Subdued, intimate Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s Ascent closes with perfect treat, featuring Storyograph and live original music

Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s 60th anniversary season has been a unique experience. Last fall, Groundworks, its superb season opener which honored its founders (Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury) reminded us of legacies, which define why we cherish and prize something for its excellence and its value in the community. High school dancers were the focus of Synthesis in December, when they performed works choreographed during company residencies at their schools. In February, Traverse was a perfect Homecoming production, highlighting six new works and a company premiere, which exemplified the tremendous artistic culture that has defined the company. 

The emphasis on legacy turned out to be bittersweet as well, as the company and the dance community mourned the passing of Woodbury, who died on Nov. 1 at the age of 96. Earlier this month, a memorial service for Woodbury packed the Jeanne Wagner Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center for Performing Arts. It was a poignant, warm-hearted, humorous and graceful remembrance of Woodbury’s life in and out of the dance studio.

Presented last week in the Black Box Theatre at the Rose Wagner Center, Ascent closed the season on a rather subdued yet intimate note. But, the closing piece in the show, Storyograph, a new work by artistic director Daniel Charon with live original music by the Salt Lake Electric Ensemble, proved to be an excellent bridge to the company’s future seasons.

Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, Stefanie Batten Bland, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo Credit: Stuart Ruckman.

The show opened with Chapters of Being, a new work by Charlotte Boye-Christensen, who served for 11 years as the company’s artistic director. It is a choreographic meditation on revisiting the memories of the connections to the company and the Rose. Set to a curated score of pop songs, music by contemporary composers and a snippet of opera, the work’s timing took on nuanced meaning, as two of the current dancers, Alexander Pham and Peter Farrow, are leaving after this season to write their new chapters as dancers.

The company reprised Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, a 2019 work by Stefanie Batten Bland and reconstructed by Latra Wilson, which is accompanied by an original score composed by Paul Damian Hogan. The work is inspired by the 1967 film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which was a story about an interracial couple who were engaged to be married and the tensions in their families about accepting their relationship. Today’s viewers would likely cringe at some of the scenes in the film, especially when one realizes it was made by a white director essentially for white audiences. 

Bland’s version picks up on the possibilities of the film’s title, which became a vernacular expression in various contexts hinting that a surprise or shock is just around the corner.  The circumstances of the film’s narrative hardly seem controversial in today’s lenses but there also are plenty of pervasive controversies currently which show that core social conflicts have yet to be resolved. The best representations of this come when the table props for the piece are separated and flipped on their sides, becoming doors and walls. Solos by Pham and Farrow signify how the struggles portrayed in the 1967 film have taken on their own salient forms in 21st century American society.

Storyograph, Daniel Charon, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. Photo Credit: Stuart Ruckman.

Charon’s Storyograph was the perfect treat to close out the season. As mentioned in The Utah Review’s preview of Ascent, this was the third collaboration Charon had with the internationally known Salt Lake Electric Ensemble. The group’s six members performed on stage behind the dancers, offering an original electro-acoustic score, featuring laptops, keyboards, a minimal drum kit, electric cello and electric guitars. The music was never dense nor did it overpower or overwhelm the choreography on stage. The score, with clean lines that still gave a sense of orchestral depth and oomph, paralleled the dancers’ movements and emotional nature, with fine effect. 

Storyograph is very much like a choreographic variation of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, a play from the 1920s. In the play, the characters announce that their original author has not fully completed them so they are now searching for another author to finish the task. Something similar happens in Storyograph, which amplifies the values of identity and relative truths. The dancers engage movement individually and in various partnering combos to discover that no individual is ever complete until they realize that their own existence depends upon acknowledging the essential importance of shared community ideals, perspectives and a willingness to work together and find consensus.

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