the miles of asphalt roads and artificial reservoirs; the suburbia choking the foothills of the western flank of the Rockies; the coal mines and oil refineries that provide jobs but also poison the air with some of the worst pollution in the country; the buzzing ski resorts and booming film industry . . . I wondered if Repertory Dance Theatre wasn’t better telling America’s story here in the august Senate chamber than all of our commerce, our official histories, our “economic development,” our religion and our single-party politics.

Elevating the arts and humanities publicly is my day-to-day job, as both a professional arts fundraiser and as a novelist and editor. Sometimes I wryly wonder if the quality of that art designed to tell our human story is only in inverse proportion to how much it’s appreciated, and funded.

What a concept! Maybe we shouldn’t be so gung-ho about getting people and government to value dance, and galleries, and world-class literature. Maybe our muse is not in spite of indifference to our work but because of it.

Then again, I don’t want to put myself out of a job. And all that adrenaline that comes with being a crusader . . . what would I do without that?