campus map campus directory The University of Utah Home Page
Students    Future Students     Faculty & Staff     Alumni & Visitors

About Continuum Advertising Advisory Committee Archives Contact Us Continuum Home Faculty/Staff Subscribe

related websites

Alumni Association Marketing & Communications University of Utah Home


Striped Celebrants
The Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company performs Alwin Nikolais' Liturgies. Photo by Fred Hayes.

Striped Celebrants

The University of Utah brought together Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury to form
a perfect partnership.

By L. Scott Marsh

The Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company has long been associated with the University of Utah. Little wonder, since its artistic directors—Shirley Ririe BS’50 and Joan Woodbury—were longtime faculty members at the U, where, as youthful teachers, they began a dance company in the 1950s that is today recognized as one of America’s best. And, not surprisingly, the company is also known for its unwavering commitment to dance education.

Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe
Joan Woodbury (left) and Shirley Ririe. Photo by Tom Smart.

The Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company is currently enjoying a vibrant, internationally acclaimed fourth decade. This past year the company toured Europe and North America, performing in Paris and at the prestigious American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C. This active touring schedule was in addition to a Salt Lake City season consisting of three different shows and a new, fully produced children’s performance—The Crystal and the Sphere—seen by more than 10,000 Utah students. Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe are now professors emeritae, and their company is in residence at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, a central hub for the arts in downtown Salt Lake City. They have much to celebrate as they move their company into its 45th year.

The morning after their company’s recent opening performance of the “newly reconstructed” Alwin Nikolais work Tower, Shirley and Joan took a moment to reflect on their amazing journey together. Beginning with a commitment to the University of Utah, and then to each other, they built a professional company that served to elevate the U as a national center for dance. And while both enjoy their company’s continued national and international success, they remain, as Shirley says, “Utah girls,” honoring Utah’s vibrant dance heritage and the University’s profound commitment to dance as both a professional and educational endeavor.

The stage was set in 1951, when the late Elizabeth “Betty” Hayes, director of modern dance at the University (1940-1976), recruited Joan Woodbury for Betty’s small but growing faculty. Raised in Cedar City, Joan had planned to move to New York City following her graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin. But Betty invited her to the University for an interview, and when Joan witnessed the vitality of the dance program, she knew that Salt Lake City, not New York City, was her future.

Shirley Ririe, raised in Salt Lake City, returned to Utah in 1952 from her graduate study at New York University to teach at BYU, but soon found herself back home teaching for Virginia Tanner’s children’s dance program. Betty Hayes introduced Shirley and Joan, and they immediately clicked.

Soon the duo decided to choreograph a dance together. “We first performed it at the Timpanogos Festival,” Shirley recalls. “At one point [in the duet], Joan stands on one roller skate, with her other leg in the air, and zips across the stage. Well, when we got to the Timpanogos stage, which is cement and outdoors and kind of rough, there was no way she could get clear across. She went about halfway and fell into the orchestra pit!” Even so, she notes, “We did that dance quite a few times.”

Joan and Shirley c. 1970.
Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe c. 1970. Photo by Elizabeth Morris.

In 1955, as Joan departed for a Fulbright Scholarship to study with German expressionist dancer Mary Wigman, Shirley stepped in to fill Joan’s faculty role at the University. Upon Joan’s return in 1956, they both convinced President A. Ray Olpin to allow them to job share Joan’s full-time position. With this, their longtime faculty partnership at the University of Utah was established.

The modern dance program thrived with Shirley and Joan’s contributions. A master’s degree was developed, and classes were full of students. As the number of student performances grew, “Joan and I looked at each other one day and said, ‘We need an outlet!’” Shirley recalls. “And that’s how the company started. We used the studio space after the students were done. We began to rehearse at 10 o’clock at night, and went until midnight, but then when we were really in the thick of things, doing a show, we’d stay all night. It was crazy.”

The pair seemed to gather dancers and artists around them like moths to a flame. They performed as “Choreodancers” until their colleague and friend, acclaimed choreographer Alwin Nikolais, suggested that they start their own company and call it, simply, the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company. To inaugurate the new company, Nikolais presented them with a dance, Striped Celebrants, and his partner, Murray Louis, gave them Suite de Danse. In the fall of 1964, the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company premiered at Kingsbury Hall.

Joan and Shirley had both worked closely with Nikolais for more than a decade prior to their company’s premiere. Nikolais’ close association with Shirley, Joan, and the University of Utah reflected the desire of the Utah dancers to connect to the most contemporary work of the time, and to achieve a standard of quality in choreography and performance that was equal to that found in New York City, the center of American dance.

The Modern Dance Program thrived with Shirley and Joan's contributions. A master's degree was developed, and classes were full of students. As the number of student performances grew, "Joan and I looked at each other one day and said, 'We need an outlet!' " Shirley recalls. "And that's how the company started."

The University of Utah in the 1960s had become a vibrant setting for dance: Willam Christensen was in his second decade of teaching at the U while simultaneously developing Ballet West, the Rockefeller Foundation had just awarded the University a large grant to fund a professional modern dance company in residence—Repertory Dance Theatre (RDT), and the Department of Dance’s ballet and modern dance programs were populated with students and faculty whose residence was Utah but whose aspirations were national in scope. It was in this environment that Joan and Shirley founded Ririe-Woodbury.

By 1970, the University’s dance programs and companies were flourishing. Joan and Shirley were teaching at the University, and their company was touring regionally. In 1972, the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company auditioned for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) new Artists-in-Schools and Dance Touring Programs. The young Utah enterprise was accepted into both programs and was instantly a full-time national touring company.

Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, 1978
Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, 1978 (clockwise from left): Lynn Topovski, Nick Cavallero, Cliff Golden, Robin Johnson, Dennis Wright, Phyllis Haskell, Diane Matsunaga, Joan and Shirley, Suzanne Renner.

Ririe-Woodbury was composed of young women and men trained at the University to be dancers, choreographers, and teachers. Joan and Shirley were both artists and teachers, and their company’s touring activities reflected their expertise in dance education. For the next 12 years, the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company was responsible for more than a third of all performances in the NEA Artists-in-Schools Dance Program, and many of the movement education specialists in the national program were trained by Shirley and Joan. Phyllis Haskell MFA’71, later to become the University of Utah’s associate vice president for the arts and dean of the College of Fine Arts, and Donna White BFA’76 MFA’79, the current chair of the University’s Department of Modern Dance, were two of the company’s first dancers.

Joan continued a close association with Nikolais, serving as his assistant as he created new dances in his signature style of “total-dance-theatre.” His innovations in lighting technology and design, electronic music composition, and the abstraction of the human body were developed during this time. Joan became an authority on his work and is currently one of only two or three people in the world expert enough to reconstruct Nikolais’ dances, including the technological components of the performances, enabling the company to serve as the conservators of Nikolais’ repertory. Meanwhile, Shirley became a national leader in dance for children. Serving on numerous federal, regional, and state commissions, and teaching in school sites across the nation, Shirley helped shape dance education for children. Joan and Shirley’s involvement as University professors and artistic directors of a national company helped focus the nation’s eye on the University of Utah as a premier center for American dance.

As their company prospered—with up to 40 weeks of touring a year—both Joan and Shirley reduced their faculty roles, each teaching one quarter a year. But their travels remained an important recruiting tool for the U. “We brought a lot of students in who had seen us in various parts of the country,” Shirley says.

During the quarters in which they taught at the U, both Joan and Shirley choreographed new dances. Students had the opportunity to work with both choreographers during their creation of new work. A newly choreographed dance would be performed by Dance Department students on campus, and then Shirley and Joan might refine it for their company. At the University, they had the luxury of creative time, coupled with the energy and talent of the student dancers. “It really helped both the department and the company—it was very symbiotic,” says Shirley.

The University of Utah is now known as one of the top universities in the nation at which to study dance—due, in part, to its close association with professional dance companies such as Ririe-Woodbury, Ballet West, Children’s Dance Theatre, and Repertory Dance Theatre—all of which grew out of the University.

John Allen MFA’01, who danced with Ririe-Woodbury and is currently on the faculty at Tulane University, notes: “Having a professional company so close to the University gives students direct contact with professionals in their field; they see what it’s like to live the life of a professional dancer. It increases the drive of the students both technically and artistically as they see firsthand what’s required of them to move to a professional level.”

From the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company’s 1964 debut to the present, Shirley, Joan, and their dancers have garnered an abundance of accolades as choreographers, performers, and educators.

Recently, on the stage of Salt Lake’s Jeanné Wagner Theatre, the current Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company performed Striped Celebrants—one of the sections from what became Nikolais’ dance Tower—which Joan and Shirley’s company had first performed in its 1964 debut concert at Kingsbury Hall. Now, more than 40 years later, the dance is as dynamic and vital as ever—and so are Utah’s own “striped celebrants,” Shirley Ririe and Joan Woodbury.

—L. Scott Marsh MFA’84 is former chair of the University of Utah Department of Modern Dance and former chair of the Ohio State University Department of Dance.

Return to Spring 2009 table of contents | Back to top

60The College of Fine Arts celebrates its 60th anniversary this year with a dazzling array of music, film, dance, art, and theater performances during the month of March:

March 7 – Innovative musician Bobby McFerrin ex’78 appears in concert at Kingsbury Hall.
March 8 – Filmmaker Isaac Chung MFA’04 (Film Studies), best known for his film Munyurangabo, set against the Rwandan civil war, lectures and screens some of his work.
March 9 – Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation, and education, presents a free lecture in Libby Gardner Hall.
March 12 – An exhibition of recent work from the U of U’s Art & Art History faculty opens in the Utah Museum of Fine Art.
March 13 – Capping off the week is an Evening of Celebration in Kingsbury Hall:
A gala concert featuring the best of all of the college’s departments, and including the world premiere of ZIJI, specially commissioned for this event, by Grammy- and Emmy award-winning composer Patrick Williams and Montréal-based choreographer Edgar Zendéjas, featuring a cast of University dancers and the University Philharmonia Orchestra.

For more information, visit or, or call (801) 581-6764.

Return to Spring 2009 table of contents | Back to top