To see a performance in Seattle’s vibrant and experimental dance scene, one need look no farther than On the Boards or Velocity. But while the Emerald City is known for its cutting edge, there’s still a soft spot here for the great modern dance classics. This is best fulfilled by the Chamber Dance Company. Made up of University of Washington MFA candidates, the company premiered its fall performance at Meany Hall on October 10, 2013. The sophisticated evening of programming offered technical dancing and a glimpse into the heritage of contemporary movement, including two Doris Humphrey works thanks to Labanotation staging by Karena Birk.
The first piece, Humphrey’s Air for the G String, conjured a solemn cathedral-like setting. Five women draped in lush red fabric included soloist Jamie Johnson (former MOMIX performer) and four other supporting dancers: Cheryl Delostrinos, Siena Dumas Ang, Joanna Farmer, and Imana Gunawan. Like Greek goddesses, the dancers’ costumes became an integral part of the dance as the women dipped and twisted. Choreographed in 1928, the work had a simplicity and pureness that conjured Isadora Duncan.
Even more spectacular was a second Humphrey work, The Shakers–Dance of the Chosen. When the lights came up, fifteen dancers lined the stage in a square; their period attire included bonnets and long-sleeved dresses for the women, jackets and pants for the men. At the back of the stage, musician Paul Moore and vocalist Annalisee Brasil created the heartbeat of the dance with drum, organ, and operatic singing. The dance was based on the Shakers, one of the most successful utopian communities in American history who maintained a presence in the U.S. for over 200 years. The Shakers were originally founded in England by Ann Lee when she formed a new sect of “Shaking” Quakers in the 1760s; they were said to shake because they danced and spoke in tongues. According to Lee’s vision, the Shakers were to live by four basic tenets in order to achieve perfection: to live communally, to be celibate, to confess sins regularly, and to separate themselves from the outside world. Apparently, one of the last surviving Shakers said he was “enthralled” after watching Humphrey’s stark depiction of this struggle for purity.
“Enthralling” is definitely an accurate word for the dance. Led by soloist Megan Brunsvold who portrayed a prophet tending her flock, the dancers used gesture and large line formations; their rhythmic, tribal-esque movements were mesmerizing. The bound quality of their dancing, from the restrictive costumes to the one-dimensionality of their shapes gave off a hieroglyphic aesthetic.
Following the minimalism of Humphrey, it was refreshing to see dancers take up space in Brazilian Duets (1998) by choreographer Zvi Gotheiner and lush, sweeping music by Portuguese singer and researcher of Brazil’s indigenous cultures, Marlui Miranda. The piece featured a total of four duets, two of which stood out: Namu with Brunsvold and Bruce McCormick. With exceptional fluidity and dynamics, the pair removed gender from their partnering―each supported the other in weight sharing and performance quality. The final duet, Araruna was more of a modern dance pas de deux, where Natalie Desch was cheerfully and tenderly rocked back and forth into the sky by Pablo Piantino.
Following this piece, one sensed that Twyla Tharp’s The Fugue was intended as the evening’s crown-jewel (especially because of the program cover). There’s been a celebratory mood in town for Tharp, especially in light of of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s program devoted to her work. Originally choreographed in 1970, Fugue is a piece set to the beat of dancers own feet on a miked floor. Dancers included Brunsvold, Desch, and Piantino. The piece looked a bit like the tap dance with many starts, stops and percussive interludes in between, but with modern dance’s retrograde, inversion, reversal, and other phrase manipulations. A lengthy work, it offered a clever collection of innovative and quirky movement.
Doug Varone’s knock-out finale, Possession (1994), explored the complexities of gender relationships. Simply put, this was modern dance with swagger, and the performers exploded with physical daring. Love him or hate him, Philip Glass provided a cinematic score of strings that brought out a sense of emotional urgency. The flurries of movement took dancers from suspensions into knee-spins. In one stunning moment, Desch suspended herself in the shelf created by McCormick’s deep plie, his arms sweeping over her ominously. The piece ended with one couple together, in each other’s arms on the floor, and the other couple apart from one another.
Time and time again, Chamber Dance Company proves that historic modern dance will always have something to offer, as well as an attentive audience in Seattle. This performance was no exception.
To learn more about Chamber Dance Company, see http://depts.washington.edu/uwdance/cdc.html.