A Pop-Up Dance

Molly Heller’s “Very Vary” Photo by Duhaime Movement Project

What do dance and tea have to do with one another? Not much at first glance but for Salt Lake City-based choreographer Molly Heller, both are practices to access, nurture and maintain healing and wellness.

Originally from Boise, Idaho, Heller lived in Salt Lake City before moving to New York City and living briefly in upstate New York. Following her husband’s climbing accident, she moved back to Salt Lake City and together they opened a loose leaf tea house, the Tea Grotto, six years ago. Heller, who started taking tap lessons when she was 13 and continued to learn other dance forms in college, soon enrolled in the M.F.A. program at the University of Utah. Upon graduating three years ago, she was offered a teaching position in the School of Dance at the University of Utah.

In an interview for KUED Heller mentioned how her imaginative and creative spirit as a child carries on to this day: “The language of my body is totally derivative of that time, of that freedom.” Heller grew up in a very conservative and traumatic environment and developed her own way to adapt to it: “My way of navigating the world was to leave it. Imagination was actually my only way into myself. A lot of my work in the School of Dance is focused on wellness, trauma work and how the body is our greatest healer. I have found that performance can also be a healing process.”

Heller is interested in the intimate and her work often incorporates elements of the performers’ biography. In preparation for rehearsals, she works one on one with each performer, asking them similar questions: How did you play as a child? What are your memories of childhood? What are your current perceptions of yourself? What do you imagine for your future? How does that relate to your dancing practice? She spent a year working on Very Vary, the piece she is bringing to Shawl-Anderson Dance Center this weekend. That length of creative time allowed for more depth and breadth with each performer’s biography, which she likes to layer: “Your imagined past, your perceptions of the present, your projections of the future as well as the ways of being in all three dimensions are interesting to me. So the work never reads linearly but by the end, you find yourself in this space where this world becomes clearer and has a logic of its own.”

When a new theater opened downtown in Salt Lake City, Heller was intrigued by the space and decided to make a piece for it. The Eccles Regent Theater functions as black box theater, with wood walls and purple curtains. The backdrop can lift up, displaying the city in the background. Very Vary premiered there last May. For Heller, the title is the “only literal part about the work. It’s ‘very’ in the sense of its intensity and potency, and ‘vary’ in the sense that the work in itself is ever-changing.”

Very Vary is organized like a pop-up book, each scene an intimate vignette. When put together, the vignettes create a non-linear story that has nevertheless a fullness to it. References to the imaginative world of childhood also make their way into the fabric of the piece through papier-mâché animal heads designed by Gretchen Reynolds. Reminiscent of a spirit animal attributed to each performer according to their character and personality, they give the piece a magical and mystical dimension: “In some aspects, [the performers] identify with the animal heads as their spirit animals. But in other instances, the animals become observers of the work. They are present throughout the piece, but their appearance changes when the lighting changes. In some scenes, they looked dark and mysterious. In some places they look like helpful entities. They anchor the work as a second layer of audience and that layer becomes the performer.” The personalized context extends to the design and content of the programs, which were created by print maker Kate Thomas. Designed in an accordion format, they feature the performers’ biographies from the perspective of the piece.

Salt Lake City is located in the wide Salt Lake Valley, with the Wasatch Mountains to the east and the Oquirrh Mountains to the west. Heller’s own experience of geographic and artistic isolation makes its way into the work. “On a basic level, geography influences aesthetic choice just as much as the amount of work you can see. You can feel the epicness of the desert here and there are places where you can feel completely alone. The feeling of isolation that comes geographically from this vastness of living and working in the west actually influences the work that I make. Sometimes navigating the tension of being a practicing artist within an institution, and grappling with what my threads of research are, is also isolating to me.”

When she toured with her previous piece in New York in 2015, a lot of feedback centered around the notion that her work felt western. “I don’t know what that means other than I think that there’s a lot of work being made on the east coast that seems to rely more on form, and I’m really interested in the relationship between emotion and form. I’m interested in how this relationship gives way to heightened states of being, creating an experience of epicness. Rather than acting out an emotion, I believe that tapping into specific emotions/states in the body gives way to facial expression. It is a specific way of coaching that I’m interested in. I love orchestrating an experience for everyone rather than choreographing a specific structure — the structure emerges from the content.”

Molly Heller will also teach a workshop, “True Grit: Building Technique”, at ODC on Sunday, December 3, from 11:30am to 1pm.