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September 2013
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
Page 5    

Daniel Charon, Artistic Director of Ririe-Woodbury Dance

Culture Conversations: Dance
Starting Something
Daniel Charon joins Ririe-Woodbury Dance

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.

Ladies Literary Club . . . from page 1

And this is where that suggestion for a business plan runs into another problem: how do you put into your plan the necessary costs for research and development? Because what that proverbial question — “How long did that take you?” — misses about any one artistic piece is the number of hours spent in trial and error searching for a form and method (what a CEO would call R&D). A smart business might stick to what they’ve done before, maybe adding a few tweaks, possiblly some value-added design. A good artist, though, is always trying to reinvent herself.

A good artist also sees challenges as opportunities. To celebrate the Ladies Literary Club's, Anderson and Sinner decided to engage the 100 year-old space — a decision that poses a number of problems. The stage is quite small, restricting the types of dances that can be set on it. And the walls provide no space to hang works on. What are a choreographer and an artist to do?

With the space itself as their common them, Anderson and Sinner worked separately, developing their own ideas, then adjusting them when they came together to make the final piece.

The "problem" of the space presented Anderson with the answer to her question of how to collage dance. Looking through her archive of works, she found two pieces that could work well together. Both works are sparse — a limited number of dancers move in unison, performing task-like movements — and neither is set to a soundtrack. One piece, choreographed for dancers rolling on the floor (because at the time she created the work Anderson had a broken leg), Anderson decided to place beneath the stage. The other would play out on the stage. Together they would become different layers of a single piece.

The space also spurred Sinner on to a unique solution. She wasn't allowed to hang work on walls, and even if she were, the dark lighting of the performance space would mean no once could see them. Inspired by French artist Christian Boltanski, Sinner decided to project her collages rather than hang them. Working, as she often does, out of a variety of materials, she collaged cutout images onto Plexiglas, and projected them on to the walls. "It's something really simple," she says, "but it can have a big impact."

Beyond a formal solution, though, Sinner's work also gets at the history of the building. Without interpreting the idea of a literary club too literally, she began asking herself, "What does literature look like?" "What does The Grapes of Wrath look like?" she says. "I don't know. It's different for every person. It's inside their head." Searching through a variety of illustrated books, ranging over a 40-year span, she began collaging disparate elements, creating "implied narratives" that appear like the shifting images we create in our mind when we read a book. She says it's very similar to what is happening in Anderson's dance.

"There is no story," Anderson says of her work. "But because of how it's set up, someone is going to make one up." The same is true of Sinner's projections, which help fill the space and also suggest narrative. Layering individual elements, the pair will open up the possibilities for story without spelling out in black and white what the narrative is. "You get to choose why they are doing what they are doing," Anderson says of her dancers.

Just days before the actual performance, the pair were able to finally access the building and begin working together directly. Basic structural elements had been established but multiple details still needed to be worked out. "It's like working on a giant moving mural," Sinner says, not without a hint of frustration. "You change one little thing and that shifts something else. You start one place and then everything evolves."

Being in the space makes theoretical considerations actual logistical problems. "You have to figure out how little lighting is needed to see the projections," Anderson says, "but how much is needed to see the dance." Those issues, though, are just one more opportunity for research and development. "Should the curtains already be closed," Anderson says of the windows that surround the performance hall, "or should we make that part of the piece?" She has a dancer move to the windows to try it out. Sinner moves one of the curled ducts that serves as her light projection. The process goes on and the pair of artists appear to embrace the challenges and opportunities with grace and gusto.

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