Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City
The Message and the Medium
A profile of Utah' Ririe-Woodbury Dance
Imagine you land in a strange new country, or even a different planet. You don’t know the local language, the culture, or the customs of this place. How would you react? Would you attempt to communicate, and if so, how?
Most likely through movement. Your movements might tell a story, such as wrapping your arms around yourself and shivering, or moving your hand to your mouth. Your movements might be more subtle and ambiguous, reaching out a hand, touching, jumping. While your movements might be crude, you would, in a sense, be dancing.
Modern dance is a refinement of that process of communicating through movement, through a universal language that transcends both verbal language and culture. While some modern dance tells a distinct story, more often it is open to interpretation, the dancers, choreographer and music interacting with your thoughts and experiences to create something as unique as you are.
And dance is a way to communicate not just with others, but with yourself, with your soul. Martha Graham, one of the most influential modern dancers and choreographers, said that “dance is the hidden language of the soul.” Dance is also the only art form where the medium is the human body. Or, as the renowned choreographer of abstract dance theater, Alwin Nikolais said, (dance is) "the art of motion which, left on its own merits, becomes the message as well as the medium."
When I interviewed the dancers of Salt Lake City’s renowned Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, they all agreed that dance allows them to express “qualities that can’t be expressed by any other means than body”, and serves as a “conduit for finding the deeper parts of (oneself).” For many of the dancers, dance serves as their primary language. To quote company member Alex Bradshaw, “So much is lost in the translation from life experience to words. Dance allows me to express those experiences without words. Words are in the past; dance is new in every moment. I am most present and alive when dancing with a family of fellow artists.”
Many people think they need to “understand” modern dance. But “understanding” usually means attaching a “story” to the dance, saying what it’s “about.” And because dance is a non-verbal language, translating it back into words can actually detract from the experience. Or as Ririe-Woodbury Artistic Director and choreographer Charlotte Boye-Christensen says, “Get it out of your head that you have to understand dance. I don’t even 'understand' it. Be moved, engaged, remain in the moment.”
Dance is also a form of problem solving, of overcoming obstacles, and of expanding trust. What are the limits of a human body? How do you adapt a dance choreographed for 13 dancers so it not only keeps its integrity, but communicates more with only 6 dancers? How do you develop the trust to fall face first at the floor and know that your partner will spin around just in time to catch you? How do you integrate movement, music, costumes, lighting, set design and architectural elements to form a cohesive whole? What happens if you add language, video, or props? Likewise, how do you take six strong, individual dancers and create a cohesive company?
Under the skilled and passionate guidance of Boye-Christensen, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company has developed an impressive local, national and international reputation and performs original works by Boye-Christensen, as well as works choreographed by such noted artists as Tandy Beal, Steven Koester, Karole Armitage, John Jaspers, and Bill T. Jones. In addition, Ririe-Woodbury is currently the only company licensed to perform a full evening of dance by Alwin Nikolais, and recently completed a seven-week tour of France, as well as a four-week American tour of his works. The company will be performing more of the Nikolais oeuvre for the February and April performances.
Ririe-Woodbury believes that “Dance is for Everybody” and their mission stresses education. They hold workshops and residencies for students from K-12 throughout Utah, as well as performing for students at all levels throughout the state of Utah. They also have workshops for aspiring and semi-professional dancers. There are free matinees for Utah students throughout the year, and students can also attend any opening night show for as little as $5. In addition, all the dancers are trained not just as dancers, but also as educators and choreographers to ensure that they will continue to contribute to modern dance when their performing days are over.
This year, as Ririe-Woodbury moves into its 47th year, there are lots of new developments. Jena Woodbury (daughter of co-founder Joan Woodbury, and herself a dancer) is taking over as Managing Director of the company. Three new dancers, Brad Beakes, Alexandra Bradshaw, and Bashaun Williams join alumni Jo Blake, Elizabeth Kelley-Wilberg and Tara Roszeen McArthur. The new dancers have added freshness, curiosity, strength and passion to the company, and have integrated so well that not even the most experienced dance experts can tell who is new. And after touring and living together nearly full-time for the past several months, everyone reports the company is stronger and more cohesive than ever.
Boye-Christensen is at the center of everything. Her reputation is international and everyone from dancers to guest choreographers are excited to work with her. Several said that just one experience with her was enough to get them to come to Salt Lake City. She is passionate, amazingly generous, and a perfectionist who will work with one dancer on one movement to get it exactly right. She takes a collaborative approach, incorporating feedback and input from the dancers as well as others with expertise in a variety of disciplines.
The December performance is always choreographed by Boye-Christensen. Beakes says a single-choreographer performance like this year's Prism is "a unique experience because it is exploring the different work of a single choreographer as opposed to the mixture found in (other performances). Being able to hone in on Charlotte's point of view in each piece is interesting to me because I am able to focus in and differentiate her vocabulary in each separate work. Investigating not only her intention within each piece but the change in movement aesthetic is a rewarding experience. In essence I am given the opportunity to explore multiple creations of one mind...”
Boye-Christensen’s choreography is maturing, mellowing (in the good sense), and she is exploring a variety of new approaches to collaboration. Collaboration both expands her boundaries and abilities as a choreographer, and moves her choreography in the direction of multi-media, which she believes is the future of dance. For Prism, she is collaborating with Star Trek veteran Ethan Phillips (Neelix), writer David Kranes, and architect Nathan Webster and will be re-creating last year’s startling and successful “Touching Fire” in a new context. The performance will stretch from the various modes of stand-up comedy and the vulnerability of all performers in “But Seriously...” to the edge of madness in “Touching Fire.” Also premiering are excerpts from “West”, a new piece created on a dude ranch in rural Arizona that incorporates “the space, solitude, generosity of spirit and music” of the West. The performance will also reprise “Push,” which premiered in September.
Prism will be presented in the smaller Black Box Theater in the Rose Wagner complex, giving the audience a much closer view of the dance and dancers and a more intimate connection to the performance.
Ririe-Woodbury has also started a new “meet the choreographer” program for donors and season ticket holders and their guests. These are small performances with a discussion and Q & A with the choreographer. Occasionally, they’re opened up to the general public. In addition, Ethan Phillips will host a Q&A for season ticket holders and a limited number of single ticket holders Dec. 8 and 9 at 6:30 pm in the Rose Wagner Center.
If you’re looking for a new way to experience life, to uncover your own deepest emotions, to explore vulnerability, to learn a new non-verbal language, or to see the perfection of the human body and its ability to move in space, modern dance is definitely for you. If you’re a Star Trek fan, enjoy stand-up comedy, or enjoy the beauty of the rural West, come see them through different eyes, in a different format. And you don’t have to love it, or even like all of it. To quote Boye-Christensen: “It’s okay if they love it or if they hate it. I want genuine emotion. ‘It was nice’ is so hard for me.”
The Doctorow Prize
Kim Schoenstadt at the UMOCA
Last month the Salt Lake Art Center (now the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art) opened an exhibition of works by California artist Kim Schoenstadt, recipient of the first Catherine Doctorow Prize for Contemporary Painting. The $15,000 biennial prize was instituted by the Jarvis and Constance Doctorow Family Foundation to honor the late painter Catherine Doctorow (trustees of the foundation include writer Francois Camoin and visual artist Suzanne Larson, members of the local art community). For this inaugural exhibition of the prize, Schoenstadt is exhibiting her first painting on canvas (the irony of that statement is not lost on the artist) as well as a number of wall paintings that extend on to the floor and ceilings. Earlier this month we ran a short video in which Schoenstadt introduced us to the new works in the exhibition. In this extended, 8 minute interview, Schoenstadt explains how she first began working on walls, what inspires her work and exactly what one of her works is.