Chamber Dance Company Proves Why It’s Relevant

Written by Kristen Legg

Ilana Goldman in Chamber Dance Company
Photo by 
Steve Korn
On October 11, 2012, Chamber Dance Company presented its annual performance, which featured works by Jean Erdman, Helen Tamiris, Ruth St. Denis, Mary Wigman, Ethel Winter, Susan Marshall, and Louis Falco. The evening consisted of nine solos, a duet, and an energetic group work featuring most of the graduate students.

The show opened with The Incense by St. Denis. Choreographed in 1906, this historic work opens stunningly with a coolly lit wash of the stage and three large woven runs. Dancer Ilana Goldman can be seen silhouetted behind a flowy, white curtain as two large urns smoke on stage, filling the auditorium with the sleepy scent of incense. Like many works of this era, The Incense is, in part, a character study. Goldman circled the urns; walking with heels leading, a slight bend in her knees, she added incense, constantly rippling her spine and moving her hands to smoothly exchange a gold dish between them. In terms of what is seen today in dance, this work might have seemed dull. However, there is so much history and early-1900s innovation in the work, it is nearly impossible not to be taken in by the atmosphere created.

Second on the docket was Jean Erdman’s Creature on a Journey from 1943. Staged by Erdman’s long-time associate, Nancy Allison, this work is “a fantasy of preparations, voyages and arrivals.” In this too short solo, Stephanie Liapis preened and explored the space. She was playful, yet intent, skittish, yet brave. Val Mayse and Audrey Supple also did a fantastic job recreating the original costume design. The authenticity and vibrancy of this work were wonderful to see.

Stephanie Liapis in Creature on a JourneyPhoto by Steve Korn
En Dolor was one of the best pieces of the evening. Choreographer Winter’s time with the Martha Graham Dance Company is instantly noticeable in her most well-known solo, in part because of the movement and in part because of Goldman’s long and lean facility. In fact, Goldman’s performance rivals descriptions of Winter herself. Interestingly, En Dolor was set from Labanotation score by Seattle local, Karena Birk and cleaned via video conference by a member of the MarthaGrahamDanceCenter, who maintains Winter’s few choreographic works.

Another too short work was Pastorale, choreographed by Mary Wigman. Known for using non-western music, masks, and contorted shapes, Wigman offers here a surprisingly light and non-corporeal study. The work starts and ends on the floor, with undulations and rippling port de bras throughout. Clad in a white silk dress, Natalie Desch seemed to float about the stage like a leaf caught in a breeze. Desch was joyful and honest in her performance. Videos are available on the internet of many of this weekend’s work, but most notable is a film of Wigman performing Pastorale, which can be seen here.

The next work was a series of solos from Negro Spirituals by Tamiris. These five solos, all set in the late 20s and early 30s, were wonderfully danced by Jamie Johnson, Desch, Ryan Corriston, and Wilson Mendieta (Megan Brunsvold was unable to perform in this work due to injury). In “Go Down, Moses,” Johnson looked slight and vulnerable as the piece opened, standing center stage in a lovely 1930s-inspired dress by Mayse. As small as she seemed then, with the powerful, simplistic movement she commanded the space and the audience’s attention. Desch was again captivating in “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and Corriston’s “Git on Board, Li’l Chillun,” though somewhat stiff in head and neck movement, was upbeat and well performed. Mendieta’s “Crucifixion” was one of the strongest performances of the night. His subtlety in the hand gestures and introspective performance quality read well and contrasted nicely with Johnson’s closer, “Joshua Fit de Battle ob Jericho.” While it was a shame to miss Brunsvold in this role, having Johnson open and close the excerpt was pleasing.

The audience did, thankfully, get to see Brunsvold in Armsby Marshall. A palpable shift in the evening occurred after intermission, starting with this 1984 duet to the soundscape of Luis Resto. Brunsvold and Mendieta were amazingly paired. In this tight duet that never leaves stage left, their arms swoop, barely missing one another, at first small and pedestrian-like, later huge and complemented by weight-shifts and surprising moments of partnering.  Dark and moody, with creative uses of the title body part, Armsseems current even today, years after its creation.

Megan Brunsvold and Wilson Mendieta in EscargotPhoto  by Steve Korn
The last work of the evening was the light, almost trivial seeming, Escargot, choreographed by Falco—the only male choreographer of the night. With dated zebra-striped costumes and groovy early 80s music, there was nothing serious about this piece. But there was something nice about ending the show on this note. The evening showed a range of dramatic works, and this piece, though happy and innocent, was still quite theatrical. The dancers interacted on stage, moving in and out of seamless duets and trios. The piece had a distinct beginning, middle, and end, returning the audience to the beginning motif at the close. It moved people to feel something, which is what dance should do.

Admittedly, the second half of the performance was more engaging in terms of vocabulary range and technical prowess, but both halves had merit and necessity. What is sad to recount is how few people came to experience this event. The works being presented by CDC are dated, true. Some are so different from what is currently being created, they seem alien. But these works are more than just the foundation for 20th century modern dance. They are a passing on of tradition, taught by those who worked with the original choreographer, set from notated score, or passed down over the last 100+ years to be recreated with the indented style and nuances again and again.

There are a few more chances to see this wonderful evening of historical dance works. Shows continue October 12–14, 2012 with 7:30 pm shows Friday and Saturday, and a 2:00 pm matinee on Sunday. Tickets can be purchased at in advance at a discounted rate at www.meany.org or at the door.