This month Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company leaps into its 50th Anniversary season with The Start of Something Big, the first full performance under the leadership of new Artistic Director Daniel Charon.
Charon, who is originally from Minnesota, grew up in a rich artistic culture that included choir, orchestra, visual arts, theater, and of course, dance. He began dancing in junior high, went on to study at the School of Fine and Performing Arts at Columbia College in Chicago where he was first introduced to modern dance, and received his B.F.A. at the North Carolina School of the Arts. He received his M.F.A. in Choreography and Integrated Media at the California Institute of the Arts earlier this year.
Charon has been involved in dance as a choreographer, performer and teacher since 1995. He danced full-time with Doug Varone and Dancers for ten seasons, where he participated in over 20 new works. He has also been a member of the Limón Dance Company and has performed with a wide variety of American arts organizations. His choreography has been produced by the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Festival, at Jacob’s Pillow, the Dance Complex, as well as a variety of dance companies, festivals and universities. He has extensive teaching experience including time at studios, master classes, festivals, and universities around the country, and has set over 15 new works on students in workshop settings. He also works extensively in the digital realm, including web design, video and incorporating technology in his work.
Although Ririe-Woodbury’s season hasn’t “officially” started, Charon has already presented a well-received evening of site-specific choreography at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA), as well as a preview of his upcoming Ririe-Woodbury premiere at The Rose Exposed.
While claiming to be “a bit nervous,” during our interview Charon appears relaxed and has an easy smile and sparkling green eyes. He is thoughtful and communicates equally well verbally and through his fluid movements. He says he views dance as a means to communicate in a different language, expressing, through touching, feeling, and movement, things that cannot be expressed in words. His works explore trust, cooperation, and relationships, as well as confronting limits, gravity, and mortality. Rather than creating a narrative, he invites the audience members to see themselves in what’s happening, and to see the performers as real people rather than remote, abstract or interchangeable dancers. And he conceives of his role less as “director” and more as facilitating inspiration, teaching, and mentoring. Company members praise his openness and collaborative approach, describing him as “gracious, curious, invested, and hilarious.”
Charon pauses briefly when asked about major influences and then lists dance pioneers such as Martha Graham; minimalist composers; Beethoven, who tells “abstract stories through music”; scenic, lighting, and costume designers whom he credits with showing him things he hadn’t seen in a given work; music and video technologists; sculpture; spaces; contemporary visual art; and mentor Doug Varone who, he says, combines a “pedestrian sensibility with technically demanding movement.”
Varone, in turn, says: “As a choreographer, Mr. Charon’s dances have a beautiful sense of craft and design. He has a tremendous eye for how bodies can move in special relationship with each other, gently shifting the emotional balance of a work.”
Charon is fascinated with minimalism, with allowing space for things to happen, room for thought and contemplation, inviting artists and audiences to look deeper, to see that which is not readily apparent. His work is humane, emotional, and challenging, yet approachable.
Many of the above influences were apparent in the two brief glimpses Utah audiences have had of Charon’s work. Kinetic Spaces, the one-night durational event at UMOCA explored space, from the confines of a stairway to the expansiveness of the huge downstairs gallery, as well as ever-changing and evolving relationships among both the dancers and the watchers, while upending preconceptions about dance by presenting several hours of dance that had no stage, no music, no discrete beginning or ending, and which challenged the audience to choose where and how long to watch. The preview at The Rose Exposed was set to a minimalist score and explored themes of relationships, trust, space, layers and complexity. Charon clearly trusts his audience to find their own way in his work.
Teaching is another interest, and Charon is excited about Ririe-Woodbury’s extensive educational outreach activities. He is also committed to moving dance out of an exclusively proscenium (formal stage) setting, whether through site-specific work, dance film, the internet, or collaboration with other artists and arts entities. So far, he is enjoying Salt Lake City, which he describes as “quirky,” is impressed with its friendliness and vibrant arts community, and is inspired and optimistic about the future. In his words: “Looking forward, my goal is to continue this great legacy that is inclusive of all audiences, while pushing the boundaries of contemporary dance. My aim is to continue to bring great artists to Salt Lake City, to expose a variety of quality choreographic perspectives, to expand the national and international presence of the company, and to continue to inspire meaningful conversation about humanity through the art of dance.”
In addition to a glimpse of the future through Charon’s premiere, The Start of Something Big will include a look at the past, including early dances choreographed by founders Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury, works gifted to the company by Murray Louis and Alwin Nikolais, and “Move It,” a 1976 dance film featuring Shirley, Joan and company. The 50th Anniversary season will also include a record 8-12 new commissioned works, including six by company alumni in December; “Flabbergast,” a new family show by the magical Tandy Beal in February, and three new works in April: a multi-media collaboration between Varone and University of Utah professor Ellen Bromberg, a work by Cuban native, Sweden-based, Ririe-Woodbury alumnus Miguel Azcue, and another by Charon.
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.