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Children's Dance Theatre's annual spring production brings to the stage 280 children, 13 choreographers, and hundreds of yards of fabric to tell the story of "Gwinna," a modern-day fairy tale about a young girl's struggle to find her true self.
CDT is the performing arm of the Tanner Dance Program, an arts auxiliary of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Utah. Each spring, the youth company founded by modern-dance pioneer Virginia Tanner in 1937 presents an original full-length piece. The child-centered choreography with professional-level production values sets this performance apart from traditional studio recitals.
"Gwinna's" narrative is adapted from a children's book by Barbara Helen Berger, but the creative process is pure Virginia Tanner. She taught that movement discovery by children, within a teacher-guided structure, makes wholesome yet extraordinary choreography. Teachers from the 13 CDT classes help students originate, edit and refine the movement into a form that fits into the outline of the story.
The philosophy of children developing healthy minds and bodies through creative activity extends to all the newly expanded Tanner programs: Fine Arts Preschool, French Immersion Preschool, Dancers with Disabilities (children and adults), Creative Arts, Summer Arts, Arts in Education Programs and Services, Professional Development For Educators, Tanner Dance Ballet and the performing companies CDT, Tipping Point and In Motion.
Tanner Dance became part of the U. in 1960 and resided in the declining Army barracks on campus before moving in 2015 to the stunningly beautiful Beverley Sorenson Arts and Education Complex. In the barracks, studio space was limited and the costume shop resembled Cinderella's mice in the attic. Now, multiple dance studios with state-of-the-art equipment face out to a view of the Wasatch Mountains, and whirring sewing machines and organized bolts of fabric are the envy of any professional shop.
During a tour of the complex, a young woman glided into the sun-drenched shop for her costume fitting. Now a high-school senior, Annie Connolly started at Tanner Dance in the "parent/tot class" along with her two sisters. Annie's mother, Natalie Connolly, also grew up dancing at the studio along with her two sisters and one brother. It's a tradition that turns out to be more common than not.
"This is an important legacy for generations of Utahns," said Mary Ann Lee, director of the Tanner Dance Program and CDT. "Tanner builds a bridge to the community. Thousands of young people are familiar with the campus because they've been coming here since they were little ones to dance and be part of the arts programs."
As a child, Lee trained with Virginia Tanner and was a member of CDT before leaving Utah to attend college and pursue a professional dance career. The diminutive director is as energetic and age-defying as the children she teaches and is dedicated to incorporating a fine-arts curriculum into the K-6 education degree.
"Beverley Sorenson gave the lead gift to build this complex and shared her incredible vision of bringing the entities of the College of Education, the College of Fine Arts and Tanner Dance together to work collaboratively," Lee said.
Elementary-education majors at the U. are required to take a class each year in one of the fine arts to learn about the form as well as ways to incorporate it into the classroom. It's a sustainable concept, since once in the classroom, the Tanner Professional Development Program is one of the organizations that support the needs of educators to fulfill the Utah State Fine Arts Core Curriculum in schools across the state.
"Gwinna" will be performed for thousands of schoolchildren in addition to public performances at the Capitol Theatre on Friday and Saturday, April 8 and 9. In total, Tanner performances and programs serve 40,000 students annually at the University of Utah and through community outreach.
"We are so fortunate to have the support of the university and a community that understand the importance of a holistic approach to educating and nurturing our children through engagement in the arts," Lee said. "Virginia would have wholeheartedly approved."
Children's Dance Theatre presents a heartwarming fantasy told through original dance and music, based on Barbara Helen Berger's book.
When • Friday, April 8, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, April 9, 2 p.m.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $18-$27; artsaltlake.org/production/gwinna/
Running Time • One hour and 15 minutes
In a nutshell • Gwinna grows up never knowing she can fly. When she hears a mysterious song in the wind, she follows it and meets the Mother of the Owls who shows her how to use her wings. Gwinna's self-discovery sets in motion a quest in search of the secret of the music of the wind.