Repertory dance companies have a built-in challenge, and it’s right there in that word “repertory”: It’s hard to stay fresh when you’re staging old works.
The trick, it seems, is all in the re-staging of a piece. If the choreographer is around and willing to tackle that project with you—keeping his or her work unsullied and worthy of being revisited—it’s a lot easier to avoid the pitfalls of returning to the past.
The program for Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s season-closing collection of works Unstable Elements draws primarily on repertory work. After a year that included mostly new pieces, that’s a sharp change of pace. But for Joan Woodbury, founder and co-artistic director of RWDC, the pace isn’t one of a museum stroll.
“Often, it’s hard for choreographers to come back to particular works to re-stage them outside of their original context,” Woodbury says. “But to put it plainly, that’s what you do in a rep company. And to me, dance is like music. If it’s a good piece, you don’t just listen to it once and let it go, as long as the dances ... stay relevant.”
Although repertory favorites like Douglas Nielsen’s “Short Stem Roses” (1993) and David Roussève’s “Bittersweet Chocolate” (1997) share the program with the more recent “Duet No. 1 from Trois Fois Deux Plus” (2002) by Stephen Koester, Woodbury’s reference to relevance nails the company’s revisiting of Doug Varone’s “Smashed Landscapes,” also from 1993.
“Joan asked me if I would be interested in resetting the piece, and I’ll tell you, I was rather hesitant,” admits Varone. “I think all artists feel the pull to move on and move forward. Then I thought it might be fun. So I took a stab at the challenge, and I’m glad that I did. In many ways, this cast does it better than the original 10 years ago.”
Re-staging a work with improved results is a rarity for most choreographers, including Varone. Many dances are heavily inspired by the dancers involved in the original creation of the piece, so to turn around and try to fit a specific work on an entirely new cast, several years down the line, seems a dangerous proposition at best.
“The most important thing to me is finding a way to embody the spirit that the cast itself brings to the table,” Varone claims. “Ten years ago the company was really full of individuals, and I tried to hook into those sensibilities. There was a youthful kind of energy, which in a way was really crying out to be corralled. I brought several pieces of music with me to Utah on that trip, and when I put Fugazi’s Repeater on, it really clicked.”
It didn’t click quite as profoundly with Woodbury—and in some ways, it still hasn’t. She was looking for another timeless piece that could be added to the company’s repertoire, to be pulled out from the closet 10, 15 or 20 years down the road, dusted off and performed like it was created in the moment. Fugazi wasn’t her idea of timeless.
“I don’t really care for hard rock music. When Doug first came to Salt Lake with a choice of Fugazi or Bach, I simply told him that we didn’t have any Bach in our rep, hoping he would head in that direction,” says Woodbury.
But, the harder music fit the dancers, the choreography and Doug’s sensibilities better—not to mention the modern atmosphere. And although “Smashed Landscapes” score is linked to a specific time in music history—composed by a band that speaks to modern sensibilities—the choreography’s tendencies toward a passionate physical and psychological violence resonate strongly with current issues.
To hear Doug Varone speak about it, that’s exactly what he was aiming for. “I simply tried to find a way to make ‘Smashed Landscapes’ timeless,” he says. “Fugazi’s harder edge helped edge the choreography into perfect modern commentary.”
For a repertory company, it only remains to be seen whether it’s still perfect in another 10 years.