Coming to America | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City

As an exploration of the experience of those who passed through Ellis Island as immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century, Six Songs from Ellis melds components of dance, theatrical performance and multi-media. But as the creative team sees it, it’s clear where the emphasis should be: on the oral histories that provided the show’s initial inspiration.

“What is so absolutely of baseline importance was the words that were said by these people,” choreographer Marsha Knight says. “The dance is a wonderful kind of fruit brought about by these stories, but what’s really concrete is the words.”

Knight—a faculty member at the University of Wyoming, and an alumnus of the University of Utah’s dance program—first became acquainted with these oral histories of Ellis Island immigrants in the early 1990s, when the Ellis Island Immigration Museum first opened. Even at that early point, Knight recalls, “I was thinking this had the ring of really great human content, and maybe something could be done with this theatrically.” It wasn’t until more than a decade later, however, that she was able to get the research grants that got the ball rolling.

At that point, part of the challenge became working through the huge repository of information in the Ellis Island collection—more than 2,500 oral histories—in order to find the stories that would best fit the concept she had in mind. “It’s like an ocean of information,” Knight says, “and what you’re able to pull out is little drops, and try to find content that was in the stream of information for Six Songs.”

That “stream of information” was eventually shaped into six parts focused on distinctive aspects of the immigrant experience: choosing to leave home; those who were forced to leave home, due to historical events like the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide; the ocean voyage itself; arriving at Ellis Island; tales of those who were denied access and had to return home; and experiences in their new American home.

After an initial production of Six Songs in Wyoming with another director, Knight then collaborated on a revised version with Leigh Selting—a fellow University of Wyoming faculty member and theater professional—in 2018. That’s only one way in which this project seems to be ever-evolving, looking for the best way to combine the work of dancers and actors with recordings made by the actual immigrants during the collection of their oral histories.

“We’re still in rehearsal now going, we had plans for someone to speak a piece rather than using the [recorded] oral history, and day one, talking with that dancer, a decision was made on how that particular story was going to come together,” Selting says. “There’s never really a right or wrong—just ‘in this time, in this moment, this seems to work.'”

Another part of the evolution of Six Songs involves building in a connection to the location where it’s being produced—in this case, the Salt Lake Valley. In addition to using local dancers as part of the production with Repertory Dance Theatre, this production will feature community members representing local immigrant communities like the Greeks and Armenians, as well as veteran local actor Anne Cullimore Decker performing some of the story of Jewish immigrant Isabelle Belarsky.

It’s significant, though, that the casting of one particular performer as one particular storyteller is not central to the production. At times, an actor will read the subject’s words; at other times, the audience will hear the recording of the subject’s voice; at other times, a dancer might embody the subject through movement. “Once we dig at the convention [of having one person play a particular role]you should be paying attention to the stories, rather than the actor playing them,” Selting says. “It really is an ensemble.”

As specific as these stories are to the Ellis Island experience of a particular moment in history, it’s easy for Six Songs to provide a reminder of the ongoing challenges faced by immigrants to America. “Sometimes we look to the past and think of the people who came before us, people who settled this very valley as miners and farmers … and there are others in this world going through those same crises, and economic deprivation, seeking opportunities and seeking change for reasons very similar to those whose stories were collected,” Knight says. “[Six Songs] is a gentle reminder of why people make radical changes and decisions to improve their lives.”

And while new immigrant stories continue to be woven in America, Knight and Selting both recognize that there’s still plenty of opportunity for Six Songs from Ellis to continue to evolve and grow because of how much information is out there.

“Well, there are 1300 other oral histories,” Selting says with a laugh. “And Ellis Island was not the only entry point. We were joking around, saying, ‘maybe Six Songs from Angel Islandgold Six Songs from Detroit.'”

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