When Salt Lake City’s Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company received an invitation to tour Mongolia and South Korea as cultural ambassadors on behalf of the U.S. State Department, it was in the last days of the Obama administration.
Now, as the company prepares to leave May 1, the Salt Lake City dancers are appreciating the notion of a possible international summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Ririe-Woodbury could volunteer to lead a session in physical movement as an international cultural ice-breaker, jokes Daniel Charon, the company’s artistic director.
More serious, he says, is the way art can break down barriers in a divisive political environment. Gender-neutral partnering, for example, can appear profound for viewers who aren’t used to seeing it.
“We’re doing our job right if we can provoke conversations around what we are doing,” Charon says. “We can walk into a studio with a bunch of people who aren’t dancers, and we can ask them to move, and everybody can move right away. It releases them and empowers them.”
The DanceMotion USA tour emphasizes community workshops — listening, says R-W dancer Mary Lyn Graves — as well as performing. Education is a key element of the company’s founding mission. As Graves says: “It’s in our bones.”
DanceMotion, now in its last year, is a partnership of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and U.S. State Department. Over seven years, the program has sent 20 American companies to perform for more than 15,000 people in nine countries. DanceMotion USA has extended its reach to millions more through international collaborations and social media posts (hashtag: #DMUSA).
There’s no application process. Instead, Ririe-Woodbury received the invitation — one of only three companies invited on this year’s tour — based on its reputation for exceptionally trained dancers with excellent technique, says Joseph V. Melillo, BAM executive producer. “Their works of art are intelligently structured and thrilling to watch,” he said in an email interview. “In addition to their artistic work, their educational programs and their community engagement is also outstanding.”
The company will perform without props or lighting and with simple costumes. Charon says he looks forward to connections that could translate to inviting international artists to Utah to continue the conversation by making dances together.
“We’re not trained diplomats,” Graves says. “We’re citizens and we’re artists. That gives us a different sort of experience as we go to a country.”
For Graves, the tour and “Return” — the last segment of Charon’s “Together Alone” trilogy, which the company will perform at the Regent Street Theater next weekend — offer full-circle moments. After six years with Ririe-Woodbury, the 28-year-old Louisiana native is leaving the company to plan a move to New York City.
DanceMotion is her second international trip with the company, after performing on a French tour in March. “It’s a very unique way to see the world through theaters,” she says.
The Asian trip offers a profound personal stake for Graves, as her grandfather Don Graves fought in the Korean War’s Battle of Pork Chop Hill, a controversial battle that took place in 1953 when U.S., Chinese and Korean officials were negotiating the armistice that ended the war.
“He’s interested in seeing the country through my eyes, seeing how it’s grown and developed,” she says of her grandfather, who was sent home from Korea to recover from serious injuries. He went on to attend college on the G.I. Bill and became a teacher and school superintendent in Yukon, Okla.
Upcoming performances give Graves a chance to reflect on what she’s learned as a dancer and teacher at Ririe-Woodbury. The company performed Charon’s “Storm” last week while on a Texas tour to enthusiastic responses from audiences; it’s one of the four works R-W will perform on the DanceMotion tour.
“Return” also gives Graves a chance to reflect on the movements she’s helped create and performed while working with Charon and her colleagues. She appreciates Charon’s spatial — and spacious — works. “He’ll show a combination in class,” she says, “and the complexity is so woven in, when you’re watching it you don’t even realize it. It’s a beautiful challenge.”
The company describes “Return” as a science-fiction-inspired dance that invites viewers to consider their future selves as a result of interactions with technology. The dance features an original score performed by Salt Lake Electric Ensemble and costumes by Laura Kiechle.
Graves was the first person on the stage in the segment that launched Charon’s “Together Alone” trilogy three years ago, and she’s likely to be the last person onstage as the work comes to an end, the choreographer says.
Ririe-Woodbury’s ‘Return’<br> When • Thursday-Saturday, April 26-28, 7:30 p.m.; family matinee at 1 p.m. Saturday, April 28<br>Where • Regent Street Theater, 144 S. Regent St., Salt Lake City<br>Tickets • $35 ($15 students/seniors); $10 family matinee; 801-355-ARTS or arttix.org