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Salt Lake City Weekly Jumping Ahead

Ririe-Woodbury celebrates diversity and the future of dance with Center Stage.

By Kristen Riedelbach

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  The bungee rig wasn't working.

Ririe-Woodbury dancer Aaron Draper was strapped into what the dancers call the "ball buster": a sort of climbing harness attached to a metal ring the size of a steering wheel. The dancer is strapped in the harness with the ring circling his body. The whole thing is attached to bungee cords, and resembles a giant baby bouncer.

The rig had needed adjustment since its last use several years ago, in order to fit Draper's body. Unfortunately, now the metal ring rose up around his chest instead of his hips, preventing the dancers on the ground from being able to grab it for their jumps.

"You really can't do the piece without the rig working," says Shirley Ririe, artistic co-director. "Because the timing changes each time depending on the behavior of the ropes."

After marking the routine once with the bungee-jumping Draper, he has to be let out of the rig. It's still causing him too much pain — the reason it needed adjusting in the first place. If they can't find a way to make the rig painless, he will just have to endure it, notes Ririe. Dancers suffer for their art.

Endurance is the key that allowed Ririe-Woodbury's innovation through the door of Salt Lake City's conservative art market — through the door and up the stairs to 35 years of welcomed residency. The company is celebrating its 35th season with a host of productions based on the ideas of movement, direction, arrival. The season is titled In the Spotlight, and Center Stage, its first performance beginning Oct. 29, means exactly what it says: "And we've earned our place there," says Joan Woodbury, artistic co-director.

Center Stage contains six pieces: five ensemble works and one solo by former RW member Keith Johnson. "Noumenon" is about motion; "Spite" is about emotion. "Ge' Bunge" defies gravity; "Gentle Madness" evokes boundaries. "Ten Mile" was inspired by the space and beauty of Utah's canyons. Synthesized, they reflect the paradoxical center stage Ririe-Woodbury has made a point of occupying.

"Ge' Bungee," the piece being rehearsed today, focuses on the athleticism and, it seems, the liberating capabilities of dance. The bungee cord begs us to ask what it would be like to dance without gravity. Choreographed by Ririe, she is making changes to the piece by the moment, reaffirming the idea that art is process.

The piece starts with sport movements: running, skating, throwing, bicycling. Draper, in the bungee rig, descends down, and the dancers on the ground crash. He then touches down near each one, appearing to awaken them as they are startled from their places — maybe awakening them also to a new level of thinking about movement, about the practice of dance. "Ge' Bungee" fills the observer with a sense of freedom, expressed through perfect extension and quick turns that seem to cut through atmosphere.

In the Spotlight, comprises three performances other than Center Stage: The Shy Hag's Magic Shadow Show, In the Wings, and Downstage Left. Shy Hag is a RW audience favorite. The other three, named for stage movements, focus on the idea of changing directions — a theme central not only to Ririe-Woodbury's dance philosophy, but to modern dance itself.

Modern dance has a reputation of being an elitist movement — that is, too "out there" or "artsy" for the average person. And yet it is the antithesis of elitist within the world of dance — a revolution started by women as an antidote to a rigid ballet world that required almost impossible-to-reach physical ideals. (Modern dancers are diverse in both talents and body types.) Ririe-Woodbury has been working, and continues to work, to dispel this myth by getting the community involved in their work.

"People always want what's new: new appliances, new clothes, new radios." Woodbury says. "But in art they tend to look for what is established and validated. They want to look to someone else who will tell them this piece is good, or that performance was good, rather than looking in themselves for their personal responses, which may be positive or negative."

Ririe-Woodbury strives to evoke those responses by focusing their work on the everyday things of life; not always telling a story, but using dance as a metaphor for what concerns us today. "We always try to stay current," Woodbury says.

In addition to staging accessible performances, RW seeks to educate its audience. Teaching dance in local elementary schools is one way they accomplish this. "If you don't educate, you won't have an audience," Ririe says. Dancing with school kids not only keeps the art alive, but provides them "a total education for the human being. It has such benefits for total mind-body-spirit integration."

Traditional dance, and more specifically ballet, tends to focus more on story telling — on the linear, Woodbury says. In ballet, the dancers and choreographer come to a story, the choreographer designs the expression of that story, and the dancers are dropped into their roles. There is some alteration to fit a particular dancer's strengths or weaknesses, but it stays pretty much the same. At RW, however, they look for dancers who not only have ability and beauty, but who "have a mind of their own." Because the dancers bring something original to the work, even though the piece may have been choreographed decades ago.

Ririe-Woodbury begins its 35th season Oct. 29.

The parts change with each dancer who plays them — the reason diversity plays such an important role in the company. RW has always strived to build an ethnically-diverse company, says Woodbury, and this year they've certainly succeeded. Ririe-Woodbury boasts Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, American Indian, Korean-American, and Japanese-American dancers among their membership.

"It gives us much more possibility," Ririe says. "It becomes richer [when the dancers] bring their own ideas in. If you've got group creativity it's much more fruitful than just one person being dictatorial ... I love the interchange. I use a lot of improvisations when I choreograph, that way I'm bringing out of each dancer, something unique."

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