It is Homecoming Week for the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, which continues to celebrate its 60th anniversary this season. Many alumni also are expected to attend Traverse (Feb. 1-3, in the Jeanné Wagner Theatre of the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts), which will feature world and company premieres of works by alumni Keith Johnson and Chia-Chi Chiang, along with five new pieces by the company’s current slate of six dance artists.
Guest performers will include dancers from The University of Utah’s School of Dance, which, of course, is intertwined with the comprehensive international legacy that Shirley Ririe and the late Joan Woodbury created, as they set forth to lay the foundation for the company which bears their names.
More about the works is featured below:
Keith Johnson, A Century, A Day
In fact, it is that legacy as well as a tribute to the late Woodbury that inspired Johnson to set his eight-minute work A Century, A Day. In an interview with The Utah Review, Johnson talked about how the work symbolizes “a lot of windows” in various relationships involving “two people who had a powerful impact on my career.” Among them include the relationship he observed between Joan Woodbury and her daughter, Jena, who retired last year from the company’s executive director post.
Intertwined with this theme are Johnson’s artistic reflections upon a career that spans more than 40 years, including the period of 1986-1994 when he danced with the company. Among the many works he said were significant during his tenure at Ririe-Woodbury are signature parts of the company’s repertoire, including works by Alwin Nikolai, Ririe’s Sheepherder’s Saga and To Have and To Hold by Shapiro and Smith, to name a few.
At 63, Johnson, who moved from gymnastics to contemporary dance, also is sensitive to the demands a dancer’s body absorbs when choreographers set movement that is athletic and physically rigorous. “I talked about this with the dancers,” he said, adding that his experiences with aches and conditions in his ankle, shoulders and neck along with hip replacement surgery heightened the sense of responsibility a choreographer has when they ask dancers to execute hyper-physical movement and the price that dancers later pay with their bodies. As a result, for this work, Johnson said he “stripped things down to make it impactful without asking dancers to do something that might be hyper-physical.” Likewise, the dancers became integral in the collaborative process unfolding in the studio when Johnson was in Salt Lake City to set the work.
In the spirit of this artistic homecoming, Johnson’s connections with colleagues also exemplify how tightly knit the world of dance nationally and internationally has become, where it’s barely one or degrees of separation between peers and mentors. He and current company artistic director Daniel Charon danced in Doug Varone’s company and, of course, Varone is another prominent name in Ririe-Woodbury’s history and repertoire. Johnson said that Danish choreographer Charlotte Boye-Christensen, who was the company’s artistic director between 2002 and 2013, supported his choreographic approach by encouraging him not to worry about repercussions for taking artistic risks. He added that “Joan [Woodbury] could be heavy-handed in her critiques, as she always had strong opinions about choreography,” but nonetheless her insights galvanized the process for his sharpening and improving works.
Johnson was a latecomer to dance, starting at the age of 22, and within six months, he decided to audition for a spot in the company. While he didn’t land the job the first time, he was feeling, as he recalled, “iffy about more schooling because he already felt that he had enough of it.” Both Ririe and Woodbury persuaded him to pursue his master of fine arts degree at The University of Utah.
With his eight years at the company, he said the entire experience felt, in the best way, like a “10-year MFA program,” because he learned how to choreograph, how to teach dance and to articulate the power and importance of incorporating the arts in education. Incidentally, for his new work, he has selected music by Takashi Yoshimatsu, a Japanese composer who is best known for works based in the Western classical tradition, which also incorporate Japanese instruments at times, and who was influenced by jazz and rock as well. Johnson said he found common ground with Yoshimatsu, who dropped out of university and joined an amateur band, which was inspired by the music of Pink Floyd, before later beginning a career as a composer.
“It was an incredible opportunity to have Joan [Woodbury] and Shirley [Ririe] as mentors, because they pushed, challenged and questioned everything,” he explained. “Of course, there were some tensions and some periods were rough, but they encouraged me [and others] to find our own voices.” Looking back, Johnson said he now recognizes just how strong and important their influences were, adding, “I will always be in debt to them for their guidance in my dance career, as well to the dancers with whom I danced during my time there.”
Chia-Chi Chang’s III
While not a world premiere, Chia-Chi Chang’s III will be performed for the first time on the Ririe-Woodbury stage. Set on the company’s three male dancers, the work is a choreographic statement on the responses, tensions and emotions surrounding the process and challenges of acculturation. Integrating her engagement with Eastern and Western cultures, she set III, originally in 2003, as part of her master’s thesis at The University of Utah, shortly before she joined the company.
Chang’s time with the company coincided with the early years of Boye-Christensen’s tenure. Among her greatest experiences was the 2004 tour, when the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company performed Nikolai’s works and other hallmarks in the company repertoire to triumphant reviews and reception in Paris, the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival and elsewhere.
As for working with the three dancers who are giving the Ririe-Woodbury premiere of a work that is now more than 20 years old, Chang said, in an interview with The Utah Review, that the dancers “have such a wide range of skills that they absorb everything so quickly and they mastered the technical skills in practically no time.” But, where the most important objectives in setting the piece came were engaging and aligning with a new generation of dancers who have different experiences with acculturation and themes than what she contemplated in 2003 when she created III.
Chang’s experiences with acculturation stemmed from her days at Ohio University in Athens, where she traveled to from Taiwan. Likewise, she recognized that not too many female Asians were going to graduate school in dance, at that time. Regarding 2024, Chang explained that she has been enthusiastic to explore the thematic markers of the piece from the perspectives of the three dancers who will be performing the work this week.
As she noted, they embody their unique experiences, frustrations and emotions about expressing their identities and how they have confronted and reconciled with the challenges of acculturation, on and off stage. The work’s staying power and relevance are clear, which she credits the guidance she received during her University of Utah days. “I still remember what a great mentor Joan was, when I created this work back in 2003,” she added.
Megan McCarthy, Gift Horse
McCarthy explained that Gift Horse, a solo work she will be performing,is thematically based on its figurative meaning. “This work is simply a sharing of the self. I am an introverted person who’s found myself in situations where I need to open up and share, and I’ve settled into that version of myself quite comfortably and uncomfortably,” she said. “…So, I am moving slowly to be seen, and relishing the opportunity to share with the Salt Lake City dance community that has been so good to me.
She added that the light source prop in the piece is essential, as the work progresses based on the amount of light seen on stage. “Movement-wise, I have been working with indulging in my own unique physicality, articulating the hands, and slowing way down. I am sure some Daniel Charon-isms [referring to the company’s artistic director] have snuck their way in there as well,” McCarthy explained.
Gift Horse will feature an original score composed, produced, and performed by musician Paul Nabil Matthis, whom she met during her undergraduate training at the California Institute of the Arts over a decade ago. McCarthy added that this is their first time working together.
Regarding her experience at Ririe-Woodbury, she said, “I am so well supported artistically at RW by Daniel and my colleagues.” She continued, “There is a real feeling of safety in doing the terrifying thing of sharing your own choreography. This is my seventh season with the company, but the first time I will have performed a solo in a long time.”
Peter Farrow, No Cigar
Farrow explained that No Cigar is “based on the idea of things being close, but not quite; similar, but not the same.” He added, “I love the tension created when something is close to familiar, but just a bit off.” He has set the work on his five other Ririe-Woodbury colleagues: Megan McCarthy, Alexander Pham, Fausto Rivera, Sasha Rydlizky, and Miche’ Smith.
In the work’s three sections, Farrow said, “They all include different techniques for demonstrating the concept of near misses, both physically and theatrically.” He has set the work to music by the Mills Brothers and Gorillaz. He added that the best part of preparing for Traverse has been spending extra time with fellow dancers.
Sasha Rydlizky, It depends
Rydlizky said the work It depends, “began from the idea that an individual’s personality changes depending on who they are with, in both large and subtle ways.” She added, “This can create wildly different relationship dynamics as different personality aspects are revealed and positive or negative qualities are triggered.”
Rydlizky said that hopefully audiences will reflect on their own personal relationships, adding “how they show up in those relationships, and how their sense of self changes depending on who they interact with.”
It depends has three sections, where each one is a duet, featuring a different combination of dancers. The movement was developed mostly from improvisational tasks and is partnering-based.
The work will be performed by three colleagues: Peter Farrow, Megan McCarthy and Alexander Pham. The music for the work is an original composition from Salt Lake City musician Evan LoFranco titled Tsciabat Bows.
As for the experience of preparing for Traverse, Rydlizky said, “The practice of collaborating in previous artistic processes has given me the skills to create, while the warmth of the artistic director and other dancers has given me the confidence to try new things.”
Alexander Pham, Perfect Match
Inspired by never having played any sports, Pham decided to set Perfect Match as “a whimsical reimagining of that missed experience.” The work tracks “a duo’s unlikely trajectory from opponents to teammates (or pas de deux partners, if you will),” Pham explained. “It’s meant to be playful and cheeky, so I hope that audiences have a good time and can enjoy a not-so-serious side of concert dance.”
Pham will be performing the work with local dance artist Severin Sargent-Catterton. There are three sections in the work: The Match, The Conversation, & The Final Dance. “Each section loosely tracts the stages of team development in chronological order – Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning,” Pham explained. “The movement vocabulary for this piece exists at the intersection of highly counted, mildly virtuosic, a lot of cheekiness, sprinkles of ballet fantasy, and some pop action.” The music comes from Bohoman and Billie Eilish.
About the company experience in preparing for Traverse, Pham said, “Through working with numerous choreographers during my time at RWDC, those invaluable experiences have given me space to discover what it is that I do and don’t value in my own choreography at this time.” Noting that it has been nearly ten years since he has presented work (let alone in a professional context), Pham added, “I am grateful to Daniel and the company for giving us the opportunity and resources to present work with the utmost support and trust.”
Fausto Rivera and Miche’ Smith, Watch That Line
In their artistic statement for Watch That Line, Rivera and Smith wrote, “We set out to create a dance theater work and our jumping off point is the topic of obstacles and the various ways we can approach obstacles, whether it’s with sheer force, bargaining, softening, apathy, etc. They added, “The work has taken quite a jump since its inception and we’re excited to drop the audience into a world of controlled chaos and conflict. We hope the audience has a fun experience and is able to reflect on how they approach obstacles in their own life.”
Watch That Line is set on a cast of eight dancers from The University of Utah School of Dance: Kiya Green, Grace Hurley, Alexia Maikidou Poutrino, Charlotte Stehmeyer, Cooper Sullivan, Kat Dringman, Emily Marsh, and Elijah Cook.
According to Rivera and Smith, the piece opens on a televised athletic competition, (think American Ninja Warrior) and begins to take shape after a series of big wins and losses. “The text and movement vocabulary was developed from the dancer’s individual character’s sentiments toward the competition and their perceived role in this world,” they added.
SPECIAL CONCERT SETUP
For Traverse, the audience will be seated surrounding the performers onstage in the Jeanné Wagner Theatre, which will give viewers a rare close-up vantage point. There will be no traditional seating for this production.
Audience members are encouraged to arrive early for an on-stage pre-show happy hour. Concessions, including alcoholic/non-alcoholic beverages, beer from local breweries, and snacks will be available for the evening shows, beginning 45 minutes before the performance. Works by local visual artist Jordan Johnson will be displayed in the Rose Wagner Center lobby. Following the closing evening performance on Feb. 3, there will be an encore social, a post-show event with music and dancing.
Performances Feb. 1-3 will be held daily at 7:30 p.m. An hour-long family-friendly Moving Parts Family and Sensory Friendly Performance will take place Feb, 3 at 1 p.m. For tickets and more information, see the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company website.