After a decade as artistic director of Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, Charlotte Boye-Christensen is stepping down to found a new interdisciplinary dance company called NOW in Salt Lake City.
The amicable parting leaves Ririe-Woodbury with big shoes to fill on the advent of the company’s 50th anniversary. Boye-Christensen is only the company’s second artistic director since its founding in 1964 by Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe. “Charlotte has been phenomenal for the company,” says managing director Jena Woodbury. “We want the new director,” Daniel Charon, a choreographer and former dancer with Doug Varone, among others, “to maintain the high level of quality and contemporary edge Charlotte brought.”
Boye-Christensen has been commissioned by companies from Cuba to Singapore and is noted for a strong point of view in her work. “She has staked out a very new, quite singular, physical territory,” says Eric Handman, choreographer and assistant professor at the University of Utah’s Department of Modern Dance.
The decision to leave RW was difficult, Boye-Christensen says, but the job of artistic director was so demanding that it took away from her energy to choreograph. NOW is poised to fulfill her long-term ambition “to bring the eyes and talents of the world to Salt Lake City, and a Salt Lake City perspective to the world.”
The decision also comes with a change in her personal life: She plans to marry artist and architect Nathan Webster. The two have partnered on several experimental collaborations in the past, and Webster, as a co-founder of NOW, is a key figure in its inaugural project in July titled The Wedding. (Read more about the production here.)
“I will miss the experience of absorbing Charlotte’s movement into my body directly from her,” says RW dancer Tara Roszeen McArthur. “Her voracity for creating new material is inspiring.”
Photo courtesy RW.
Strong and committed, onstage and off
Christopher Peddecord, Courtesy RDT
Toni Lugo, of Salt Lake City’s Repertory Dance Theatre, added to her dance bag of tricks last year by taking acting classes. In a recent rehearsal for RDT’s upcoming spring program, “Women of Valor,” Lugo demonstrated her newly mastered skill of delivering a monologue while dancing, which she had also honed through performing in local theater productions. The concert honors women who have served in the military, and through movement and spoken word, Lugo’s solo tells the story of the first woman to break the glass ceiling as an army mechanic. Lugo’s confident voice, sinewy muscle, and feminine features challenge all preconceived notions of mechanics as burly, macho guys.
Lugo’s signature style combines a sassy leap-before-you-look commitment (perhaps related to her childhood love of hockey and speed skating) with a knowledge of the American masters of modern dance. She is now in her sixth year with RDT, a company founded in 1966 as a repository of work by leading modern dance–makers. In adapting to a repertory that spans 100 years of stylistic changes, from José Limón to Yvonne Rainer to Zvi Gotheiner, “the body can be expected to take some pretty unpredictable twists and turns,” Lugo says. Fortunately, her early Graham and Limón training—at a performing arts high school in Orlando, Florida, and at the University of South Florida—make the contractions, swings, and falls familiar territory.
RDT’s schedule includes four season performances, out-of-state touring, and extensive educational programs in public schools. To keep up with the demands, Lugo has developed a strict regimen of nutrition, pre- and post-class warm-ups, and mental health practices.
Stretches in Bed
“When I was younger, I could just bust into class and start dancing,” Lugo laughs. “But after several seasons of dancing eight hours a day with the company, and being diagnosed as hypothyroid, I’m fanatical about self-care.”
Lugo’s routine begins before she gets out of bed in the morning and doesn’t end until she closes her eyes for eight hours of sleep a night, “because I do love my eight hours on the bed,” she says.
Lugo regards her body as a high-performance machine requiring special maintenance. “In the morning, before even getting out of bed and putting pressure on the feet and the ankle joints, I roll the ankles, stretch the feet by pressing through the metatarsals, and pull back through the heels for an Achilles stretch,” Lugo says. “I also yawn through all the joints and curl into a ball several times before getting out of bed.”
A hearty breakfast starts Lugo’s day before she layers on three sets of clothes and power-walks to the studio, four blocks away. “Throughout class I remove each layer as I warm up,” she says.
“I think the most important part of warming up is actually cooling down,” Lugo advises. “If you do a proper cool-down at the end of the day, your next morning warm-up is a lot easier. So I start and end rehearsal with gentle head and upper-spine rolls to generate the body’s natural heat.”
Lugo’s rehearsal day ends at 4:00 p.m., but her job in RDT’s wardrobe department keeps her after hours, putting her extreme organizational skills to good use. (In a small company like RDT, dividing offstage responsibilities among the dancers helps to keep the operating budget down.) She knows every dancer’s entrances, exits, and quick changes, pre-setting their costumes in the wings to ensure that the show runs smoothly.
“There are seven different bodies with seven different shows in each performance, and I know every one of them,” Lugo says. “In our educational shows there can be as many as 23 costume changes, and I’m very particular that there are no tags hanging out, jewelry worn, or unshaven faces on the men.”
On tour, Lugo uses a self-designed checklist system to properly wash and rebox the 200 clothing items and props she is responsible for. “That’s why I have to take care of my own cool-down, because I don’t have the time after rehearsal or performance to be the dancer cooling down.”
Lugo believes one of the most important aspects of well-being for dancers (and all people) is mental health. She says she writes in her journal every day and sees a therapist regularly to stay at the top of her game.
“Artistry requires a lot of self-investigation, so it’s just smart to let a professional reframe negative or confusing thoughts that stop your forward progress,” Lugo says. “And my journal entries can be as simple as a budget I kept two years ago. But it reminds me of who I am, keeps me grounded, and organizes my thoughts.”
Kathy Adams writes on dance for the Salt Lake Tribune.
Portable Stress Relief
Lugo loves her Mukta Mat, an acupressure tool she takes on tour to reduce muscle soreness and relieve stress. (Imagine a yoga mat covered with thousands of tiny plastic spikes, or see www.huggermugger.com.) “One day a local guy walked into the studio selling these mats,” Lugo says, “and the whole company was like, ‘I want one of those!’ ”
• Begin or end your day lying on the mat, on your back, from mid-hip area to upper neck for 5 or 10 minutes, adjusting your weight as necessary. Cover the mat with a pillowcase until your body acclimates to the intensity of the pressure points.
• Follow your own breathing pattern to adapt to the surface and allow the blood to circulate. “It helps me get rid of all those checklists in my head,” Lugo says.
• As your body adjusts to the pressure points, add more time, moving the mat to places where your body feels most fatigued. Stand on it for a foot massage.
Lugo endorses the mat over more expensive massages or trips to the acupuncturist. “For $45, you’re in control of your own stress and pain relief.”
U of U students teach at Sara Sotillo Elementary School in Panama City. Photo by Carina Fourmyle, Courtesy Claudio.
Dancers aren’t usually called upon to address poverty, neglect, or basic human needs in developing nations. So Juan Carlos Claudio was surprised and uplifted when he spotted a poster for Movement Exchange, a dance-service organization based in Panama City, on the campus of the University of Utah.
“For the 10 years I danced with Utah’s Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, one of the things that nourished me most as an artist was the community outreach we did,” says Claudio. Now an assistant professor of modern dance at U of U, he aims to give students a strong technical foundation, “while igniting their passion for dance as a tool for social justice,” he says.
As Claudio would soon learn, his vision of dance as a vehicle for social change was right in line with that of Anna Pasternak, who founded Movement Exchange in 2010. Pasternak, 27, describes her brainchild as “sort of a Dancers Without Borders,” where U.S. dancers—mainly from college dance departments—spend about 10 days teaching, collaborating, and performing with children and local professionals in Panama City. Movement Exchange partners with a number of institutions— including the University of Panama, the U.S. Embassy, the National Dance School of Panama, three orphanages, and three at-risk youth foundations—to provide sustainable dance education for Panamanian youth. “We aren’t one-hit wonders,” Pasternak says, “but rather invest in the communities throughout the year.”
After speaking with Pasternak via Skype, Claudio realized that this was exactly the applied-learning experience he wanted for his students. He began raising money to bring eight of them to Panama City last April.
Pasternak grew up dancing and surfing in California. As an anthropology major at Harvard, she received several fellowships to study in Latin America. After graduation in 2007, her passion for travel and social outreach kept bumping up against her desire to have dance in her life. “Wherever I was in the world—Cuba, Brazil, Mexico—I always connected with the local community by teaching dance,” she says. “Then a few years ago, while working in Panama and volunteering on the side, I asked myself, ‘If I were a university dance student, what would I most want to be available to me?’ ”
Around the same time, at U of U, Claudio was promoting such courses as Dance in Culture, Service Learning: Modern Dance, and a Dance and Community program where students teach under-served populations. “There is a large Hispanic dance community here in Utah,” says Claudio, who grew up in Puerto Rico. “But the populations we work with aren’t just racially diverse. We work with refugees, at-risk youth, the homeless, and veterans. We deal with issues like obesity, emotional stress, and PTSD.” Those varied experiences prepared his students for Movement Exchange. “They came with an openness because they had been working throughout the year on service projects,” says Pasternak. “I was impressed by the connection and community they built in such a short time.”
With only a week in Panama, the U of U volunteers hit the ground running, putting in 12-hour days and working with about 100 students per day. They taught at two orphanages, a public elementary school, the university, and the National Dance School, in addition to taking class with local artists. Unexpected challenges called for patience and flexibility. “When we first got to the orphanages, we found that there was no music available,” says MFA student Lynn Bobzin. “So we created our own by drumming on the floor and singing.”
Before the trip, Bobzin had been questioning her decision to pursue a career in dance. “Through Juan’s Dance and Community class, I knew I wanted to teach and dance outside the U.S. But the trip opened my eyes to something larger, something bigger than myself.”
Bobzin is excited to return to Panama in the spring. In order to fund the trip, this year’s 16 selected participants have formed the International Dance Exchange Club and are learning to write their own grant applications.
Pasternak notes that children in orphanages often have many social and psychological hurdles to overcome. “They can have a hard time even facing each other and talking,” she explains. But with Movement Exchange, “they gain self-confidence, pride, and trust. They learn teamwork and organizational skills. Kids don’t necessarily want to talk about the things they’ve been through, so they get to explore and express some of their feelings through dance.”
The Ballet West dancer has charisma to spare.
Last February, two days before Ballet West premiered its new Don Quixote, 19-year-old corps dancer Beckanne Sisk checked the final cast list and found her name printed next to Kitri for opening night. It was an extraordinary opportunity for a new company member who only a short time before thought she would be Kitri’s understudy. In performance, Sisk rose to the role’s challenges, peppering her 32 fouettés in her Act III variation with triple pirouettes, and eliciting cheers from the audience.
Ballet West artistic director Adam Sklute tapped Sisk to join the main company at the start of the 2011 season, after she had danced for a year with BWII. Her unpretentious manner, long lines, and regal height help her project an unusual combination of charisma and sincerity. “She is a dancer with an exquisite physical facility, a powerful technical capability, and an instinctive artistic understanding,” Sklute says. “She is always open to corrections and she works very hard.”
Sisk grew up in Longview, Texas. She credits her older sister Jessica for awakening her interest in ballet. Even when she was too young to reach up to the barre, Sisk followed her sister to class. As soon as she was old enough, Sisk started studying at Longview Ballet Theatre. She went to summer intensives at Philadelphia’s Rock School, which eventually offered her a year-round scholarship. She also attended Youth America Grand Prix for four years, eventually catching the eye of Adam Sklute, who was a judge.
“I first saw Beckanne at YAGP when she was only 15,” Sklute says. “I was completely taken by her line, her phenomenal turning ability, her beauty, and stage presence. When she turned 17, I worked hard to get her to Ballet West.”
Sisk has found her time at BWII and now Ballet West a valuable change from the variation-focused competition scene. In her first season alone, in addition to Kitri, she has danced the Sugarplum Fairy, as well as a featured role in Paquita. “In competitions the variations are isolated from the history and context of the rest of the ballet,” she says. “Now I realize there is so much more to what it means to be a character onstage.”
Though turns and balances come naturally to her, Sisk still has technical challenges to overcome. She is extremely flexible, for one. “When I was little it worked against me because I had no strength,” Sisk says. “I was all over the place. The Rock faculty worked with me on it.” She also admits that she prefers story ballets. It’s one reason, Sklute says, he cast her in Emeralds. “I want to push her to improve outside her comfort zone,” he says.
While Sisk may have some areas she needs to work on, her first year as a Ballet West company member has been an auspicious one. She will be promoted to demi-soloist next season. “You can see the technique, artistry, and plain star power in her,” Sklute says. “Given the proper guidance, nurturing, and push, I can see Beckanne becoming a major ballerina.”
Kathy Adams writes on dance for the Salt Lake Tribune.
Sisk as Kitri. Photo by Luke Isley, Courtesy Ballet West.
Few dancers know instinctively how to convey a character’s emotional depths. But when Arolyn Williams impulsively clutched her gown near the end of Ballet West’s production of Hamlet and Ophelia Pas de Deux, she made clear with a single, striking gesture that Ophelia’s madness was imminent. Williams approached Val Caniparoli’s choreography with an open mind, not trying to think through each moment. “I didn’t plan on grabbing my dress,” she says, “but the impulse to act in a certain way takes over.”
That dramatic instinct has led to exciting roles for Williams in recent seasons. Not many dancers below principal rank find themselves cast as Ophelia, or Titania in Ashton’s The Dream, or Cio-Cio San in Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly. But Williams, 25, is getting more opportunities to show her musicality, impeccable footwork, and blissfully light upper body. Critics and choreographers have noted the dancer’s ability to fly through the most technical of challenges. It seemed no suprise when artistic director Adam Sklute promoted Williams to demi-soloist for the 2010–11 season.
Williams knew when she was little that she wanted to be a ballerina. She skipped around her family’s home in Lee, New Hampshire, in a tiara and makeshift pointe shoes and started classes at age 6. When Williams was in sixth grade, her family moved to Rowe, Massachusetts, and she began taking class at Pioneer Valley Ballet, an hour’s drive away. She got strong training, she says, but by her junior year in high school, she knew it was time for a change. “I wanted to audition for North Carolina School of the Arts,” she says. “One day we hopped in the car and drove all the way to North Carolina!” Fortunately, she was accepted.
In the spring of 2004, the school held a workshop where artistic directors from around the country were invited to scout for dancers. Ballet West’s artistic director at the time, Jonas Kage, saw Williams and asked her to join Ballet West II.
Williams spent two years in the second company and came to love Salt Lake City’s outdoorsy lifestyle. Next came a company apprenticeship and then a slot in the corps. Her first year she was cast as Ophelia. “Arolyn immediately caught my eye,” says Caniparoli. “Her phrasing and musicality were way beyond her years. She fully grasped Ophelia’s character.”
When Welch came in 2009 to set Madame Butterfly, Sklute offered Williams the opportunity to learn the lead. She studied the part like a Stanislavsky actor, digging deep into the score and libretto. “She performed in the second cast,” says Sklute, “and there was not a dry eye in the house.” Williams’ face eloquently conveyed Butterfly’s despair at relinquishing her son as her large, dark eyes helplessly followed the boy offstage.
Williams looks forward to learning Kylián’s Sinfonietta, and Sklute’s new version of The Sleeping Beauty next season. Her dream role, though, is Giselle. “The dancer has to be ethereal and weightless in the second act, like you could just blow away, but at the same time do all the petit allegro and jumps. And of course part of me thinks it would just be so fun to go crazy onstage!”
With any luck, audiences will have an opportunity some day to see Williams inhabit the role.
Kathy Adams is a Salt Lake City dance writer.
Photo of Arolyn as the Spring Fairy in Cinderella by Ryan Galbraith, Courtesy Ballet West.