The yearlong celebration opens Thursday with a show aptly titled "The Start of Something Big" which features a restaging of R-W's first performance from 1964, as well as the premiere of "Everything That Changes," a new work choreographed by Charon.
"This is the time to celebrate Shirley [Ririe] and Joan [Woodbury] and their contribution," Charon said. "This is a company that strives for a contemporary approach, but it is exciting and appropriate to kick off this 50th anniversary season by acknowledging the arc of the company, beginning with where it came from."
The restaging will include choreography by founders Ririe and Woodbury and by their earliest influences and supporters, famed modern-dance makers Murray Louis and Alwin Nikolais. An early film of the company and program notes promise to add context for those unfamiliar with R-W's history and its impact on Salt Lake City's dance audiences, dance education in Utah, and the enormous change in modern dance in America over the past 50 years.
In December, R-W honors former company members with an alumni concert in the more intimate setting of the Black Box Theater at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. In January a newly conceived family-oriented performance by R-W kindred soul Tandy Beal will freshen up the current children's show. And closing the season in April, "Accelerate" signals the future with three new works by Doug Varone, R-W alumnus and choreographer Miguel Azcue, and Charon.
"The season was planned before I was hired, so it is a bit of a happy coincidence that they'd commissioned a collaboration between my mentor Doug Varone and University of Utah dance professor Ellen Bromberg," Charon said. "I danced with Doug Varone and Dancers for 10 years."
Charon was also Varone's rehearsal assistant and set 20 of Varone's works while exploring his own artistic voice through choreography in New York City. Earlier this year, Charon finished an MFA in choreography and integrated media at the California Institute of the Arts. He said the job at R-W could not have come at a better time or be more suited for him.
"I'm 40 years old and I was ready to leave New York if there was an opportunity to do so," he said. "I danced hard for a long time and I successfully pursued my own choreography on a project-by-project basis. Going to graduate school gave me time for introspection and I was ready to not be the focus of attention onstage. I was ready to be behind-the-scenes and support the success of other people within and through an organization."
That doesn't mean he is done choreographing, but he sees it as one part of the job. Ideas flow quickly as he brainstorms out loud about taking chances on new and younger choreographers from around the country as well as those rising within Salt Lake's dance scene. But his thoughts always return to the health of the company and the health of the community.
"Having a contemporary approach means taking risks and managing those risks, but for this concert it is a thrill to see the joy in Shirley and Joan's faces when they are in the studio," Charon said. "And the dancers are so respectful and willing to go with it!"
The rehearsal studio is a bit like a fountain of youth for Woodbury (born in 1927 in Cedar City) and Ririe (born in 1929 in Salt Lake City), and the years seem to disappear as they instruct the dancers and recall stories about the early days traveling between New York City and Utah.
"We wanted to dance and we wanted to educate children in the schools about what real art and dance could be, but we also wanted to have fun doing it," Woodbury said.
Nikolais and Louis each gifted R-W a piece of choreography to help their fledgling company get started. Nikolais made them promise not to tell anyone about the donation, since his work was in demand at the time. So "Striped Celebrants" was given a choreographer's pseudonym until the piece became so famous, through Nikolais' performances, that the inside joke had to be revealed.
"Murray and Nik wanted us to succeed," Ririe said. "We studied with them in New York and transported the ideas out here. We were in the right place at the right time."
Ririe and Woodbury agree that modern dance now is too serious. They say the subject matter is bleak, the costumes are dark and look like street clothes, and the dancers' faces in performance are grim.
"Our current dancers watched one of the films of us back then," Woodbury said. "One of them said, 'Wow, you guys were wacky, we need to have more fun!' "
Although the founders are excited by Charon's vision for the company and are 100 percent ready to hand over the reins, neither octogenarian will be riding into the sunset any time soon.
About Daniel Charon
Some facts about the new artistic director of the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company:
Age • 40
Born • Moorhead, Minn.
Education • Studied at Columbia College, Chicago; bachelor's degree, North Carolina School of the Arts; received MFA in choreography and integrated media this year from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).
Professional work • Ten seasons (1999-2010) as full-time company member of Doug Varone and Dancers, an iconic postmodern troupe. He also was a member of the LimÃ³n Dance Company (1996-99) and has performed with other well-known troupes. His choreography has been performed at 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Festival, at Jacob's Pillow and the Dance Complex, among other groups.
Other expertise • A broad working knowledge of digital technology, which he incorporates into his choreography.
When • Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 26-28.
Showtimes • 7:30 each night.
Where • JeannÃ© Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $35, at ArtTix outlets or ArtTix.org.