Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Joan Woodbury: Always in Motion

In 2013, Joan Woodbury was selected by 200 of her peers as one of “Utah’s 15 most influential artists.” The following profile appeared in Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists, published by Artists of Utah in 2014.

Photo by Zoe and Robert Rodriguez.

 We almost lost Joan Woodbury to New York. That’s where all the dancers seem to go – and that was her plan. When she was only 24 years old, Woodbury, newly graduated from the University of Wisconsin and planning a new life in the Big Apple decided to make a quick trip to Salt Lake City first to visit her family and to show the courtesy of an interview for a teaching position at the University of Utah. As luck would have it, she took the job. What happened next was a series of moves that would play out to have a profound influence on dance in Utah.

A proud Utah native, Woodbury was born Joan Jones in Cedar City to a family of ranchers. Her father ran a grocery store and a farm machinery business while her mother was an accomplished pianist. Those were two basic, but significant influences that would continue to inform her life: her father with his love of the land, and her mother with her love of music. “Mother played for everything. All the kids took piano lessons whether they wanted to or not,” says Woodbury. “She had quartets and played for the church and the opera in Cedar City. You’d wake up in the morning and someone would be taking a piano lesson.” Musicality and rhythm are essential components to dance so this musical influence was crucial for her. “I like musicality in dancers and in myself, but what I really loved to do was move,” she recalls. “I was always outside on the farm either climbing down haystacks or fences or following my dad.” When she turned 5, her family moved further into Cedar City where a teacher who taught tap-dancing lived. Woodbury’s mother enrolled her, and to this day tap has been one of her loves.

Woodbury’s mother played for the Cedar City Opera Company and eventually the young Joan began to perform with them. She sang in AidaLa bohème, and she was a street urchin in Carmen. “I had a pretty good voice as a young child and I loved being on the stage and thought that might be what I would do, but I had a fragile voice,” she explains. By the time she reached high school, dancing became more of a serious pursuit. One of her teachers was particularly encouraging. “LaVeve Petty loved to dance so she had everyone dancing in school – not much contemporary dance but dancing. She made a company of about eight of us doing dances from the ‘20s. We danced the Charleston and One-step and Two-step; we’d perform around town and do assemblies. We’d sing and make up acts and improvise and then we’d dance. I realized I really loved it.”

All of Woodbury’s brothers and sisters went to the University of Utah, but LaVeve Petty encouraged Woodbury to attend the University of Wisconsin, which happened to have a wonderful modern dance program (called “creative” dance back in the day). Her father wondered why she would want to study dance, as it was no way to make money. “Mother talked him into letting me go,” Woodbury explains. “It surprised me a lot. Once I got there, I cried all night. I was so scared and lonely, but that school was incredible for me.” She studied under Margaret H’Doubler. “She was a botanist really, but she loved the human body and how it functioned. She believed dance was for everyone and always taught with a skeleton; how the body moves what it can do what it can’t do, what is sequential movement, etc. It gave me the urge to really carry through with dance for the masses. Everyone can dance and has the province of being creative and dance was a great way to be yourself and put things together. It couldn’t have been a happier thing for me.”

Once Woodbury finished her schooling in Wisconsin, she planned to move to New York City, but Elizabeth Hayes, the chair of the dance department at the University of Utah, intervened. Woodbury came back to talk to her about a position at the University. After meeting people in the theater and music department and talking with the students, she ended up staying. “I was 24 and right out of school. I had experience teaching kids and adults at this point and I thought ‘I can really explore and experiment with dancers and I could really learn how to choreograph.’” She taught technique, improvisation, swimming, golf and tennis. “I could never hit a ball but I had a good-looking swing,” Woodbury jokes. “And I never taught tennis with a ball in my hand, but I knew how to move and I knew how to get kids enthused about playing so they all improved.”

Soon after Woodbury began her career at the University, Elizabeth Hayes approached her with a suggestion. “Betty told me there was someone I should really meet. She had attended the U, and then went to NYU and was now teaching at BYU.” Joan Woodbury finally met Shirley Ririe the following year. They had the same philosophy about creative human beings, about exploring and finding things, improvisation, choreography, wanting to dance. “So the first thing we did was make a dance together. It was called ‘On the Boards,’ and we were two vaudeville performers trying to outdo each other and I on one roller skate,” she remembers. “Shirley would do this wonderful stuff and I would skate across the stage.”

In 1952 Joan married Charles Woodbury. Two years later she decided she wanted to study with Mary Wigman in Berlin. “I wrote to the Fulbright Commission. I didn’t go through the University, I did it at large, but I told them my plans and what I wanted to do. Lo and behold I got it! They wrote me in the spring of 1955 and invited me out. I was pregnant with my first child. At the time my husband was coaching at Morgan High School. I said, ‘I applied for a Fulbright scholarship, if I got it would you go to Germany with me for a year?’ and he said, ‘Yes’ and I said, ‘Good, because I got it.’” She talked to Elizabeth Hayes, suggesting that Ririe teach for her while she was gone, and that is exactly what happened.

“We came back after a year and Shirley and I decided we both wanted to teach. So we held hands and marched over to President Olpin’s office just like the Bobbsey Twins and said ‘We’d like to job share.’ And he said, ‘What’s that?’” Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe shared one salary for 10 years. Together, Elizabeth Hayes, Woodbury, and Ririe built the dance department. They upped the class times and the number of classes. It grew and grew until the University decided it was time to pay them each a full salary. In the meantime, they had formed a little company. “Shirley and I put money in to make costumes for the year, and then if we made any money we’d pay the dancers.” In 1963, they invited a choreographer to come lead their summer workshops. Woodbury had met him when she spent time in Chicago during her schooling in Wisconsin. He was a choreographer and a philosopher, which struck a chord with Woodbury, as the philosophy of dance is something that would drive her throughout her career. He taught her to mold things to say what you want to say and how to improvise so you can discover things in yourself that you didn’t know you had. His name was Alwin Nikolais.

“Nikolais taught about being present in dance and present in your life,” Woodbury explains. “He said you should transcend yourself and become bigger and faster than you are, changing your body so you can be expressive with yourself and communicate with someone else.” He came to the university for five summers and he critiqued the dances performed by the small company Woodbury and Ririe had been working on. “He’s the one who told us we should call our company by our own names,” recalls Woodbury. “We decided Ririe-Woodbury was the easiest to say, and in 1964 we founded our company.” Ririe-Woodbury began performing Nikolais’ works in 2003 and had the privilege of performing his works in Europe.

In the late 1960s the National Endowment for the Arts started pilot programs around the country. They took a dance company into select schools and had them work as if dance was the core curriculum and then English and math and history were satellite courses. They found these kids learned more because they were energized. And they could talk about other subjects in relationship to dance. Then in 1972 the NEA announced two programs: Artists in the Schools and Dance Touring. Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company went to New York and auditioned for the program and they got both of them. “Shirley and I had always believed that every child should dance,” says Woodbury. “Not everyone is going to be a dancer, but when you understand your body and feel comfortable inside yourself, you can create anything. You might be a writer, a poet, or a designer but you have a sense of your self-worth. It’s what dance brings to everybody.”

Woodbury believes the state has a remarkable amount of artistic talent. “I think everyone should get out of Utah and come back and realize what we have here,” she explains. She feels lucky to have been able to stay in Utah and believes it is the people who have stayed that made all the difference. “A lot of Jewish people came out when the Mormons did. They under- stood fabrics, music, singing and drama so already the state was infused with a great amount of talent. And there were people that came out and stayed,” she begins. “Bob May Babcock came out to the University campus. People came to the theater department and the art department and architecture department and they stayed. I’m one of the young ones. Betty Hayes, Noni Sorenson. They all came out and stayed. Betty got dance in all the schools. Every high school in Utah has a dance teacher because of her and that is unheard of. No other state has that.”

Dance isn’t a career for Joan Woodbury; it’s a lifestyle. Just as her parents influenced her, Woodbury’s lifestyle deeply influenced those of her children, of whom she is very proud. Her daughter, Jena, was a beautiful dancer and currently works as the managing director of Ririe-Woodbury and they have a wonderful working relationship. “It’s been fabulous,” says Woodbury. “I’ve been very, very lucky and happened to be in the right places at the right time.” Of course, she is being modest. The dance department wouldn’t have been the same without her. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center – one of the premiere venues for modern dance in the United States and abroad.

Creative people always seem to find each other. For Woodbury, surrounding herself with talent has motivated and inspired her to do great things. She is a dancer, teacher, ambassador, and innovator. Whether it was connecting with choreographers like Alwin Nikolais or partnering with a kindred spirit in Shirley Ririe, Joan Woodbury’s dance career – although challenging at times – has been a charmed one. When discussing dance, Woodbury describes movement and motion as two different things: “Motion is movement with intention,” she says. If so, Joan Woodbury’s motions have been impeccable, leaving a legacy for us all to enjoy.

Photo by Zoe and Robert Rodriguez.


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