Modern Times

June 21, 2007

Salt Lake City’s Repertory Dance Theatre has created a living museum of classic 20th century choreography.



When the Rockefeller Foundation approached Linda C. Smith about the possibility of establishing a modern dance company in Salt Lake City, she was stunned. The idea of Rockefeller seed money underwriting a salaried professional repertory ensemble seemed unbelievable. But it was the ’60s. Definitions were crumbling, artists were heaving out the old assumptions, and arts funding in the United States was entering its most imaginative and expansive period. In 1966 the Rockefeller’s philanthropic gamble launched the Repertory Dance Theatre, now celebrating its 40th anniversary as an anchor component of the Salt Lake City arts community.


Prompted by the influential Utah modern dance educator Virginia Tanner, the Rockefeller Foundation envisioned a small company that would function leaderless, an “artistic democracy” performing revivals of landmark dances as well as new works. Repertory—in the sense long accepted for opera and symphonic music—has been a difficult concept for modern dance. Companies lived uncertainly from year to year, fed by the creative energies and personal charisma of their leaders, and convinced that to be “modern” meant dispensing with the past. By the mid-’60s only one major company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, regularly showed the work of several choreographers, but like its peers Ailey’s identity in the world bore the imprint of its artistic director. Given the highly individual, choreographer-centric nature of the field, it took an outside agency to create a different model.


Repertory Dance Theatre was conceived as a permanent company committed not to any single artist’s dreams but to modern dance as a whole. A collective enterprise with no particular stylistic territory to protect or promote, RDT set out to explore what a living archive might look like. Within three years the eight-dancer company had taken on challenges as diverse as José Limón’s formal Vivaldi Concerto Grosso, Anna Sokolow’s angst-ridden Steps of Silence, and the lush lyricism of Nocturne by Donald McKayle. At a time when freelancing was almost unknown in modern dance, early commissions to Geoffrey Holder, Glen Tetley, and John Butler established RDT as a working instrument for choreographers without companies of their own. In addition, RDT set out to encourage local choreographic talent, especially from within its own ranks.


The company began life as artists in residence in a converted World War II army barracks on the campus of The University of Utah. The university contributed in-kind support, and its dance department trained many of the original dancers, but RDT was to remain artistically auto-nomous. While the company worked out its game plan, the Rockefeller money was gradually phased out, as intended. For the first decade, RDT functioned as a collective, building a repertory and a reputation both locally and more broadly as a participant in the National Endowment for the Arts Dance Touring Program. In 1972 they began giving six-week summer sessions that attracted 150–200 students and brought in vital revenue.


Teaching was also an important source of income for the dancers as their initial 52-week contract gradually stabilized at between 30 and 35 weeks. While the company was housed at the U. of Utah—parallel but not attached to the dance department—on-campus teaching activities were necessarily limited. Today most RDT dancers teach part-time at area colleges and universities or in the company’s own school. Smith describes RDT’s classes in modern, ballet, jazz, hip hop, flamenco, African, and ballroom as a service to the community rather than training for dance professionals.


Linda Smith and Kay Clark were elected as artistic coordinators in 1977, and the leadership passed to Smith after Kay Clark moved to California in 1983. By then the company had acquired works by most of the pioneers. They had produced a survey evening, “Then: The Early Years of Modern Dance” and collected enough Doris Humphrey dances to fill a program. Later surveys and “American Masters” programs extended from the early years of American concert dance to Merce Cunningham and postmodern pioneer Yvonne Rainer. Company dancers like Tim Wengerd and Bill Evans made new works, along with contemporary choreographers Lar Lubovitch and Jennifer Muller, and postmoderns Douglas Dunn and Viola Farber. The ’70s ended and the dance boom decelerated, along with ambitious schemes for new theaters. RDT began a search for a new home that continued for the next 20 years.


Determined to leave their barracks at The U. of Utah, they looked at unsuitable buildings and pursued one doomed plan after another. In 1985 the university announced plans for a new dance building, without space for the company. Looking to strengthen their campaign for an off-campus home, in 1989 RDT spearheaded the formation of a consortium of area groups, the Performing Arts Coalition, to find a location, plan, fund-raise, and ultimately realize a building. When the U.U. barracks were finally demolished in 1992, the company moved into the first of a series of temporary spaces downtown.


Anticipating the 2002 Olympics, the city was revitalizing its downtown area, with arts facilities as a major component. In 1993 Salt Lake County purchased an industrial site, the Restaurant Equipment and Supply Company, to develop the PAC project. The proponents launched a major drive to raise what eventually amounted to over $15 million for a new building. Early in the process, they gained a superb benefactor in Izzi Wagner, a local businessman who had actually been born on the RESCO site, who’d lived and built a recycling business there, and who endowed the future performing arts center as a memorial to his mother, Rose Wagner, and to his dancer wife, Jeanné, and his sister Leona.


The Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center grew in two phases. The first, opened in 1997, houses RDT’s offices and studios, the Leona Wagner Black Box Theater, and a smaller space now used for experimental theater productions. In 2001 Phase II was completed, with more office and studio spaces and the beautiful 500-seat Jeanné Wagner mainstage surrounded by a sweeping, windowed lobby and gallery spaces. The entire building is owned and administered by Salt Lake County. RDT, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, and the Gina Bachauer Piano Competition are regular residents, with other community groups and private functions renting spaces when the schedule allows.


RDT’s 40th anniversary season kicked off in September with “Touchstone,” a program that could be a microcosm of its eclectic mission over the years. Acknowledging its kinship to Virginia Tanner—Linda Smith and several other company members started their dance life in Tanner’s Children’s Dance Theatre—the company revived the 1978 showcase Together, with sections choreographed by former RDT dancer Tina Misaka Mary Ann Lee (now the director of CDT), Linda Smith, and Kay Clark. Almost 50 CDT children from tots to teenagers joined the company dancers in a celebration of multigenerational musicality.


Veteran RDT choreographer-designer Marina Harris contributed a lyrical solo for dancer Lynn Listing, and Todd Allen, now dancing and choreographing in New York, represented all RDT alumni dancers with his own introspective solo Lend Me Your Hot Licks.


Allen also took one of the adult male roles in Together, having learned every move from the wings as a boy. Initiated into Virginia Tanner’s classes at the age of 3, he went onstage a year later and hasn’t exited yet. Allen says he thinks of Virginia Tanner as his artistic grandmother and his exposure to choreographers of many persuasions during his six years with RDT as excellent preparation for the variety of dance opportunities he finds in New York.


Laura Dean’s late-minimalist Sky Light (1982) was acquired by the company in 1991. Its propulsive geometric patterns and high-intensity stepping, spinning teamwork have made it a great favorite with RDT audiences.


RDT first commissioned New York choreographer Zvi Gotheiner in 1993, and since then they’ve forged a productive relationship yielding half a dozen works. For the 40th, Gotheiner made Bricks, a dance-theater piece that evoked the company’s own struggle to build a home and a working collaborative. The dance was a process. Three overlapping layers of activity played out over its 40-minute life span. People worked at constructing rudimentary walls and doorways out of plastic blocks. One or two at a time they danced their personal dramas. And in the background, like some necessary, taken-for-granted engine, they performed a series of closely-woven group dances that seemed to have the capacity to continue evolving indefinitely.


The piece suggested not only the RDT story but today’s news of shelter, home, territoriality, hope, despair, and refuge. When someone accidentally knocked over the biggest wall during the second performance, the metaphor became poignantly real as the dancers struggled to repair and rebuild while they finished the rest of the dance. New metaphors arose: New Orleans, September 11th, and the effortful journey to the Rose Building itself.


On Sunday after the final performance, the company left on a two-week tour of Idaho and Montana. A few days later I asked Linda Smith on the phone what she saw as RDT’s next big challenge. Security, she said, sustaining the company by strengthening the opportunities for individuals and maintaining ties with the community. Smith hopes to commission more works based on real world themes, like the landscape and history of the West. Most of all, she thinks about keeping the dancers working with the company even after they stop performing, “so we don’t lose this marvelous institutional memory and everything we’ve learned.”


Marcia B. Siegel visited Salt Lake City in September to give talks and a writing workshop at RDT. Her relationship with the company began in 1979, when she authored the script for the program, “Then: The Early Years of Modern Dance.” Siegel’s new book,
Howling Near Heaven—Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance, will be published by St. Martin’s Press next month.