As the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s (RW) current season draws to a close, the company is bidding farewell not only to Artistic Director Charlotte Boye-Christensen, but also to dancer Jo Blake, who has been with the company since 2003.
Originally from Georgia, Blake traveled the country as a “military brat”. He started in gymnastics and discovered dance in high school. After beginning college at the University of Wyoming, he transferred to the University of Utah (U of U), where he had his first experience with Ririe-Woodbury — when the RW dancers visited and walked down the hallway, he says, all of the students went silent.
At the U of U he also met RW co-founder Joan Woodbury when she came to critique Alwin Nikolais’s “Mechanical Organ” for a student performance. The RW connection didn’t immediately “click” for Blake, however, and after graduation in 2003 he planned on moving to New York. Thinking some experience with auditions would be helpful, he applied to RW. “It was not until I auditioned that I truly, truly became inspired to be a part of the company,” he says. “Taking class with Charlotte, learning the rep work from the individual company dancers and meeting Charlotte, Joan, and Shirley were all turning points for me. After that day I kept in constant contact – probably a bit too much – until I was offered a contract with the company. And the rest has been an absolute dream come true!”
The feeling is mutual. Co-founder of the dance company Shirley Ririe says Blake is “absolutely one of the best dancers we have ever had. He has a wonderful sense of humor in his dancing, a trait that is rare these days and one I value highly.”
Woodbury adds: “He is a truly beautiful human being, inside and out. Each year I have seen him grow and change and become someone and something more in his human capacities and his capacities as a dancer. His body fluidly extracts from a gesture just the exact amount of energy, tonality and phrasing that is inherently needed to bring the poetry to the fore. He makes the movement sing.”
Over the past decade, Blake has become a sustaining force in the company, admired and respected by his audience, and loved by his colleagues. Now he is one of the RW dancers visiting the University of Utah, causing students to hush when he walks down the hallway. But those who know him all speak of his warmth and humility. One former colleague relates that when she was a student and met Blake, “I was so nervous because I knew who he was and he was a ‘cool RW’ dancer to me. But Jo gave me that big sweet smile and said ‘Hi’ and I was so elated! Little did I know that I would ‘grow up’ to dance with him for many years and have him as a great friend.”
Others refer to Blake as the “anchor” of the company, the go-to person whenever there’s a problem, personal or professional. He provides support during stressful tours, and most of all he is the one who can always be counted on to break the tension with a song or a prank.
On stage, Blake has charisma and presence. His focus on the integrity and authenticity of the piece inspires his fellow dancers. “On stage, he holds nothing back physically or emotionally,” says one colleague. “When we make eye contact during a live performance, he shares that courageous vulnerability with me in such a way that enables me to open myself up to meet him, as well as the audience, more fully. I will always cherish those unspoken conversations on stage together.”
In 2009, feeling his passion for the dance world diminishing, Blake decided to leave the company. He returned to the University of Utah to explore other options, but fell right back into doing dance — on campus, in guest appearances with RW, and through dancing with the Salt Lake City company RawMoves.
In 2010 Blake returned to RW, inspired by his love for Boye-Christensen’s work and for Ririe and Woodbury’s legacy in dance education. He says his happiest memory of his time with the company was returning with a new appreciation for dance and the company. And when he returned, his dancing had achieved yet a higher level with even more expressiveness, flexibility and grace.
Blake’s time with the company has involved not only immersing himself in the choreography of Boye-Christensen, Nikolais and numerous guest choreographers, but also travel — one favorite memory is performing in the theater in Georgia where he watched movies as a boy— and teaching. RW Director of Education Gigi Arrington says that as a teacher Blake “was a sensitive soul…very aware of children with special needs.” Initially hesitant, as he gained experience, Blake made his classes more imaginative. Blake himself lights up talking about teaching and says he loves helping children come out of their shells and finds great joy in seeing kids explore movement. Recently he’s led the pre-professional Step Up workshop for high school students and his classes are described as “both witty and poetic and a safe place for students to investigate their own movement potential authentically and with great fun.”
The person who has worked with Blake most intensively for the past ten years is, of course, Boye-Christensen, who says that one rarely comes “across the depth of expression, the fearless physicality, the inquisitive mind and the unique sense of humor that Jo has…(Jo) just keeps getting better, more interesting, more conscious of how to use his exceptional facilities in ways that serve both the work and himself as a dancer.”
Although nothing is definite, Blake is planning to finally go to New York, and hopes to travel, to experience a variety of choreographers, to create his own choreography and ultimately to teach at a university.
As part of his final performance with RW, Blake will be dancing in Boye-Christensen’s “Bridge,” one of his favorite pieces.
When asked what dancers or choreographers have most influenced him, he cites only his colleagues saying, “Each has been my inspiration. Without their desire and their passion I would not be who I am as a dancer, performer, teacher and individual.”
Sarah Thompson is a retired physician and psychiatrist, as well as a writer and a fan of the arts. Her writing has been published in a variety of magazines and textbooks and she is currently working on a short story and a novel.