Thirty-six years ago, Elizabeth Hayes brought two irresistible forces together.
"You must meet Shirley Ririe," she said to Joan Woodbury. (Both were teaching in the University of Utah dance department, where Hayes was chairman.)Hayes' instincts proved correct. Bringing Joan and Shirley together precipitated an artistic combustion, a fitting of light bulb into socket, a meeting of the minds and crazy bones, that has led to one of Utah's longest and most fruitful artistic collaborations.
"It's been a case of 35 years with the right woman," laughed Joan Woodbury.
The two paused before a rehearsal at the Capitol Theater, to talk about the times and fortunes of the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, now celebrating its 25th season. Since 1964, they have been artistic directors and principal choreographers for R-W; also alternate dancers, chief fundraisers and worriers, regisseurs and cheerleaders.
During those 25 years R-W has stabilized as a company of six dancers, with an office staff of four salaried employees and three interns, and a budget that ranges from $375,000 to $450,000. For a time the most widely-toured company in American schools, R-W has danced in almost every state in the Union, touring internationally to Canada, Sweden, Portugal, Hong Kong, Australia and South Africa. None of this was dreamed of in the beginning.
Joan Woodbury came on faculty at the University of Utah in 1951, after completing a degree at the University of Wisconsin, and Shirley Ririe in 1955, having worked with Alwin Nikolais in New York and taught for a time at BYU. During the '50s they choreographed a great deal on the students, but both were very busy with homemaking and child-rearing as well.
"Nikolais came out for summer workshops, and he said we should form a company, and we should call it by our names," said Shirley. "Murray Louis gave us two of his dances to get started, and in 1964 Ririe-Woodbury gave its first show. We experimented with plastics, paper and all kinds of materials. In 1969 we gave a light show with eight projectors, which laid the groundwork for much of what we have since done with lights and slides."
At first they used only their own choreographies, and Shirley estimates she has made 150 dances, counting large and small pieces, for company and students; Joan is sure of 100, probably more. Always interested in mixed media, they have lately experimented with computer-generated effects.
Between November 1987 and April 1988 the women produced a sunburst of 35 original dances, beginning with their "Video Visions" dance and film collaboration, and ending with the Bobby McFerrin show.
Over the years they have had guest choreographers like Utahns Loa (Mangelson) Clawson and Donna Smith, and besides Nikolais and Louis, such nationally prominent artists as Tandy Beal, Bill Evans, Allison Chase, Jamey Hampton, and Kei Tekei. "We have tried to afford a guest a year," said Shirley.
In 1965 something wonderful happened - the creation of the National Endowment for the Arts, and its generous allocations for dance touring and dance in the schools. As it happened, the fledgling Ririe-Woodbury company was positioned to ride the crest of a national wave.
"In 1969 four of us began touring - besides Shirley and me, Dee Winterton and Blaine Chambers," said Joan. "You had to have at least 15 professional shows a year to get NEA support. We went out and did 50 shows in schools one year, at $50 a show, so we could get on the NEA roster.
"By 1972 we had made it, and we took off. We hired six dancers, went professional and went easy, no drumming up business or money," Shirley recalled wistfully. "The schools received two-thirds of our costs in NEA grants. They just called and made dates, and we would go for two-weeks' residencies." R-W's children's shows are nationally famous.
The Reagan cuts in arts support hit the dance-touring and artists in schools programs hard. Since NEA funds evaporated, R-W has become leaner and meaner, living off the economy as best they can. They have built up their home base, often scoring significant coups in programming and fund raising, and toured the hard way. However, things are looking up; touring this year includes a five weeks' residency in Massachusetts. The company is invited to Berlin next year for a festival, and they expect to pick up some other European dates to make this possible.
The good years of the `70s caught them by surprise. "We didn't foresee being fulltime dancers," said Joan. "We had been zany and lighthearted at first - we ate, slept and breathed dance, true enough, and we choreographed always, but business was incidental. There was more talk about the spirit of dance, we could be idealistic because our jobs at the University paid our way, and until 1979 we had no fundraising to do.
"Now dancers are very concerned about their lives and careers," Shirley pointed out. "Our young peoples' number one priority is to be dancers. They take classes to stay fit, they are in superb shape. We want our dancers to have a living wage, and our improved touring situation promises more, though most of them have other jobs to make ends meet."
"Bobby McFerrin last year was a stroke of genius. We sold out, and we cleared enough to pull us through, pay salaries and finish pretty near the black," said Joan. "We just keep going, figuring out what we can give up, what we can do to make things work, and we do very little deficit spending."
"At our ages, wouldn't you think we'd be more sedate?" she said with a laugh. Joan's been sidelined for several years by knee and hip surgeries, but Shirley still dances. "We'd like to have more time for ourselves now, though I am surely doing what I like to do, if not for the financial worries."
"We hope the two tapes we made about teaching improvisation will sell well nationally," Shirly added. "We have been very lucky that people keep cropping up every year in the community who want to help us, and we have not lost the sense of what we are about."
That awareness includes cultivating the Ririe-Woodbury look, an indefinable something compounded of certain body stances and movements, ways of holding and using the limbs, reckless thrust and exuberance, and fluid body flow. "It takes about two seasons for a dancer to assimilate the Ririe-Woodbury style, to eliminate individual mannerisms," said Joan.
Personal pressures have closed in. Joan lost both my parents in one year, and a couple of years later, Shirley lost both hers in one year. They want to spend more time with their husbands, and in traveling, and Shirley now has eight grandchildren to keep track of.
Both have been in demand for workshops and guest teaching. Joan has taught for Nikolais in New York, France and London, and Shirley has taught in Brussels, Hong Kong, Canada and South Africa. Both have given a great deal of time to national boards and panels - Joan to the national dance panel, Shirley with the artists in education panel and Young Audiences, both as consultants.
Each has cut her teaching at the U. to one quarter a year, and they split their schedule of supervising the company, only touring together to major events such as Kennedy Center appearances, or international conferences.
Both are somewhat bemused but delighted at the serendipitous turns their lives have taken. "We've done things we never dreamed of doing, and always in a profession that we love," they agreed.