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Utah was settled by arts-loving people who, famously, built a social hall and theater soon after their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. But it was in the restless 1960s that the state's reputation as a regional hot spot for dance solidified. Those were the years when Salt Lake City's three acclaimed professional dance companies came into being -- an unprecedented phenomenon for a city of its size.
The talent and passion of four extraordinary women, all living legends, were essential to the gestation of Ballet West, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company and Repertory Dance Theatre.
Joan Woodbury, Shirley Ririe, Linda Smith and Bené Arnold not only presided at the birth of professional dance in Utah, their determination and dedication continue to nurture companies, the quality of dance education and the continuation of the state's fine-arts legacy.
Each woman remains active, vibrant and deeply involved in her profession, though all are past retirement age. And even though they have competed for audiences and funding over the years, they are bound by mutual respect, common goals and shared memories. Of Utah's 1960s dance scene, Woodbury says: "There was a new burst of energy and possibility."
And there was a nucleus of talented people to take advantage of it. It was a time when community excitement over conductor Maurice Abravanel's professionalizing of the Utah Symphony spilled over into the dance world. Willam Christensen, former artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, had returned to Utah in the 1950s and was itching to create a professional ballet company in this home state.
The decade's penchant for experimentation and boundary-busting heightened interest in modern dance, as well. New Yorker Elizabeth Hayes had already raised the standard of dance instruction at the U. through the 1940s and '50s, and Utah native Virginia Tanner was attracting national attention with her Children's Dance Theatre and her vision for modern dance.
Ririe and Woodbury, Utah natives who had trained in New York and Europe, had been job-sharing a position on the U.'s modern-dance faculty since the mid-1950s -- the beginnings of a relationship now in its sixth decade. Both were mothers of young families, who covered academic duties for each other as they took turns bearing their children and attending to family needs.
"It gave us double the energy in that job," Ririe said. "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."
"We've known each other and worked together longer than most marriages last," Woodbury said. "We both believe the same things about dance. That's what's made it work."
The two professors formed alliances with national leaders on the modern-dance scene, such as Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis, and brought them to Utah for workshops. And they invented ways to continue their own performing careers -- supporting their dance habit with their teaching salaries while forming a company in 1964 that was the forerunner of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company.
"We would just bring our kids to the rehearsal," Ririe said. "My kids told me all kinds of stories later about what they did to stay busy. They felt like they owned the campus. They had a great time growing up."
Smith grew up in Salt Lake City, dancing in Virginia Tanner's Children's Dance Theatre. She studied at the U. with Ririe and Woodbury, among others. When Tanner secured a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1966 to form a professional modern-dance repertory company, Smith was in Detroit. She was recruited back to Utah to become a founding member of Repertory Dance Theatre.
"They carefully selected eight dancers, with a mission to be an artistic democracy," Smith said. "Those were the times -- those were the '60s. People were looking at new models for administration. It was a daring experiment, and many thought it would not survive. But here we are -- an artistic democracy from which would emerge a way to create the first successful American dance repertory company."
As RDT became more successful, more structure was necessary; Smith has been executive/artistic director since 1983. Woodbury, who knows what it takes to run a company, is impressed by Smith's accomplishment. "I have utmost respect for what Linda has done in keeping RDT together all these years. That's hard. Shirley and I have each other. She's done it alone, and that's quite remarkable."
Arnold got her first look at Utah in the 1950s while traveling and performing with San Francisco Ballet, where she later worked as the company's ballet mistress. "We all were impressed with the passion that we found here and how much enthusiasm there was for the art form," Arnold said.
The positive impression influenced Arnold to come to Utah for university study in 1961. Christensen knew her from their years with San Francisco Ballet and included her in discussions about starting a professional ballet company in Salt Lake City.
In 1963, when Utah Civic Ballet (later Ballet West) became Utah's first professional dance company, Arnold held the critical role of ballet mistress -- the first in a series of positions that would make her the living icon and institutional memory of Utah's ballet scene.
Part of that memory includes working with her dance colleagues to create something from nothing. "We didn't have a budget," Arnold said. "We desired it, we wanted it, and it was important. We wanted to make professionalism happen here, and everybody just went for it."
Smith, who was coming into her own as a modern dancer at the time, remembers Arnold's contribution. "I was always fascinated with the energy Bené gave in helping that company to grow and develop into a nationally renowned company," Smith said. "She brought wonderful talent and vision."
The challenge of getting the companies through their infancy was only the first stage of a long process. Each of the fledgling companies went through an adolescent period in which the artists who created them had to re-create themselves as administrators.
"At a certain point, you are given the great opportunity to do long-range planning, to administrate and to make the company continue," Smith said. "You have to call on those creative skills to administrate, fund-raise and teach all the things that are necessary in the dance world. All of us have had to do that. For me, RDT has been like a university. ... I have to say that if you want dance to continue in the lives of our communities, large and small, you have to find a way to make that happen. You have to learn how to make that happen."
The three professional companies, and the university dance departments that spawned them, are fully mature now. But for Arnold, Smith, Ririe and Woodbury, the work never stops.
Arnold, who followed her Ballet West career with a 26-year stint as a ballet professor at the U., retired in 2001. She returned as interim head of the ballet department last fall, an open-ended position that will continue at least through the next academic year.
Arnold reveres the U.'s arts departments as the crucible where such groups as the Utah Symphony, Ballet West, Ririe-Woodbury and RDT sprang into being, and can barely believe she is back in the middle of the action. "It's a lot of hard work," she said, "but you do become born again. You realize what had been missing in your life. I am pleased to be back, even though it will be for a short time. It's worth everything."
Ririe and Woodbury are taking steps to ensure a smooth transfer of leadership in their company. Ririe works part time for the company now -- more during legislative sessions, when she becomes an irresistible political advocate for arts-education funding.
Woodbury continues as the company's executive director, but is preparing to turn the position over to her daughter Jena Thompson Woodbury, who spent her growing-up years in theater wings and dance studios around the world as she traveled with her mother.
"It's very heart-warming to know that this is going to be carried on through her," Joan Woodbury said. "She has a wonderful philosophy of dance and understands how important education is to the future of dance."
Smith, youngest of the four, continues as RDT's executive/artistic director, with respect for the past and an eye to the future. She believes the reasons Utah's settlers made theater, music and dance a part of their lives are still valid ones for sustaining the arts community she and her colleagues have worked so hard to advance.
"It's a socializing mechanism," Smith said. "A place to gather to have wonderful activities that bring people together and establish entertainment on a higher plane -- a rich resource for a community that helps nurture growth, citizenship -- all those wonderful qualities we want in a community, like creativity and a place for young people to expand their interests."
All four recognize that ensuring survival of their artistic offspring, their companies as well as dance programs throughout the state, is a continuing struggle. "We've been here so long that people think we'll always be here," Arnold said. "They forget that in order for us to maintain this uniqueness, we must have the support of the community."
Background » 73; born in Texas; reared in Kansas, Missouri and California; mentors included Ballet West co-founder Willam Christensen and his brothers Harold and Lew.
Contributions » After a dance and teaching career with San Francisco Ballet, Arnold moved to Utah to study. In 1963, Christensen asked her to become ballet mistress for the company that would become Ballet West. She began teaching ballet at the University of Utah in 1975, returning last fall after retirement to serve as interim chairwoman of the U.'s ballet department. Arnold's firm, but affectionate, teaching style influenced more than 10,000 Utah children during her long reign as ballet mistress of children's casts for Ballet West's "Nutcracker" and as a teacher in the company's teaching programs. She continues to perform in character roles with Ballet West.
Arnold on teaching ballet » "Teaching is the most wonderful part of life. To impart to other people what you know -- whether they become a professional dancer, or teacher in a university, or have a school, or if they marry and become a parent, or enter another profession -- it is the most gratifying, wonderful thing that could ever touch anyone's life, and particularly, my life."
Background » 81; from Cedar City; studied with German dance icon Mary Wigman while on a Fulbright fellowship in Germany. Also influential: American innovators Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis.
Contributions » Co-founded Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company in 1964. Choreographed more than 95 works for Ririe-Woodbury and others. Noted for management skills as R-W's executive director, a position she will turn over to her daughter, associate executive director Jena Thompson Woodbury. Also: taught modern dance at the University of Utah for 47 years.
Woodbury on the University of Utah's artistic climate in the 1960s » "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."
Background » 80; from Salt Lake City; studied with Elizabeth Hayes, who built the University of Utah's dance department through the 1940s and '50s; met Alwin Nikolais while she was earning a master's degree at New York University; after studying with him, helped bring the dance-theater pioneer to Utah for workshops.
Contributions » Co-founded Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company in 1964. Choreographed more than 100 works for the company and others. Noted for her political acumen and tireless support of arts education. Also: taught in the University of Utah's modern-dance department for 39 years and also taught at Brigham Young University.
Ririe's advice for parents » "Find something your child really enjoys, really loves, in the arts ... where they can make a connection with themselves. They're not getting it in elementary schools, mostly, and that's where it should be happening. If parents don't step up, children don't have a chance to experience the arts in their lives. Parents need to push for arts instruction in the schools."
Background » 68; from Salt Lake City; was a charter member of Virginia Tanner's Children's Dance Theatre and counts Tanner as her primary mentor; also studied with modern-dance pioneer Helen Tamiris.
Contributions » Founding member in 1966 of Repertory Dance Theatre, the first successful modern-dance repertory company in the world; became its executive director in 1983. Instrumental in the creation of Salt Lake City's Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center; noted for her work in dance preservation. Also: A vocal advocate of dance education, Smith has given teaching presentations in more than 1,000 schools. She teaches dance at the University of Utah.
Smith on balancing dance and family » "I'm a wife, a mother and a grandmother. I was able to do that in Utah, and I don't know if I could have done that in other places. Somehow, dancers think they have to just dance -- just do one thing. I wanted it all. I was able to have that opportunity in Utah, and I thank this community for that. I think there was more freedom here to develop as an artist and still enjoy another kind of lifestyle."