Regulars and Shorts, Shall We Dance

Shall We Dance? Season 50

By Amy Brunvand

From Revel to Regalia: How a repertory company remains relevant.
by Amy Brunvand

I usually don’t review performances once it’s too late to go but I’m making an exception for “Revel,” last November’s show at Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT). For RDT’s 2015-2016 50th anniversary season, “Revel” tapped deeply into the roots of Utah dance.

The technical highlight was RDT alum­nus William “Bill” Evans tap-dancing to live music played by 3hattrio, a band that includes Utah musician and folklorist Hal Cannon. But hands-down the most nostalgic performance was “She,” a tribute to Utah modern dance pioneer Virginia Tanner (1915-1979) who founded both the Tanner Dance studio and Children’s Dance Theatre.

As a parent who has sat though countless Tanner Dance recitals I had tears running down my cheeks. “She” featured multi-generational dancers performing the original Tanner method, right down to a reluctant toddler affectionately scooped into the arms of “Miss Chara” Huckins (the toddler’s mother and one of my own kids’ most beloved dance teachers).

Front and center wearing Tanner-issue pastel PJs was Linda C. Smith, RDT’s executive/artistic director as well as one of the original co-founders.

“I’m glad you were there and felt the energy,” Smith tells me. “I could hardly get through the performance because of how genuine and joyous the experience was. The fact that it transcended the stage is very dear to me.”

Smith, now in her 70s, began her dance career in the 1940s as one of “Miss Virginia’s” students, and RDT still maintains a close relationship with Tanner Dance. University of Utah Modern Dance professor Jacque Lynn Bell (herself a former Tanner Dance student) choreographed the work and Smith says Bell got the mood exactly right: “Each time was a little different, of course, because you never knew what would happen with that three-year-old,” Smith says, but she particularly enjoyed the way the young dancers, innocent of her long career, treated her as their equal on stage: “The little kids would cue me, ‘Linda! Your part is coming up.’”

It’s no accident that RDT has formed such deep roots in the community. After all, that was part of their founding mission. The company started at the Uni­versity of Utah in 1966 with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation intended to “decentralize” the arts. Rather than focusing on the work of a single choreographer, RDT had a mission to preserve a repertory (like a dance museum) as well as to support the creation of new work.

Virginia Tanner thought Utah would be an ideal place for such a project, and the new company deliberately hired dancers who had been through Tanner’s program or other programs at the University of Utah. As a result, Tanner’s philosophy of creative teaching also became part of the RDT mission.

Nowadays it’s hard to imagine Salt Lake City without RDT. Besides modern dance performances, the company offers programs like the Ring-Around-the Rose series to introduce children to the performing arts; RDT Community School with classes from hip-hop to African dance; Arts-in-Education programs for thousands of Utah K-12 students; and workshops and master classes for dancers of all kinds.

RDT was a catalyst behind building the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Cen­ter (can you imagine downtown without it?), and the company is constantly looking for ways to get people from the community onstage. “What distinguishes us from other companies is, every season we try to find a way to build community,” says Smith. “This year we’re doing a project with the Utah Youth Symphony—200 young players—and also with dance students from the University of Utah. We try to find ways to make dance a valid part of the community experience. That’s where dance originated and I believe that’s still the most important quality a dance company should have.”

Fifty years is a charismatic birthday, so of course there is going to be a party. The 50th anniversary gala and performance, Regalia, will be held February 20, 2016 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Cen­ter. Smith describes the event as “like Charette on steroids.” In Charette, choreographers engaged in a semi-serious (and frequently hilarious) competition for the title of Iron Choreographer, while audience members voted with their wallets for their favorite (and were strongly encouraged to bribe the judges).

For Regalia, the prize is real, if still crowd-sourced. RDT has invited four distinguished alumni to compete. They get four hours to create a dance and the audience favorite will get a commission to create a new dance for the company next season. The competitors are Fran­cisco Gella (RDT 1996-98), David Marchant (RDT 1989-91), Marina Harris (RDT choreographer & costumer 1976-96) and Andy Noble (RDT 1998-2004).

The goal of Regalia is to raise money, of course, but Smith says it’s more than that, since “the audience will be a part of the artistic process.” Her intention is to hold a party where 50 years of dancers, choreographers and audience members re-unite to celebrate the past and create something new for the future, very much in the sprit of RDT.

“Dance” can be very magical and very powerful, Smith says. “Why doesn’t everybody know that?”

Regalia, February 20
Rose Wagner, 138 W 300 S, SLC
$50 (Gala tickets, $150, also include 5:30 pm cocktails and 6:30 pm dinner)

7:30 pm Regular ticket holders arrive. All audience members are invited to watch final touches of choreography in studios, peruse silent auction items and opportunity drawings, and enjoy signature cocktails, wine & beer.

8:00 pm Performance. All pieces are performed in the Jeanne Wagner Theatre. Audience will “vote with their wallet” using paddles live in the theatre to decide which choreographer will be awarded with a new commission for RDT next season.

9:00 pm After Party. All are welcome up on to the stage for dancing with the Joe Muscolino Band (and dessert!).

This article was originally published on January 30, 2016.