Deep in the heart of the lush American Southwest sits a cultural gem that is nothing short of an anomaly. This is where we find Repertory Dance Theatre (or RDT, as it’s known by the initiated). Here, each dancer’s leap unveils a rich history of modern dance that is still evolving with every twist and turn. RDT is a living library of international dances created in the last 150 years, kept alive through some of the most talented dancers in the world today.
“That’s where they need to be preserved to carry on from generation to generation—not just with video or film or in books or photographs, but in the bodies of dancers,” says Linda C. Smith, artistic director of RDT. “There are no other companies in the world that concentrate on dance preservation like us.” This living library spans the vast history of modern dance; in all, each dancer knows about 70 dances by memory.
ORIGINS FROM ALL OVER
Founded in 1966 as a part of an effort to decentralize the arts in America, RDT is located in beautiful Salt Lake City, a surprising location with a rich scene of art and culture showcasing a world-class symphony, opera, and of course, dance. The diverse terrain—with its swooping valleys, jagged caverns, and mesmerizing canyons—always seems to be in motion, which is nothing short of inspiring for dancers seeking new ways to interpret movement. “There’s so much going on here in the art scene that you’d probably see in New York or LA, but it’s much smaller here, so I think there’s a tighter knit group,” says dancer Dan Higgins.
The troupe also tours extensively throughout the U.S., Europe, and Canada to educate people of all ages about the power of dance. Touring is how they extend their mission beyond the boundaries of Utah, and it’s an excuse to meet new people and expose themselves to other cultures. And that’s important to its members because RDT doesn’t operate exclusively. “We’re preserving classical American modern dance as well as classical Japanese works— we even have works from Israel,” says dancer Lauren Curley. “We have works from all over the world, and I think that is definitely unique.” This global approach to dance preservation is reflected in the diversity of their audiences, which all comes back to their very specialness; there simply isn’t another dance company doing what RDT is doing on this scale.
A MODERN MEDIUM
While other dance forms mainly focus on preserving the past, “modern dance is being written right in your face,” says dancer Justin Bass. “You’re reading something that’s freshly put on paper, and that’s why you don’t get it the first time you see it.” With the freedom to think outside the box, the dancers can take themselves wherever they want in this liberating form of narrative.
While the art form does showcase individual talent, it’s the synchronicity of the company that excites the audience and keeps them coming back. It’s what separates a good dance from a great dance. When someone is watching a performance, they can feel the energy being created and transferred, and that’s amplified through the group of individuals moving as one. “You make eye contact with eight different people on a stage and each of them is giving their 100 percent, they’re giving all of their energy to you, and you’re giving all of your energy to them,” says company member Ursula Perry. “There’s no feeling like it.”
That togetherness on display during their performances manifests itself in the talents unique to each dancer, furthering the sense that the sum of RDT is even greater than its parts. “There’s the powerhouse, the technician, the beautiful jumper and the storyteller—everyone in the company has their own strengths,” adds Ursula. Any given piece isn’t made up of eight individual dancers; it consists of eight people working together to make a narrative come to life.
A GREATER SENSE OF PURPOSE
A close-knit company like Repertory Dance Theatre needs dancers who can work harmoniously. “There’s a real camaraderie in pushing your body and relying on one another for support, both emotionally and physically,” Lauren says. “You have someone who is literally catching you.”
Although the dancers come from different disciplines and regions, they all have a strong kinship to one another, and each takes something unique from the experience. Efren Corado Garcia, an RDT dancer who was raised by immigrant parents, says the focus on history fulfills a part of him that has been missing since childhood.
“Culturally, women [in the past] were stifled; for them, showing skin was improper,” Jaclyn says. “They were really pushing the envelope by taking their shoes off and dancing barefoot, which was forbidden for so many years. Before that, it was just hundreds of years of ballet shoes.”
Many of those teaching at RDT have worked closely with the original choreographers, which makes preserving the intent even easier. “There are these epic historical pieces, and you find out where they were at the time—what it’s about, how it took the choreographer ten years to make. Once you know the history behind it, it becomes a whole different dance,” says Ursula.
“Being able to go back in time through the repertory in the company allows me to find a sense of place, a sense of lineage that I lack,” Efren says. “It brings me back to really understanding a sense of home and figuring out what that is.” For dancer Jaclyn Brown, working her way through the classics helps her understand the roots of feminism and its importance today.
“We get to perform these amazing pieces that were choreographed by modern dance pioneers, the very people who created this style of dance that has evolved into what you see on TV shows,”adds dancer Tyler Orcutt. “We get to perform where it all began.”
That’s one of many reasons why the dancers feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.
“Dance helps people express those things that cannot be expressed in other ways. Dance gives people a different kind of energy, a different capacity to tap into the world in what they see and understand,” says Linda. “Dance helps us transform and give meaning to those things that are difficult to speak about, to find words.”
We explored new forms of movement with the dancers at Repertory Dance Theatre while road tripping through Utah in the Lincoln MKX. To learn more, read here.