It’s clear: Rowland Hall students are inspired by the Great Salt Lake—and, in turn, they are inspiring others through their tireless work to educate themselves on the crises facing the famous landmark and their actions to save it. This dedication extends to the school’s middle and upper school dancers, who have spent the school year creating original pieces about the lake. As Submerge, the culmination of their months of work, approaches, senior dancer Anna Hull reflects on the vital role the arts play in activism.
Art and Activism: A Student's Interrogation
By Anna Hull, Class of 2023
I’ve been in a Rowland Hall dance concert every year of high school, and each one brings unique feelings of anticipation, pressure, joy, and the knowledge of success.
However, this year’s dance concert—titled Submerge, which will be performed on February 10 and 11—has a different purpose and relevance than our past shows. When Rowland Hall decided to apply the thematic focus of Great Salt Lake’s climate crisis to the 2022–2023 school year, the dance department adopted this matter as well. This thematic shift meant that along with dealing with costuming and choreography, we’ve been asking questions of the role of activism within the arts. Specifically, how do we address the depleting Great Salt Lake through dance and, at the end of the day, can we actually make an impact?
When we worked on our first Great Salt Lake–inspired piece during the summer workshop, a weeklong intensive for all Rowland Hall dancers that takes place each August, we loved the ways that Great Salt Lake, an integral feature of our childhoods in Utah, was integrated into the choreography: the number of people on stage reflected a change in elevation, echoing the declining water level of the lake, and the multiple scores intensified the piece over time. Despite the fact that the Advanced Dance students understood these elements and their reasoning, we were constantly questioning if the dance accurately portrayed the impending crisis—and did it do so to an extent that it would cause an audience to change their behavior, join the activist cause, or simply care?
When we finished the dance, we were shocked to see tears in the eyes of the audience. Despite our apprehension, our short performance had created a massive impact. Since then, we’ve been trying to recreate this outcome.
Our first time performing one of the dances inspired by the lake, “In Form Memoriam,” was at the Great Salt Lake outdoor auditorium following a University of Utah academic forum. We expected this performance to be a throwaway and felt largely unprepared both as dancers and as agents of change. However, when we finished the dance, we were shocked to see tears in the eyes of the audience. Sofia Gorder, our dance teacher, informed us that despite our apprehension, our short performance had created a massive impact. But what caused it to be so moving? Was it the kind of audience, the setting of the lake, or simply the experience of watching young adults perform? Since then, we’ve been trying to recreate this outcome and the relationship that occurred between us and our audience.
Our second showing, at the Rowland Hall Deliberate Dialogue event Aridity, did not quite succeed at this goal. Although the arts played a role in this event, they were placed as a finalé to speeches full of alarming facts and calls to action. And although the speakers eloquently conveyed their message, our glances toward the audience told us that the information was crushing, rather than motivating. We realized that the art needed a place at the forefront of the event in order to create a context, gain the audience’s attention, and establish an emotional connection rather than a cerebral one.
I hope that Submerge succeeds in representing our efforts as artists and activists, and that it doesn’t only leave the audience with a collection of information, but a desire to truly be a part of the solution.
So in preparation for Submerge, we’ve strategically recorded informative video clips conveying the magnitude and timeline of Great Salt Lake’s evaporation to accompany the dances, allowing logic to complement the art instead of overwhelm it. Moreover, each piece in the concert has a clear story that displays a human experience as an on-ramp to the dense material, rather than coercing a sudden wave of activism. This, to me, is the best way to use the arts to make social change. Performance has the unique ability to quickly and profoundly reach an audience, and only by using that connection can art be successful as advocacy.
Thus, I hope that Submerge succeeds in representing our efforts as artists and activists, and that it doesn’t only leave the audience with a collection of information, but a desire to truly be a part of the solution.
Update March 2023: Thanks to the efforts of students like Anna, Submerge became the school’s best-attended dance concert ever. View photos from the event.