Salt of the City | Linda C. Smith
Yes, we spill the beans on our favorite things any chance we get, but since when is lovin’ where you live a crime? There’s more than enough to go around. In fact, there are just so many local ‘Lakers that we can’t get enough of that we thought we’d kick-start a new series to showcase those folks have shaped (and continue to shape) our own COLLECTIVE backyard: Salt of the City. The people featured here are the movers and shakers of this great place. Some bellow their messages from the top of Mount Olympus; some toil away without a sound. But make no mistake: all of the folks featured in this series are the real deal, and they’re changing the face of our town for the better. One such fantastic individual that we’d like to point out: Linda C. Smith, Executive/Artistic Director of downtown’s Repertory Dance Theatre.
For those unfamiliar, RDT–a ”revolutionary institution of modern dance”–is the nation’s oldest and most successful repertory dance company (a type of dance company that strives to keep the history of the genre alive through continued performance of pieces they deem worthy). Celebrating its 50th birthday this year, RDT was founded through determination, talent, and a bit of luck, and was spearheaded by eight visionary dancers: a young Linda Smith among them. Before the company set up shop in their current space at the Rose Wagner, they were, essentially, homeless. When their old practice space in one of the barracks by the University Medical Center was torn down, they found themselves in need of a new home. For a time, they rented one of the bays at the warehouse that stood where the Rose stands now. They knew they needed more–that Salt Lake deserved more–so Linda met with an investor about purchasing the warehouse for a proper space. He urged her to get more backers on board, so the group did studies, found out what was needed, and collected the data to convince investors that the city was in dire need of an art center and performing space. In essence, the young RDT were the catalysts for the inception of the Rose Wagner Theater, as it stands now. A facet we can’t imagine this city without.
“[Salt Lake] has always been a culture accepting of dance,” says Linda, and even in 1966 there were plenty of talented local dancers. But alas, in true curse-of-the-arts form, if they wanted a performing career, their best bet would be to leave the nest for NYC. At that time, the Rockefeller Foundation was making strides to decentralize the arts, and they noticed that there were no real companies between Chicago and the west coast. The lack of a company mixed with the plethora of local talent, and the Rockefeller Foundation granted the seed money that would start Salt Lake’s very own, first, best, repertory dance company. The Repertory Dance Theatre was officially founded in 1966, with just eight dancers to help shape the group. (“Eight’s a good number,” says Linda. “It’s two cars full.”) Unlike other companies, they were, according to Linda, an “artistic democracy”. Decisions were made by the group as a whole, and responsibility was given to them as a collective–an unheard of concept at the time. “The original eight said, ‘Everybody thinks we’re going to fail. But we’re not,’” says Linda. “It was too great a thing to let fail.” 50 years later, she’s still an integral part of the program. Someone, she says, had to keep the vision going–so over the years, her title evolved and her responsibilities grew. “I call myself the ‘artistic janitor’ now,” says Linda. “I do what has do be done.” Whether that’s vacuuming, costume laundry, or meeting with the board for budget talk. Founding Member, Executive Director, Dancer. The list of titles Linda has held at RDT over the years is always growing, but she’s never stopped gathering the opinions, aspirations, and dreams of the group to guide her decisions.
Walking through the halls of the Rose Wagner, Linda chats about the show posters, what they stand for, and how they came about. “We were the stimulus for a lot of other companies,” says Linda. “We were touring places where no one else was going–both metropolitan cities and rural communities.” She remembers, in those formidable years, the RDT being invited to perform at a renowned dance festival in Vienna. They were asked to do three different programs–one historical, one mixed, and one contemporary–and they sold out every one. She remembers walking the streets in the wee Vienna hours, and seeing their name and dancer on the marquee at the famed Ronacher Theatre. “At the time, we were the only people in the world doing what we were doing.” And people, it seemed, were noticing. Growing up under the art direction of Doris Humphrey of the Jose Limon Company, Linda is familiar–and in fact prefers–dance that has lots of breath, lots of risk, and that’s a bit off-balance. “You fall, you play with gravity. It’s very humanistic.” You use the weight of the body in the performance, and dancing is “a battle”. You’re not just making shapes. “I like pieces with social commentary,” says Linda.
She calls it the “University of RDT”, and she’s been taking courses in all kinds of disciplines for the last 50 years. But to her, it doesn’t feel like 50 years…it feels like one continuous, linear process. Since her days as a founding dancer, she’s been grandfathered into her position of authority. There’s a lot of work to be done, but Linda was raised around hardworking people. “I never saw it as ‘work’,” shes says. “It’s what you do. It gives you satisfaction, and a reason to get out of bed.” She recalls dancing in New York before deciding the city wasn’t quite her tempo. She was thrilled to be invited back to Salt Lake to help start RDT. ”I went to New York to dance, but I missed the womb. The mountains. My sense of place was very strong here.” A local through and through, Linda has grown up attending the McCune School of Music and Art (“I thought it was my castle,” she says), and felt very much in tune with downtown. “I wanted a family, a house, to work, to live. I had a long list of goals,” she says, “and I wanted to accomplish those here.” She glances around at the impressive space, and the years of accomplishment reflected on the posters surrounding her. “I never dreamed of a life of leisure. It never interested me,” says Linda. “And it never interested you, either.” Truer words were never spoken.