Utah's Repertory Dance Theatre was founded in 1966 as a fully professional modern dance company through a cooperative effort involving the Salt Lake City community, the University of Utah and a major grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. This partnership was created to establish a company, which would keep alive that unique artistic achievement which is American Modern Dance.
Virginia Tanner, a noted educator and director of the nationally renowned Children's Dance Theatre inspired RDT. Her dream of establishing a professional company of dancers dedicated to the performance, creation and preservation of American modern dance led to the development of the nation’s first successful modern dance repertory company.
As a professional group of artists in residence at a university, RDT began as a bold attempt at artistic democracy which gradually evolved as the company selected artistic leadership within its own ranks. In 1976 two dancers were selected as Co-Artistic Directors, Kay Clark and Linda C. Smith. In 1983, Smith was appointed sole Artistic Director in 1983 and has since kept the thread of continuity and the "dream" of Virginia Tanner alive.
Repertory Dance Theatre owes its existence to the meeting of Virginia Tanner and the Rockefeller Foundation.
In the 1960's, the Foundation recognized: The trend in the arts toward decentralization from the major cities on both coasts; the role of universities in their communities, stimulating and enriching cultural life; and modern dance as an indigenous American art form existing almost entirely in the metropolitan areas. The Rockefeller Foundation believed that the time was right to create an institution that would help preserve the best in modern dance, nurture young choreographers and develop an appreciation for dance in regions outside the metropolitan areas of the country.
Virginia Tanner, internationally known leader in children's dance, was studying with Doris Humphrey and Charles Weidman in New York City, when she realized her forte was teaching children. She returned home to Salt Lake City, founding in 1949 a school and a performing children's company, later known as Children's Dance Theatre (CDT).
In 1959, Virginia Tanner approached the Rockefeller Foundation seeking funding to house her famed Children's Dance Theatre CDT, but there was no provision in the Foundation's by-laws at that time for such a project. But Tanner's suggestion, "to bring great choreographers to Salt Lake to do works of art on Utah dancers, works otherwise not seen in the west" was a possibility.
The Foundation saw Salt Lake City as being extremely hospitable to the arts and granted funding over a five year period "in recognition of Tanner's leadership in the field of modern dance."
The grant enabled prestigious choreographers to work with CDT, the University of Utah's faculty, and advanced students in the Department of Modern Dance. Guest artists were selected including Helen Tamiris and Daniel Nagrin, Alwin Nikolais with Murray Louis, Lucas Hoving, Ruth Currier, Anna Sokolow and José Limón.
The success of those initial grants led to further negotiations to explore a bold idea. The Foundation and Virginia Tanner envision a professional dance company that was experimental in structure in four ways.
First: To create a repertory company that would a library of American dance classics as well as new creations.
Second: To stimulate and enrich the cultural life of community by locating a professional dance company on a university campus to serve both education and the development of the art form.
Third: To develop a Company that would function as a democracy with the hope that someone from within the ranks would eventually become proficient enough to be appointed Artistic Director
Fourth: To nurture the art form by a creating an environment for western choreographers (the company members) to make their own statements in choreography.
A cooperative, self-directing company that was paid a "living wage" was an idea virtually unheard of in dance history. It would seem the Rockefeller Foundation was aware of the risks involved in their experiment. They said, "If, through the inspiration of others [guest artists], one choreographer would emerge from the company, the grant would serve its purpose."
On July 1, 1966, with a grant of $370,000, the largest sum Rockefeller had ever given to dance, history was made. In 2021, RDT will celebrate its 55th anniversary as the first successful modern dance repertory company in the nation dedicated to the creation, performance, perpetuation and appreciation of modern dance.
Celebrating 55 years
Enjoy 55 years of revolutionary modern dance in this photo essay by RDT alumna, Lynne Wimmer.