When choreographer and director Graham Brown talks about his latest creation, “Sonder,” an immersive dance theater production, he frequently uses the word “boogie.”
“That’s kind of been my term, just because — free-styling is another OK word — I try to avoid using the term ‘hip-hop’ because it’s not quite accurate,” Brown said. “I have a lot of respect and a lot of influence from hip-hop, but I don’t feel like I represent that form in my choreography specifically, but they’re inspired by them. So anyway, I like the term ‘boogie.’ “
The show is now playing in Salt Lake City and features 10 performers — five leads who live in Salt Lake City and five ensemble members coming from Provo — all telling a story through dance throughout a building. Throughout the show, audiences are free to wander and follow whatever part of the story they want.
“It’s non-conventional, and really blurs the line of dance and art and music and life,” said Aundrea Frahm, installation artist on the show.
It’s a choose-your-own-adventure play. Except your choices don’t impact the ending, just the story that you ultimately see. It’s more like you’ve stumbled into a house where everyone dances, and you get to voyeuristically watch — or, if you want, dance along with them.
“Everyone has their own story that runs the whole length of the show, so if you were to spread the whole thing out into one evening where everyone saw everything, it would be like four hours long or something,” Brown said. “So one audience member will really get deep inside of this one character, and barely see one of the other characters.”
As an example, Brown points to the character Alex, a child played by Breeanne Saxton (who is herself an adult). Her parents, Pascal and Marco, are played by Shawnee Jo Haycock and Francisco Avina. Given the freedom to choose whatever room they want to go and see whatever stories they want, audiences may see more of her parents than her — but Alex’s character has been fleshed out as well.
“(For) a lot of people, she will be a very peripheral character, but for some people, she is like the key element to the show,” Brown said. “It just depends on both your choices and her, because she does a lot of pulling people into these private, one-on-one scenes, so she’s a really good example (of how the immersive form works), but all of the characters have that to varying degrees. So the hope is that everyone will walk out with a certain level of depth within the show overall, but there will be certain things that resonate to a greater degree.”
The show wasn’t always intended as an immersive experience. In 2011, Brown concocted the first version of the show, and it was the more traditional proscenium dance production, and also much shorter.
“The very first representation of the piece was in a concert when I was in grad school,” Brown said. “It was like a 10- or 15-minute piece. You know, a regular stage piece, and it was just playing with different ideas of public and private space, and the physical vocabulary, playing with that sort of boogie sensibility, like at a club.”
Over the years, it grew, and when Brown saw some immersive theater for himself, that’s when the potential of “Sonder” really clicked for him.
“It dawned on me, like, that’s what I’ve been trying to do this whole time,” he said. “And so then I reimagined the show.”
Having moved from Washington, D.C. to Utah (he teaches at Brigham Young University), Brown mounted a version of the show at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City. There, the audience was immersed in the performance, but focus was still directed.
This version, which is a production of the theater company Sackerson, is the first time that performers actually split off and go in different directions. The script is more robust, Brown having worked with dramaturg Rick Curtiss to get the narrative elements in place and to devise the scenes.
The performers have been working in rehearsals five days a week since the beginning of January.
For Brown, the immersive form gives audiences a taste of what he experiences in the dance studio: proximity.
“With dance, the further away you are, the more you lose in the experience,” he said. “It’s a visceral thing. And so it occurred to me how ideal immersive theater is for dance because of the proximity.”
And the fact that the performers are dancing also makes it easier for audiences to tell where to look, having been let loose in the building when the show begins.
“If it was just straight-up real life, representing real life, it might be hard to tell who’s a performer and who’s not,” Brown said. “But because the performers live in this physically abstract place that’s abstract and also virtuosic, it creates that understanding, like, ‘OK, this person next to me, they’re watching just the same as I am, but that person over there, they’re performing, and I’m gonna watch them.’ ”
The location for the show, a multi-story building in Salt Lake City, has gone by several names over the years. It was first known as the historic Eagle’s Hall, built in 1911 for the Fraternal Order of the Eagles, but it also had a life in the 1990s as The Bay nightclub. Somewhere in that history it also had a stint housing an insurance company.
“The fact that we have that building is a testament to how amazing (Sackerson producers) are, because by no logical standard should we have that building,” Brown said. “As soon as we said Salt Lake, for me it was like, well, the Bay is the perfect spot. That’s what I know it was. It was a club for a while and has been closed for years, and it’s just such a beautiful building. And it was like, ‘Yeah, this is gonna be impossible, but why not try?’ and Dave (Mortensen, producer) was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know, I’ll call them.’ And he called, and long story short, he sold them on it.”
Another Sackerson producer, Alex Ungerman, is the theatrical director of the show. He said that the challenge of the building was not only in acquiring it, but in setting it up for the show. The space had to be wired so that lighting and sound throughout the whole building could be controlled by a central control room.
“It’s been the most complex project I’ve ever worked on,” Ungerman said. “It’s been super hard, but really rewarding that people are responding to it well.”
The show features many elaborate dance sequences — not all possible to see in one viewing. In one, Eliza Tappan, playing a character named Charlie, performs a long dance on a balcony while a video is projected beneath her of a man performing the same dance sequence.
She can’t see the projection while she dances in sync with it.
“She had to just memorize his choreography, which was not choreography, it was improvised, but she had to learn it like choreography,” Brown said. “To the extent that, yeah, she can do it with her eyes closed. So she has it entirely memorized over the music, without being able to see him.”
The video is actually a remnant of the first version of “Sonder,” improvised and performed by New York dancer Connor Voss, who was a student at the University of Maryland at the time that Brown recruited him.
“I just said, ‘Hey, man, go in your bedroom and film yourself boogieing to this certain song,’ ” Brown said. “And it actually wasn’t the song that you heard, it was a Radiohead song. We later had a composer make a song with, like, a similar BPM and whatnot.”
The show features mostly all original music from several different composers, including Brown’s brother.
While most of the performers in the show lived in Utah already, two of the leads moved to be in the production — Avina, who came from Las Vegas, and Jordan Simmons (who plays Warner), who came from New Jersey.
For the performers, the physical toll is greater than in more traditional shows — not only do they need to dance for the better part of two hours, but they have to run throughout the building as well.
“For me personally, from the moment we start, I really don’t stop, especially because of traveling up and down the stairs to get to different spaces,” Avina said. “So even when you’re not necessarily ‘on,’ you’re still traveling to get somewhere to be on.”
Ungerman said that the show represents a big step for Sackerson.
“What I love about immersive theater is that it accomplishes so much of what we’re trying to do with Sackerson, which is really, create the sort of experience you can’t get watching TV or a film,” Ungerman said. “There’s so much theater today, where you might as well be watching a screen, because there’s this wall between actors and audience. And an immersive piece totally breaks that down and brings the audience into the middle of the action.”