For members of the Dancers' Company at Brigham Young University, the past nine months of training haven't been about turning sharper, leaping farther or kicking higher. They focused their time on learning to dance out history, emotion and spirit.
The modern dance troupe based its yearly production on the real-life experiences of the women who trekked the trail to Utah alone while their fathers, sons and husbands served in the Mormon Battalion.
"I think people often look at dance as something totally frivo-
lous and commercial," said director Caroline Prohosky, who is an associate professor of dance at BYU. "Through this project we have shown that dance, like a great novel, can tell the deeper stories of the human heart."
The team is touring Texas and New Mexico this week performing "Onward, Alone," which was presented in Provo earlier this month.
Prohosky spent about five years digging up the pioneer women's tales from microfilm and genealogy records in the Church History Library and Archives before beginning choreography for the show. She built the production around journal entries and personal correspondence between families, selecting memoirs that would illustrate the diversity of LDS women who banded together to help one another through the perils of the untamed West.
The journey of the men who answered Brigham Young's call to aid their country in 1846 has been well-documented throughout the years. But Prohosky said she felt that experiences of the women they left behind, although just as compelling, have been largely glossed over.
"It's a chapter of history that, as of yet, most people are completely unfamiliar with," she said. "It's kind of a blank page in most people's minds."
The director tried to stay true to history as she designed the show, which utilizes a mixture of voice-overs, live acting and film as narration. Original trail hymns, which were updated so they would not sound out of tune to the modern ear, set the mood for the production. Early LDS folk art provided a backdrop for dancers. Prohosky even dressed her company members in period clothing right down to high button-up shoes.
Translating the stories into the language of movement turned out to be a challenge, though, the director said. To represent the characters "truthfully" and "reverently," Prohosky said she had to blur the lines between acting and dancing. None of the movement is derived from the traditional repertoire of ballet or modern technique.
"It isn't the most extravagant, difficult dancing we've ever done," said Holly Petty, 22, a senior from Bountiful who dances on the company. "At first we didn't know how the audience would take it because we didn't feel like we were being challenged dance-wise, but I learned that simple can be powerful."
Prohosky encouraged the dancers to put themselves into the shoes of the women they were portraying through acting exercises. Dancers who did not play the part of a specific person were asked to write down how they might feel if they got word on the trail that a brother or a father had died.
"In a way, we are giving tribute to the lives of these women, so we have to prepare ourselves emotionally as well as physically," said Rachel Lanham, 21, a senior dance-performance major from Orem. "You feel kind of close to the women whose lives you're trying to portray."
The dancers said they gained more than just dance experience from the production. For most, it was an almost spiritual experience."For me, this show has been a personal journey emotional and spiritual," said Megan Ensign, 20, a junior dance-performance major from Canton, Ga. "I have pioneer ancestry so this has really helped me to understand my heritage and be able to more readily identify what they went through."