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  • Creative Diplomacy in Action
  • An interview with Jena Woodbury by Jillian Harris

When Joan Woodbury and Shirley Ririe founded the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company in 1964, they were two University of Utah dance professors driven by the mission that "dance is for everybody." Now fifty-five years old and thriving, this contemporary dance company recently was selected for the seventh season of DanceMotion USA, a joint program between the US Department of State and Brooklyn Academy of Music. Between May first and thirtieth, 2018, the Company performed and taught throughout South Korea and Mongolia, focusing its activities on connecting with underserved communities, such as at-risk youth. Their work expanded upon over five decades of using dance as a means of bridging physical, psychological, and cultural divides between people, generating forms of understanding so desperately needed in our current political climate.

Dance has historically played a role in federal government funded programs with both national and international scopes. In 1972, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) selected the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company for the Dance Touring Program and the Artist in the Schools Program, allowing many communities throughout the country to experience modern dance for the first time. As a dancer with the Company in the late 1990s, I had an opportunity to tour as part of one NEA-funded projects, teaching in a range of places from juvenile detention centers to Native American reservation areas. This work impressed upon me dance's ability to create dialogues amongst populations that may not normally intersect. On an international level, connections made through dance have served the United State's diplomatic efforts, and here too, the Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company has played a role. Touring engagements have included South Africa during the Apartheid period as well as the former Soviet Union and East Germany during the Cold War.

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In late July 2018, I conducted a phone interview with Jena Woodbury, Ririe-Woodbury's Executive Director, to discuss the Company's experience as part of the DanceMotion USA tour [End Page 6] that had concluded two months prior. When the Company received notification of their selection, the United States of America was at a dramatic political turning point, shifting from the Obama to the Trump administration. Later, while the company traveled throughout Mongolia and South Korea, President Trump and North Korean president Kim Jong-un engaged in heated negotiations leading up to a summit in June 2018. Despite occurring within a volatile political time, my conversation with Jena provoked hope that dance may continue to receive support as part of diplomatic efforts. A DanceMotion USA announcement notes that the program has "engaged with more than 114,000 participants in 55 countries and has reached more than 40 million people online." These impressive figures, however, do not speak to the depth of the program's impact upon both the dance company and the communities with which they have connected. Excerpts of my conversation with Jena Woodbury offer concrete examples of their work's impact and possible directions for the future:

Jillian Harris:

Did you feel that there were any unexpected surprises during the tour or were you adequately prepared?

Jena Woodbury:

I feel that we were adequately prepared, but there were certainly some classes that were more challenging than others simply because of the nature of groups themselves. For example, we had a class in Korea that was for juvenile delinquent boys. The dancers did a beautiful job teaching that class, but that's a hard population to teach even under the best circumstances when you speak the same language.

We also taught classes to North Korean children living in a North Korea defectors facility. The Company dancers split into teams of two, each working with a different age group. After the classes, the resident dance teacher commented that she had a really difficult time getting these kids to interact with each other. Our dancers taught the classes in such a way that the kids didn't even know that they were starting to interact with one another. They were thinking about the movement sequence, which naturally developed into a community effort. For example, with a...


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