In Contemporary Dance, Experiential Learning, Faculty

Rachel Barker and dance students McCall McClellan, Jared McClure and Abby Roush traveled to Moab in southern Utah for a site-specific dance film. (Harrison Trinca)

BYU dance professor Rachel Barker and three dance students worked together to create a site-specific dance based on three locations in Moab, Utah

Department of Dance professor Rachel Barker and dance students McCall McClellan, Jared McClure and Abby Roush traveled to Moab in southern Utah to create a video that investigates the role between human movement in dance and the nature that surrounds them while dancing.

Barker and her students filmed site-specific dance choreography, which is a type of choreography that responds to the environment that surrounds the dancer outside of the traditional concert stage. They found inspiration at three separate filming locations in Moab. Each place was chosen for its unique perspective and feel.

The section of film shot in Moonflower Canyon placed dancers against the backdrop of high canyon walls. Dancing in Pucker Pass gave a bird’s-eye view of dancers on top of high ledges with steep drop offs. Onion Creek allowed dancers to use the flowing creek as a stage for dancing.

“The location of the film was such an important part of it,” said Barker. “We wanted to feature the dancing and the environment equally. We wanted to play with perspective — exploring close-ups of the human body juxtaposed with aerial views that showcase the grandiose natural landscape — and also touch on the similarities between physical movement and nature.”

Months prior to the shooting, Barker began asking students to make phrases based on various elements of nature like water, dirt and rocks. (Harrison Trinca)

The students began choreographing the film long before they had even stepped foot in Moab. Months prior to the shooting, Barker began asking them to make phrases, or short sections of choreography, based on various elements of nature like water, dirt and rocks.

The exercises given to them by Barker helped prepare the student dancers for the true site-specific dancing that would later come. What they had originally choreographed changed through the filming process as new inspiration was found in the film locations.

The filming process spanned four days in May and taught the students tenacity and diligence through facing sometimes unfavorable weather conditions like freezing water and cold mornings and evenings.

McClellan dances in Onion Creek and learns grit through performing despite cold water temperatures. (Harrison Trinca)

“I think the students were a little frustrated with me during a lot of it. It was tough. It was taxing,” said Barker. “Filming means the days will be long. This process taught grit, character and perseverance. It taught them to deal with less-than-perfect conditions.”

As the dancers learned to overcome the obstacles that confronted them, the film crew was able to capture the beauty of Moab and its relation to the human movements involved in dancing. Ellen Maynard was head camerawoman, Walter Mirkss was second cameraman and drone operator and Scott Cook — a BYU alumnus — was producer for the contemporary dance film.

While the video is still in the editing process, the finished video will be submitted to various dance film festivals throughout the country. Barker hopes the film will be completed sometime this fall.

Through this process and others like it, Barker has tried to help students at BYU see their true potential as dancers by pushing them to go further in their technique, creativity and choreography skills.

“I love working with students and, more specifically, helping them discover and pull out their individual uniqueness, talents and idiosyncrasies — what makes them different,” said Barker. “I hope it helps them realize that they have their own individual artistry that is valid and important.”

Barker, the dancers and the film crew join together to capture the sunset behind them after a long day of filming. (Courtesy of Rachel Barker)

As a result of Barker’s tutelage, many students have been able to better understand their identity as an individual.

The past year of teaching at BYU has also influenced the way that Barker sees herself as an individual. The focus and aims of BYU have created a crossroad of identities for Barker — specifically the identities of dancer and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Being at BYU has been different because we combine faith and academia in a university setting,” said Barker. “That isn’t something I have been able to do before. Prior to coming to teach at BYU, I was a member of the church, and I was a dancer — they were normally pretty separate in my life. It’s been an amazing experience to combine these two important and essential tenets of my life.”

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