It was always something big — RW’s 50th Anniversary Season

This weekend, Ririe Woodbury opened their 50th season with “The Start of Something Big” at the Rose Wagner. The concert celebrates the work of Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury while welcoming the work of Daniel Charon, the company’s new artistic director. As a whole the evening is Ririe Woodbury’s celebration of dance, one that has employed numerous choreographic approaches over the last fifty years and will continue to play a vital role in the Salt Lake arts community.

The concert opens — and finds each dance interspersed — with excerpts from “Move It” a film by Stanley and Judith Hallet featuring early members of the company. As the film begins, Shirley Ririe climbs out of a sewer and onto the city streets. From that moment it becomes clear that these women have been everywhere and done it all in even zanier outfits than we might imagine. The magical nature of the film creates a situation where anything can happen and the audience is drawn into the action of what these women have been offering. It’s truly rare that something moves a concert along so quickly or creates such a unified investment in otherwise disparate aesthetics.

Many of the works on the program are formal in the way audiences might expect. The works of Shirley and Joan, and those by their choreographic mentors Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis, feature a range of specific technical markers: clear lines, turning sequences, strong spatial formations and  complex partnering. The company looked incredible  and after a few seasons of watching them explore aggressive virtuosity, it was refreshing to see them dance with such clarity, and in some cases, softness.

Despite these unifying features the worlds of these choreographic works differ greatly. “Clouds” by Shirley initiated the company’s use of dance to explore concepts for children something RW’s now well known for. The dance takes place in a sweet and sincere space where science can become magic. In a sillier turn, “Affectionate Infirmities” by Joan, takes on the use of props popular in the NIkolais tradition. The dancers perform using colorful crutches and it’s clear that while humorous, there is a complex investigation of extending the limits of the body that was unique to a generation. The dance stands up against other light repertory the company frequently features and despite being less “contemporary” than Larry Keigwin’s “80s Night” for example, the dance seems to speak more and in a timeless way.

Also by Joan, “Play It As It Rings” is a highlight of the evening. Originally made in 1970 for Limon dancers Betty Jones and Fritz Ludin, the dance utilizes fractured vignettes that culminate in a domestic dispute among dancers Alex Bradshaw and Bashaun Williams. The dance demonstrates that the “stop, start then change your clothes” aesthetic popular today was being employed over forty years ago to great effect. The narrative is so fractured it’s hard to know where to begin; whether the robotic movements characterizing interrupted intimacy,  competitive delivery of text, tortured expressions playing out slowly on a bench, or the layers of theatrical costuming shuffling back and forth in space.

The one premiere on the concert, “Everything That Changes” by Daniel Charon seems to draw on the vastness explored by the rest of the program. Utilizing a series of connections that build and disintegrate in space, Charon seems to attempt synthesizing the momentum of this company while questioning the directions in which they may find themselves moving. While it’s easy to physically map Charon’s work in context of other choreographers he’s worked with (namely Doug Varone) it seems more important to say that the dance invites us to imagine where something new might be headed. The dance suggests it could be somewhere as imaginative as the locations in the earlier mentioned film —  on a gondola above the fall trees, outside a barn with some bulls, with in water and sand, together in a way that’s unyielding.

Ashley Anderson directs loveDANCEmore programs as part of her non-profit, ashley anderson dances.