Sixty Years of Ririe-Woodbury

Guest dancers from BYU performing Tensile Involvement.

Ririe-Woodbury recently celebrated sixty years with Groundworks, a show that honors the company’s long standing relationship with Alwin Nikolais, its founders, Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury, and the current artistic director, Daniel Charon. The opener was Tensile Involvement, an iconic Nikolais piece that uses elastics coupled with movement to create dynamic visuals. This piece was first created in 1955, and 68 years later still feels fresh and innovative. BYU dancers, under the direction of Alberto del Saz, performed, and they all rose to the occasion and looked every bit the part of mature, professional dancers. There are moments in this piece that are breathtaking, the eye traveling between individual movement, to group composition, to the choreography the elastics create. The body becomes augmented, even otherworldly, as their movements stretch and ripple endlessly.

All of Nikolais’ works are multimedia, with the choreography just one piece of the puzzle. The costuming, lighting, props, and music are integral to achieve his vision. Liturgies, the second piece of the evening, continues to highlight what Nikolais described himself as a “polygamy of motion, shape, color and sound.” This work has a darkness, an underbelly of sorts, as if Nikolais took his gift of being able to turn the human body into something else and married it with his nightmares. It was during this piece that I started to wonder what caused/allowed him to stay so close to his vision of stripping the body of its emotion and humanness and creating these otherworldy places. Was it a refuge to depart from our messy existence and sometimes cruel world and descend into a sphere of shape, light, shadow and sound? That is what it feels like to watch his work, a place to escape from feeling human and living in an ordinary body of flesh and bone.

If Nikolais was less concerned with the individual moving body, Daniel Charon reminded us that sometimes, the moving body can be enough. On Being premiered in 2021, and I watched (and wrote about it) then. I loved it the first time I saw it, and I still love it.  Additionally, I stand by my first take. I can see why it would be included in a program that honors the past, but also wants to nod at the current era of the company. It has a soft, yet clear structure, is devoid of any angst or ego, in short, it feels like a piece that one would create after a global pandemic where so much had been stripped away. Not to say that the piece references that time in any way, or relies on that context for it to thrive. This time watching I specifically appreciated how the form of the moving body is allowed to breathe and seemingly organically evolve, bodies sweeping and filling the space, movement tails and tendrils lingering long after. The music by Edyis Evensen tugs and pulls out emotion, and after the electronic scores that Nikolais used, gives the heart somewhere to get warmed up from the cold.

A tribute for Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe closed out the show, and it was satisfying to watch dancers from the past (via video projected on the cyc) juxtaposed with the current company performing the same choreography. Seeing the passage of time unaffected by movement composition somehow makes this ephemeral art form feel more concrete and real, connecting past and present before our eyes.

The first section shown in this tribute was Boot the System, an excerpt from Electronic Dance Transformer, commissioned by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1985. This section had a lecture demonstration structure to it, complete with narration from education director Ai Fujii Nelson. I have sat through my fair share of lec dems, and this is one that I would welcome the chance to sit through again simply because the dancers are fantastic. They are a joy to watch, all technically proficient, clean lines and dynamic movement qualities. It reminded me of the pure joy that movement can bring, the intoxication of being able to create imaginative worlds with your body.

Excerpts from L’Invasion, choreographed in 1991 by Joan Woodbury, showed different casts over at least a fifteen year span. This highlighted the passage of time and longevity of the company, something in and of itself to be proud of.

Watching video clips of Banner of Freedom, choreographed by Shirley Ririe in 1989, was not enough, I wanted to see the piece in its entirety. It was made after Ririe Woodbury had performed in East Berlin, come home, and then watched, with the rest of the world, the Berlin Wall coming down. The piece is a tribute to the strength and joy of those people, and speaks to universal hope and desire for freedom. The piece on video looked theatrical and dynamic, with large pieces of fabric hanging from the ceiling progressively being ripped down. The current company eventually ran out with white flags, making patterns and movements that highlight the euphoria and hope of a better life within reach. It was a poignant way to end the evening, ushering in the sixtieth year of this company with energy and optimism.


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Categories: Dance

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