The dance world has a distinct treasure in the University of Washington’s Chamber Dance Company. Founded by Artistic Director and UW Professor Hannah C. Wiley, the company exists both to provide a dance platform for UW’s graduate students in dance and to “present and preserve modern dance works of significant historical and artistic value.” The back pages of CDC’s program for its 2014 fall performance at Meany Hall this past weekend displayed a list of almost 100 works within the repertoire. CDC is not quite 25 years old, but their rep covers modern dance from its infancy (Isadora Duncan) into the 21st century (Susan Marshall’s Cloudless). While the best part about watching dance history is undoubtedly the live performance, at CDC’s concert, live performance was elevated using a talented cast of seasoned professionals.
Excerpts from Marshall’s Cloudless (2006) opened the evening with an absurdist episodic romp through the human condition. Here, Marshall has choreographed paintings to life, intimating a story through nuanced visual details that morph and resurrect throughout the work: wisps of clouds (projections, lighting, steam, and set pieces), muted oranges and reds against slate grays, slicing shadows, and the effect of man-made lines juxtaposed with the curves of the human body. While many of these elements combined to create a darkly humorous tone, the cast drove the work even further; the audience became simultaneously the butt of, and in on a sinister joke.
Pablo Piantino began facing upstage gesticulating on a table, the lighting casting him as a faceless entity ticking off the minutes. Controlled energy rippled strongly from his core as he articulated the boundaries of his confined space, and his body on the black table appeared suspended in space against the surrounding darkness. Alethea Alexander and Jason Ohlberg danced two duets: “The Sound” and “Cup.” Although more well-matched in the latter than the former, Alexander and Ohlberg both shone in solo moments. By subtly under-playing their awareness of the audience, many moments became creepy with the audience a captive voyeur. Each section built a sense of escapism, or perhaps a need to escape—“Ladder” was a particularly fun section that featured Kyle Craig-Bogard running backward up a ladder assisted by ropes that never allowed her to run offstage. Cloudless climaxed quietly in the last section, “Book,” where Ohlberg and Bruce McCormick sat downstage at a table with a large book while Craig-Bogard and Chris Montoya sat behind, caressing and whispering secrets. A fan blew and flipped through the pages of the book, a peaceful and intimate moment of introspection to finish the piece.
Presented as the final piece, Daniel Shapiro and Joanie Smith’s 1989 To Have and To Hold—“for those we have loved and lost but not forgotten”—echoed moments from Bill T. Jones’s D-Man in the Waters, another 1989 work. The running and sliding on the stomach in Shapiro and Smith’s work, however, was performed across three long white benches. The dancers, costumed all in sterile white, represented both the living and the dead, and they were more reminiscent of “’til death do us part” than “to have and to hold,” as far as wedding vows are concerned. Creative partnering over and under the benches showcased the fearless skill of the dancers (including two UW undergraduate guests). Brenna Monroe-Cook, well known on Seattle stages, also guested for this work. Her mere presence onstage commands focus–she’s just that good, and Seattle is lucky to share her with the Límon Dance Company in NYC. The work began with joyful, almost manic exuberance, but finished in grief, bodies lying stacked in the crypts formed by the benches. While the work’s thematic content concluded the evening on a somber note (even more subdued as the last piece in a string of mostly solemn works), the dancing was beautifully unrestrained within the solos and small groupings.
The “meat” of the evening was Nacho Duato’s Jardi Tancat (1983), sandwiched between Cloudless and To Have and To Hold. This Duato work is often seen in the repertoire of ballet companies attempting to add a more contemporary piece to a program; however, when performed by CDC, Jardi Tancat took on greater potency and depth in both the choreography and the dancing. Enhanced by Peter Braciliano’s dusty ambient lighting (excellent throughout the evening, especially in Cloudless), Jardi Tancat unfolded a non-narrative interlude about farmers coping with drought. Curved, bent backs hugged the earth, arms outstretched like winged birds of prey. Poignant pas de deux wove a tale of love for one another and for the land. Guest Penny Saunders (who co-staged Jardi Tancat with husband Piantino and Jim Vincent) was radiant in this piece, fluid without becoming soft, compelling yet not demanding. The trio of men (McCormick, Ohlberg, and Piantino) also stood out, their unyielding masculinity searching hopefully for a more promising future. Jardi Tancat would have made a better closer than To Have and To Hold: CDC simply excelled in this work, the most upbeat of the evening.
Not only does CDC provide a showcase and repository for great modern dance works, it also provides a stage home for dancers in transition from full-time professional dancing into secondary careers. It’s almost a shame these dancers are onstage to just present historical works and not also having new pieces created on them a group. These dancers not only know how to move, but they know how best to move, and how best to create using their personal skill sets. Casting such expert dancers enhances the works, allowing for mature interpretations by skilled minds and bodies that truly bring dance history to life.
More information about the University of Washington Chamber Dance Company is available on their website.