Utah’s Ririe-Woodbury dancers return from cultural exchange in Asia

Jul 2, 2018, 5:10 PM | Updated: 9:36 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Ririe-Woodbury Contemporary Dance Company just returned from a cultural diplomacy tour to Mongolia and South Korea arranged by the U.S. State Department.

The Utah company was one of three American dance companies selected to participate in the 7th season of DanceMotion USA.

Music is often called the international language, but the dancers say movement shares that sentiment. It can be the best kind of cultural exchange says Dan Mont-Eton of Ririe Woodbury.

“We just start moving and it’s instantaneous and there’s an understanding that we’re just dancing and we’re moving,” said Mont-Eton.

Photo from Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company

For a month this spring, six Ririe-Woodbury dancers along with their executive director, artistic director and technical director performed and taught workshops in the two Asian nations.

Daniel Charon, Artistic Director, says a connection between people who do not speak the same language is automatic.

“There’s a beat to the music and people can understand that together without ever talking about it,” said Charon. “And so, it’s actually a really amazing universal thing.”

The tour began with an invitation from the State Department in December of 2016.

“On behalf of the Obama Administration and Secretary John Kerry, we’d like to invite you on this tour. And it was kind of the most amazing holiday gift we could have gotten,” said Charon.

Photo from Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company

“The company was selected based upon their artistic quality; level of artistry, skills and techniques demonstrated consistently in the dance works,” said a statement released by Joe Melillo, Executive Producer of BAM and Dance Motion. “Artistry, intelligence and humanitarian ideals are the qualities of this dance company which advanced their nomination and acceptance into our dance diplomacy program for the U.S.A.”

“Through 55 years, we’ve traveled all over the world,” said Jena Woodbury, the company’s executive director.

Ririe-Woodbury was founded in 1964 by Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe, two Utah women who were University of Utah professors of dance. They believed passionately in their art form and also in the importance of including it as part of a well-rounded education for Utah’s school children.

But even with that remarkable history, this tour brought a first. Ririe-Woodbury was the first modern dance company to visit Mongolia. The dancers made an impression.

“They started a contemporary dance festival which they’ll do every two years because of our arrival,” said Woodbury. “That’s amazing! We’ll have an impact for many years to come.”

And that impact extends beyond professional dancers. The also held classes for people with disabilities.

But Daniel Charon said the beautiful thing is that the dancers don’t change what they do for students in class.

“We taught creative movement like we always taught creative movement,” said Charon. “So it was really, really interesting to see that happen.”

With so much news focus on the Korean peninsula this year, they took their form of dance diplomacy to South Korea.

“We worked with North Korean defectors, with kids,” said Jena Woodbury. “And I feel like it was a really important moment for us as U.S. citizens, that we’re about the people.”

Mont-Eton was happy to represent the next generation that is solidifying the relationship.

“Our reaching out was that bridge in order to kind of show, ‘no, we’re really here to, like, we’re here, we’re allies,'” said Mont-Eton.

Members of the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company who traveled to Mongolia and South Korea. Photo: Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company.

Ririe Woodbury dancers were both performers and teachers during their four-week-long professional residency. But they realized that they received gifts as well from the people of Mongolia and South Korea.

“The thing I got out of this was an expanded view of the world and myself as a dancer.” said Mont-Eton, who sees himself differently as a result. “I was able to see that there really are no borders when it comes to people.”

When they returned to Utah, the company took some time off but as Ririe-Woodbury prepares for its 2018- 2019 season, the dancers say when those invitations come to take their form of contemporary dance on the road, they will be ready.

A press release from Ririe-Woodbury about the trip summed up the experience.

“This honor speaks volumes regarding the support of our Utah community. With 54 years of commitment of education and outreach in Utah schools, the breadth of our impact is now crossing international lines and promoting diverse communities to embrace dance in their own capacities. These experiences will enrich our company in unique ways upon return to Utah to share and empower our local culture.”

The trip happened through the U.S. Department of State’s  Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs and was administered by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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Utah’s Ririe-Woodbury dancers return from cultural exchange in Asia