Chamber Dance Company: Leaps of discovery
Chamber Dance Company, led by Hannah Wiley, has been dedicated for two decades to performing — and salvaging — the history of modern dance.
Seattle Times arts critic
Chamber Dance Company7:30 p.m. Thursday-
Saturday, 2 p.m. next Sunday, Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle; $18,
$10 students/seniors (206-543-4880 or www.meany.org).
A unique Seattle arts institution observes a milestone this month — and, as always, will celebrate by reaching back to the past and preserving art for the future. Chamber Dance Company (CDC), the University of Washington's resident professional dance company, presents its 20th season concert Thursday through next Sunday at Meany Hall, with a varied program of historic works of modern dance.
Hannah C. Wiley, dance professor and founding director of CDC (and a 1973 UW graduate), first envisioned the company many years ago, on a visit to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts' dance archive. "I got to look at some old videos and old tapes — that was the first time I had ever had access to the modern dance heritage," she said. "It seemed to me completely wrong to be coming from an institute of higher learning and not have been exposed to the history of my art form."
When Wiley was offered the chair of the dance department in 1987 (a position she would hold until 2001), she proposed creating a resident company to perform and archive works from modern dance history. The company's first concert was presented in 1990, featuring Paul Taylor's classic "Aureole," and its video archive is now more than 85 dances strong. Over the years, Wiley's annual programs have blended choreographers from the early days of modern dance (Isadora Duncan, Doris Humphrey, Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham) to still-active contemporary artists (Taylor, Mark Morris, Pat Graney).
For many of the older works, reconstruction is a complicated task, based on whatever notation, limited film images or fading memories may be available. This year's program includes three newly reconstructed dances by Loïe Fuller (1862-1928), an American who became a star at the Folies Bergère and a pioneer in creating theatrical magic with fabric, movement and light. Jessica Lindberg, a dance historian and teacher based in Texas, reconstructed the Fuller dances, which were originally created around 1895. "[Lindberg] used blurry photos and little film clips, but she also looked at programs and letters and reviews, and really did a very sophisticated historical study of the work," said Wiley.
"Each of the dances is just stunning. From all I've read and studied about Fuller, these just feel so true. They must be so close to what they were. That's part of the magic and the controversy of reconstruction — should we let them go because they're not exactly to-a-T perfect, and never have a sense of them, or do we try to keep a handle and an awareness of our legacy?"
Joseph Gifford's 1947 work "The Pursued," also on the program, required an entirely different approach. "I spent quite a while trying to track the choreographer down, and then found that he was actually teaching conducting in Boston," said Wiley. Gifford came out of the New Dance Group, which Wiley described as "a leftist workingman's group of choreographers who wanted to make dance about things that mattered." "The Pursuit" was Gifford's reaction to viewing the Picasso painting "Guernica," a depiction of the bombing of the city of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Now 88, the choreographer came to Seattle to set his original choreography on CDC. Wiley spent time interviewing him and plans to make a DVD about him and the work.
The October concert also includes work from more contemporary choreographers: Twyla Tharp's "Fugue" (1970), David Dorfman and Dan Froot's "Bull" (1994) and Doug Elkins' "Center My Heart" (1995) — representing a full century of dance. It will be performed by current company members Catherine Cabeen, Louis Gervais, Jamie Hall, Matthew Henley, Elizabeth Lentz and Tonya Lockyer.
Looking back over 20 seasons, Wiley mentioned a few favorites. "The work by Dore Hoyer ['Affectos Humanos'] was stunning, and every moment of working on it was just a revealing moment about humanity. The Graham work, 'Primitive Mysteries,' which I had only seen on video when I was in NY, was magical for me. The Michio Ito work ['Five Dance Poems'] was a wonderful cross-cultural journey and interesting view into modern dance heritage."
And she remembered some of the challenges of one of the company's most ambitious undertakings, CDC's 1998 remounting of Nijinsky's controversial 1912 classic, "L'Après midi d'une faune (Afternoon of a Faun)." "There was quite a controversy going on at the time over what was authentic. So we negotiated with a woman who did the notation, who was speaking for the family. The question of what was accurate had to be done overseas and by video, and it was just very difficult to negotiate all of that. We didn't really have the right to perform it until we got the final OK — it was very close to opening night!"
"In the course of it, I had to go through some soul searching about what I believed was really the authentic work, and I think that's sort of the philosophical question that I have to confront all the time: Is the intent to be accurate the bottom line, in an art form as ephemeral as ours?"
Wiley is already busily planning the next few years of CDC, shaping ideas for a program about choreographers concerned with sociopolitical issues (inspired by her work with Gifford), as well as a celebration of Alwin Nikolais' centennial.
But she's also keeping an eye out for unexpected inspiration. "I've gotten more recently interested in every year trying to find something that's more obscure, not less important but more obscure or more difficult to get. As each year passes, those old dances are more likely to be lost. I've stated in the last 10 years, my new mission is just to be trying to take heed of more marginal dances that for one reason or another are close to extinction and trying to make sure that doesn't happen."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or email@example.com
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