Shall We Dance? Ririe-Woodbury Turns 50
…and gets back to its roots.
—by Amy Brunvand
By the time you read this it will be too late to catch Tandy Beal’s show Flabbergast performed by Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, but I can tell you what I loved about it. It was funny. I mean laugh-out-loud funny.
Back in the psychedelic ’60s when Ririe-Woodbury was still a brand-new company, modern dance was often a cacophony of colors, patterns and sound, but somewhere along the way dance settled into being Very Serious Art. Sometimes after a particularly bleak piece I think choreographers are producing work that is maybe a little too angsty for their own good.
But this year Ririe Woodbury is celebrating its 50th anniversary (there will be a $200/plate gala in March if you’d like to give the company a financial boost), and a funny thing happened—the good cheer is back. Ririe-Woodbury’s season opened this past September with The Start of Something Big that was a nostalgic look back to the early days of the company. The dances were charming. “Affectionate Infirmities” (1972) by Joan Woodbury had dancers clad in canary yellow limping sadly on crutches at first, but then discovering how to perform fancy new tricks with their extended limbs. “Clouds” (1971) by Shirley Ririe was choreographed for the company’s first children’s show. She filled the stage with drifting balloons inspired by Winnie the Pooh trying to steal honey from bees by disguising himself as a little cloud because “if you have a blue balloon, they might think you were only part of the sky.” But my favorite part of the show was the home movie clips.
Flash back to the 1960s: Andy Warhol had just made silver mylar balloons essential stoner décor; Yellow Submarine was considered a children’s movie; mustaches and mutton- chop sideburns were stylish for men in funky hats; and my own mom used to dress for parties in a hand-crocheted tunic over an orange body stocking because, well, that’s just what people wore in those days. Which is to say, there was a pervasive aesthetic of cheerful weirdness. So when dancers from Ririe-Woodbury made a dance-for-the-camera film it was in the manner of the Beatles—hirsute folks in circus finery emerging from a VW Bug clown car, popping out of a manhole in downtown Salt Lake, pirouetting on Joan Woodbury’s yellow crutches and cavorting with a bull on a leash in a muddy pasture.
Return to 2014. We’ve been extremely lucky in Salt Lake to get so much of Tandy Beal’s work— Outside Blake’s Window (2007); Here after Here (2013). And it’s no accident that her choreography has that surreal 1960s quality. Beal was inspired to become a dancer in Salt Lake City during that same time period (a reason she was invited to participate in Ririe-Woodbury’s 50th anniversary season). But Beal has added an element of circus professionalism that never existed in the old days—for Flabbergast she brought in circus performers to teach Ririe-Woodbury’s dancers acrobatics and clowning. At a “meet the choreographer” preview, Beal explained, “These are not things dancers normally do. In circus you’re learning a ‘trick.’ In dance you’d never say that. Safety is essential. There’s a ‘ditch’ word and if you say it, everybody stops.”
Since circus skills are not typically taught in modern dance classes Beal had to ease the dancers into new roles, starting with a list of things the dancers could already do: “Who can juggle? Who can spin on their back?”
After the dancers learned to do acrobatic tricks safely, they added elements of character and comedy, learning to hold their shape while falling off a table (not as easy as it looks, but funny every time). When the audience laughed at the table stunt, Beal was clearly pleased. “You only get the clowning parts with an audience,” she said.
I hope Ririe-Woodbury Company keeps on making funny dances. The grace and strength of trained dancers makes a great combination with the acrobatics and physical humor of clowning, and it’s certainly a lot of fun to see old dance companies learn new tricks.