Joan Woodbury, legendary pioneer of modern dance in Utah, dies at 96

Sept. 21, 1927 — Nov. 1, 2023: As co-founder of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, she helped bring a wave of world-renowned professional dance to the state.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joan Woodbury, one of the founders of the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, photographed in 2009. Woodbury died Nov. 1, 2023, at age 96, her daughter confirmed.

Joan Woodbury, the dancer and choreographer who helped bring modern dance to Utah audiences as co-founder of the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, has died.

Woodbury died Wednesday at Salt Lake City’s LDS Hospital, according to her daughter, Jena Woodbury, who served as executive director of the dance company until last year.

Joan Woodbury was 96.

Woodbury and her artistic partner, Shirley Ririe, formed Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company in 1964, when the pair both taught dance at the University of Utah. The professional partnership continued to Woodbury’s retirement from the company in 2011.

“We’ve known each other and worked together longer than most marriages last,” Woodbury told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2009. “We both believe the same things about dance. That’s what’s made it work.”

Woodbury and Ririe also were one of the earliest cases of job sharing on the University of Utah campus. They both worked as dance instructors at the U. in the 1950s and ′60s — back when dance was part of the physical education department, so they also had to teach swimming. The arrangement allowed the two women to teach and create dance pieces while also raising their families.

“It gave us double the energy in that job,” Ririe told The Tribune in 2009. “We were both giving full time, but we were paid for half. We didn’t care about the pay, just what we could do, and it became very fruitful.”

Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe performing before leading their dance company to a national reputation for its educational programs and artistic innovation.

Woodbury and Ririe — along with Repertory Dance Theatre’s Linda Smith and Ballet West’s Bené Arnold — are credited with giving birth to professional dance in Utah in the 1950s and ′60s.

In the ‘60s, Woodbury told The Tribune in 2009, “there was a new burst of energy and possibility. … It was a time when kids were so hungry for dance. When the ‘60s came, arts departments were growing all over the campus. We were all doing what we wanted to do for the total love of it. It was just a time when people were so open and eager, creative and giving of their time. It was a wonderful time.”

During her decades at Ririe-Woodbury, Woodbury created more than 100 dance works. Many of her pieces experimented with the form and presentation of dance. In “Affectionate Infirmities,” she put dancers on crutches. In “No-Where Bird,” she mixed live dance and film, and, in “L’Invasion,” she incorporated slide projections into the dance.

Woodbury said presenting live dancers with videos of dancers gave audiences “a vision of dance that they normally could not see,” she told The Tribune in 1990. “Individuals will view the dance from different perspectives and have to make a selection of what they watch — whether it be the dancer performing on stage or the image on the screen. There’s an intimacy of seeing a dancer up close. The camera can select things for the audience.”

Her southern Utah roots

Woodbury was born Joan Jones on Sept. 21, 1927, to Lehi and Bernella Jones in Cedar City. Her first five years were spent growing up on the family farm.

“As a kid, I loved to move, to sing, to run, jump, and play out of doors,” Woodbury once said. “It made me feel totally alive. I roamed free on our farm, sliding down haystacks, climbing fences and running barefoot on the dirt roads. I began to understand that It was through movement I understood life.”

When Woodbury was 4, her mother enrolled her in a tap-dancing class. From then on, she said, “I knew that dance was going to be a huge part of my life.”

After graduating from Cedar City High School, she majored in dance at Branch Agricultural College in Cedar City, which later became Southern Utah University. (She received an honorary doctorate from SUU this spring.) It was there she met Charles Woodbury, a World War II veteran and athlete who later pitched for the Salt Lake Bees. They married in 1952.

Her teacher at BAC, LaVeve Whetten, had studied at the University of Wisconsin with the pioneering dance educator Margaret H’Doubler. So, when Woodbury graduated from BAC, she went to Wisconsin for graduate school, to study under H’Doubler as well. Through H’Doubler, Woodbury entered a network of dance instructors that eventually led her to meet her mentor, Alwin Nikolais (with whom Ririe also studied).

Woodbury received her master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1951. That year, the University of Utah hired Woodbury as the school’s first full-time dance instructor, under what was then the physical education department.

She taught there for 47 years.

(Lynn R. Johnson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joan Woodbury, left, works with Julie Aragon in preparation for a performance at the University of Utah in 1997.

At the U., she met Shirley Ririe, and they created their first dance together, “On the Boards.” They then founded a semiprofessional company, called Choreodancers.

Fulbright scholar

In 1955, Woodbury became the first dancer to receive a Fulbright scholarship, which allowed her to go to Berlin to study with Mary Wigman, a pioneer in expressionist dance. Woodbury was pregnant when she and Charlie took a ship across the Atlantic; they arrived in Berlin a month before their eldest child, Todd, was born.

While Woodbury was in Germany, Ririe temporarily took over her teaching post at the U. Woodbury, Ririe and department chair Elizabeth Hayes grew the dance department into a nationally recognized unit.

In 1964, Ririe and Woodbury formed the dance company that bears their names. For the next two years, the troupe toured on weekends and during school breaks throughout Utah and into Arizona and Southern California.

Ririe-Woodbury took a hiatus from 1966 to 1969, when Woodbury was asked to be the artistic director of the newly formed Repertory Dance Theatre. One of RDT’s original eight dancers was Linda Smith, who took over as that company’s executive and artistic director in 1983.

Ririe-Woodbury reopened in the upstairs studio of the U.’s dance building in 1969. In 1972, the company went full time, thanks to an assist from Nikolais that helped them receive the approval of a National Endowment for the Arts program, which sent Ririe-Woodbury to tour all 50 states, plus Canada, Puerto Rico, Europe, the South Pacific and Asia. One tour, sponsored by the U.S. State Department, sent the company to South Korea and Mongolia. When the group toured, Woodbury went in the fall, Ririe in the winter, and they took turns in the spring.

Woodbury retired from the U. in 1999 and from Ririe-Woodbury in 2011. Her daughter, Jena, then the company manager, took the title of executive director, which she held until 2022.

Woodbury is survived by three children — Todd (and wife Heidi Dewitt), Jeffrey (and wife Deborah Shore), Jena (and partner Casey Jarman) — as well as two grandchildren, a brother, Kenneth Jones, and her professional partner, Shirley Ririe. Her husband, Charlie, died in 2015. Three siblings, Marilyn Siddoway, Cindy Jones Liine and Kerry Jones, also died previously.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

(Ryan Galbraith | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe in 2004.