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Dance, Dance Evolution
40 Years of RDT
By Karen Anne Webb

A Few Dates of Interest in Modern Dance History
Isadora Duncan emigrates to Europe and begins to impact the dance scene there. In 1901-2, she dances with the company of another dance pioneer, Loie Fuller. (“Time Capsule” features “Valse Brilliant” and “Prelude.” 1905)

The first Denishawn school opens in Los Angeles. Ruth St. Denis and husband/partner Ted Shawn were the first modern dancers to directly impact modern dance in the United States. (1918's "Valse a la Loie," 1922's "Kashmiri Nautsch," 1933's "Cutting the Sugar Cane")

The Martha Graham School of
Contemporary Dance opens its doors. Graham, a Denishawn protegee, rebels against the Denishawn approach as being too all-inclusive to allow depth or expertise in any one area. (“choreographic phrase,” constructed by Kaye Richards)

Doris Humphrey and Charles
Weidman form their company, also
separating from the eclecticism of
Denishawn. Humphrey’s contribution is the sense of “fall and recovery.” (“New Dance” excerpt, 1935 by Humphrey; “The Moth and the Star” by Weidman from 1956.)

Jose Limon, a Humphrey-Weidman
protege, forms his own company
with Humphrey as artistic director;
1949 sees the premiere of “The
Moor’s Pavane,” one of his greatest
works. (“There is a Time” excerpt,

Yvonne Rainer begins choreographing and, like others riding the crest of the post-modernist wave, Just Says No to spectacle and virtuosity. (“Trio A,” 1966 and “Chair-Pillow,” 1969)

Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith,
dancers from notable post-modernist companies, form Shapiro & Smith Dance. In a departure from the nonvirtuosic ideas of many post-modernists, they blend athleticism, humor, wit, and sheer beauty. (“Dance for Two Army Blankets,” 1992)

Zvi Gotheiner forms ZviDance, a
company that takes contemporary
dance in yet another direction by
synthesizing modern, folk and different styles of ballet in its work.
(“Chairs” excerpt, 1991)

A time capsule is usually something to bury, but Repertory Dance Theatre has created one that the present generations of Salt Lakers will be happy to keep firmly above ground for themselves and their dance-minded friends to enjoy. “Time Capsule” is the company’s second retrospective of the first century of modern dance, in celebration of its 40th anniversary season.

“This sort of program is really ground-breaking,” says artistic director Linda C. Smith about “Time Capsule,” which bows at the Rose Wagner Center on Friday, Nov. 18. “When we first pitched the idea in 1980 with our program ‘Modern Dance: The Early Years,’ a lot of our venues were saying, ‘Oh, no, we don’t want a lecture demonstration.’ It’s sometimes hard to communicate the idea that you’re proposing a concert where the audience will see either complete short works or very important, substantial excerpts—that it’s a ‘real’ concert that just happens to have narration as an integral element. You have to convince them that it’s OK to talk during a concert.”

Smith and friends have rethought both “The Early Years” and the millennial “100 Years of Modern Dance.” While the program features some pieces included in the earlier concerts, it is hardly a simple rehashing. “We need to use different tools to reach audiences today,” Smith says, “especially younger audience members like high-schoolers. It’s a little different than it was in my generation—media is such a big part of their everyday lives. They’re bombarded with stimuli. So we’ve included a media element that neither of the other concerts had, and we’re using it to put the dance works into their correct societal and political context. It’s really an informative multi-media event.”

Modern dance, Smith observes, has always been about reacting to what was happening in the dancers’ and choreographers’ environment in their present, whether that was rejecting the structure of a dance form like ballet or making a political statement. So, in the ‘60s, there were pieces that turned their backs on Vietnam and pieces that talked about Vietnam, but we also had Merce Cunningham, whose work rejected the type of modern dance that was current at that time.”

In addition to the media, Smith also made changes to the script for “100 Years of Modern Dance” in an effort both to draw sharper connections between the pieces on the bill and what inspired them. The company, whose repertoire includes some 350 works, has also acquired works by a number of important choreographers in the past five years, and the script has been expanded to include them.

“It’s a broad brush approach,” Smith admits. “We have 20 different choreographers represented by 26 different works or excerpts. My original conception worked out to a program that was six hours long! When Marsha Siegel was here teaching our dance writing workshop last month, she helped me immensely. She helped me to trim intelligently, but she also helped me to accept that you simply can’t show everything in one program.”

The great value of a repertory company like RDT is that it preserves the past, as it was mandated to do, while it also incorporates the present as it is happening. “This ability to embrace and present so many different styles is what it means to be a rep company,” Smith says, adding that RDT’s dancers are unique because they are familiar in many styles, not just one choreographer or period. “Part of preservation lives in the bodies of the dancers; history has to live in the muscles.”

The company’s exploration of historical periods in its regular concert series has opened the eyes of people who might already be thought of as conversant with the many dimensions of modern dance. “When we did a program dedicated to choreographers of the ‘60s and ’70s,” Smith relates, “I had college students who were modern dance majors come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t realize how different the pieces that came out of that time period were: I thought all the choreographers were doing the same thing!’

Included on the bill are new acquisitions by Viola Farber and Yvonne Rainer, as well as an except from a John Butler work that hasn’t been seen since the ‘70s: the “Holy Rollers” section of his atypically humorous “Three Promenades with the Lord.” The works range from the 100-year-old “Valse Brilliant” and “Prelude” by seminal modern dance choreographer Isadora Duncan to 1992’s “Dance for Two Army Blankets” by Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith. In between are works by Doris Humphrey, Ted Shawn, Helen Tamiris, Anna Sokolow, Jose Limon, Zvi Gotheiner, Michio Ito, and Laura Dean.

“I see this as a wonderful buffet or smorgasbord,” Smith laughs, “and I mean that with the deepest respect. I hope it will generate interest in a generation that hasn’t seen these works before. I hope that it will give everyone enough of a taste that they’ll come back for more!”


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