Groundworks to set the pace of excellence, historical significance for Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s 60th anniversary, with works by Shirley Ririe, Joan Woodbury, Alwin Nikolais, Daniel Charon

In tandem with The Utah Review’s accompanying historical feature about the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s 60 years on the international performing and education dance scenes, Groundworks promises to be the perfect opener. The production will pay tribute to the cofounders Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury, both of whom are now in their nineties, as well as to the late Alwin Nikolais, a major collaborator whose innovations in dance theater became seminal in the art forms of modern dance and are emulated by choreographers around the world today. 

Groundworks will be performed daily, Sept. 21-23, at 7:30 p.m. in the Jeanné Wagner Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts in downtown Salt Lake City. 

Then and Now, a choreographic tribute to Ririe and Woodbury will include Electronic Dance Transformer, a work that the company premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1985 as part of the Washington, D.C. center’s Imagination Celebration, as well as excerpts from Woodbury’s L’invasion (1991) by Joan Woodbury and Banners of Freedom by Shirley Ririe, which was premiered at the company’s Pizazz and Percussion production in 1990.

Joan Woodbury.

It has been five and a half years since the company last performed works by Nikolais on stage for a regular season production. Joining the company dancers for performances of two of Nikolais’ most definitive works – Liturgies (1983) and Tensile Involvement (1955) – will be guest artists from Brigham Young University’s dance program. In Tensile Involvement, for example, the dancers are attached to elastic strings on their hands and feet so the movements create the impression of watching the performers move in planes of infinite space. Commissioned by the Venezuelan National Cultural Council for the Simon Bolivar Bicentennial, Liturgies is an undeniable ritual composition of dance theater, with section titles such as Reliquary, Effigy, Sorcerer, Carillon, among others.

Most notably, Ririe and Woodbury institutionalized the legacy of Alwin Nikolais into the heart and soul of their company’s repertoire. Ririe-Woodbury took a unique role in preserving Nikolais’ work. After Nikolais’s death in 1993, the Nikolais/Louis Foundation split into two entities but it has remained that Ririe-Woodbury is the only American dance company to absorb the works into its permanent repertoire. The decision was made by Murray Louis, who was Nikolais’ creative and life partner for many years, and Alberto del Saz, a former Nikolais company dancer who has ensured that his mentor’s artistic legacy is sustained.

Shirley Ririe.

“What I observed in the three months since I came to Salt Lake City proves just how much a cultural gem dance is in Utah,” says Thom Dancy, Ririe-Woodbury executive director, who just succeeded Jena C. Woodbury, at the beginning of the summer. Considering the legacy of the founders and their amazing ability to pivot quickly whenever the need or challenge arose, Dancy says that it is intriguing and exciting to consider what will the next 60 years be like for Ririe-Woodbury. “They were the driving forces of sustainability and creativity,” he explains, adding that their lessons continue to be of great value for shaping the company’s future.

Daniel Charon, in his 11th year as the company’s artistic director, is restaging On Being, a work which premiered in 2021 when the company offered its first concert after performing arts events had been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

About the two founders, Charon says he has always been “profoundly moved by the ecosystem of the company they built.” The bonus, he adds, is how they beautifully occupied the roles of pioneer, maverick and rebel with confidence, sensitivity, pragmatism, intellect, patience and wisdom.

Daniel Charon. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company

As On Being demonstrates, Charon has a gift for setting movement that elicits distinctive personality traits of the artists and the dancers visibly were delighted as they gave artistic justice to an elegantly choreographed statement on the theme of solace. There were moments of remembrance but also joy in the return to unrestrained movement, where partnering once again seems natural. 

On Being offers a well-earned respite from the emotionally taxing prolonged period that all of us have endured since the early spring of 2020. Charon chose appropriately the source of the work’s music — Eydís Evensen, a contemporary Icelandic composer. Evensen’s music parallels the authentic live-life-to-its-fullest sentiment inherent in the dance movement. The rhythm pulsates without interruption even as both music and movement evoke ongoing shifts in the spectrum of emotion, emphasizing that it is okay to be vulnerable and even pause briefly to reflect on the challenging burdens all of us have had to bear recently.

The season will be marked by concerts and events that emphasize the instrumental values of the work that Ririe and Woodbury achieved in placing the company as a contemporary dance institution known throughout the world. In the Black Box Theater at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, SYNTHESIS: Young Artist Showcase (Dec. 13-15) will feature high school dance companies performing choreography created during Ririe-Woodbury’s high school choreographic residencies, as well as by their teachers. Also featured will be an excerpt from Charon’s Storm, a 2011 piece choreographed with music by Michael Nyman.

The company returns to the Jeanné Wagner Theatre Feb. 1-3, 2024 for Traverse, featuring choreography by current company dancers and world premieres by former Ririe-Woodbury company artists Keith Johnson and Chia-Chi Chang.

2018. Tensile Involvement, Alwin Nikolais. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo Credit: Tori Duhaime.

The season will close on a blockbuster note with Ascent (April 18-20, 2024) with world premieres by former Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company artistic director Charlotte Boye-Christensen and a new work by Charon, marking the third collaboration he has made with the internationally acclaimed Salt Lake Electric Ensemble, who will perform live. The company also will present Stefanie Batten Bland’s Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, a 2019 work inspired in part by the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner which emerges as an engrossing, intelligent piece of dance theater.

The season also will include sensory friendly performances as part of its Moving Parts Family Series, which offers slimmed down hour-long interactive versions of the evening programs. These will be offered for Groundworks (Sept. 23, 1 p.m.), Traverse (Feb. 3, 1 p.m.) and Ascent (April 20, 1 p.m.) in the Jeanné Wagner Theatre. 

2021. On Being, Daniel Charon, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company.

For the spring of 2024, Dancy says that the company’s fundraiser will be a unique celebration of the celebration, to include raising monies for a legacy works fund in honor of the two founders that will become an enduring platform for commissioning works especially by emerging choreographers. 

For tickets and more information, see the Ririe-Woodbury website.

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