The University of Washington celebrated two important anniversaries this October: 50 years of the UW dance program and 25 years of Chamber Dance Company. A host of classes, workshops, performances, and research panels greeted students, alumni, and a Seattle dance public October 15-20, and CDC’s annual performance became a centerpiece for the festivities. For 25 years, CDC, founded by Professor Hannah Wiley, has put historical repertory works on stage, giving UW MFA students (along with occasional guests and undergraduates) a chance to dig into modern dance’s vast repertory. CDC itself now has over 100 works in its own repertory. This year’s concert provided a historical retrospective of modern dance—a fitting theme for a historic year—with short works and excerpts spanning from Loïe Fuller to Joe Goode.
The choreographers for the evening’s first half comprised a who’s who of twentieth century dance in chronological order: Loïe Fuller, Michel Fokine, Martha Graham, Anna Sokolow, Dore Hoyer, and (one, two, skip a few) Joe Goode. Fuller’s Lily of the Nile (1896) was equal parts performance magic and stagecraft, a testament to Fuller’s role as both choreographer and designer of her own iconic costumes and technical theater elements. Dancer Megan Stutesman arced her giant white dress through space with simple body movements that showed complex aesthetic patterns of the fabric under the light. The shimmering, glowing light (beautifully reconstructed by Jessica Lindberg and realized by Peter Bracilano) transformed the stage into a symbolist dream where color swirled with sound. The work’s final, lily-like image was of Stutesman spinning, her arms upstretched, under fading gold light as the Camille Saint-Saëns violin work resolved—a poignant glimpse of the past and of theater’s enduring emotional power.
CDC member Chris Montoya brought Fokine’s Petrouchka (1911) to life in an excerpt from the ballet’s scene two, Petrouchka’s Room. Although an exemplar of Ballet Russe collaboration (Fokine’s choreography, Igor Stravinsky’s music, Alexandre Benois’ design, not to mention Vaslav Nijinsky’s dancing), Petrouchka also boasts 1911 views on race, which are, to say the (very) least, problematic to perform today. This scene, however, was free from those complications, and it was a treat to see the title character come to life. From the clown face to the mitten hands and awkward rag doll movements, Montoya gave that sad, sad clown the uncomfortable edge that is hard to capture on screen. Clown pathos is more real in person.
Lamentation (1930), one of Graham’s early solo works, made an impact with its iconic costume. Performer Julia Burrer danced, mostly seated on a bench, in a fabric tube, and the shape or stretching of her limbs showed the tension in the fabric. To form a comparison with the concert’s opening work: Fuller’s Lily dress soared through the air, but Lamentation’s garment closed the body in. However, while the gigantic dress abstracted the human body out of the dance, the tight fabric against Burrer’s body formed an emotional exoskeleton for an unmistakably female figure living with grief.
Going, from Sokolow’s Rooms (1955), captured the essence of mid-century urban loneliness and anxiety. Joseph Blake danced with barely contained frenetic energy, yet the choreography was minimalist. He often sat on the floor against a chair, with his head thrown back, hands snapping, feet tapping, and shoulders pulsing with the jazz score of Kenyon Brown. Blake tried out different spots on the stage, but, too indecisive, he wound up back at the chair and let his hands fall to the ground in exhaustion or defeat.
Hoyer’s Angst, from Affectos Humanos (1962), continued the thread of dances that embodied a specific, strong inner feeling. Erin Cardinal appeared creature-like, something both more and less than human (as compared to very human in Lamentation or Going), as her hands clung to her head and obscured her face. Her knees swung in and out as she walked in wide circles, her upper body fighting for balance. Dimitri Wiatowitsch’s percussion score (transcribed and recorded by Steve Korn) echoed the dance, beating one eerie tattoo after another. At the end, a drumroll accompanied Cardinal’s full body twitch and the piece faded away without resolution. There is a current trend in contemporary dance to use a twitch (and a drone) as a way to begin developing movement, so Hoyer’s twitch as the unsatisfactory climax to build up to was especially striking.
At this point, the concert jumped forward forty years to arrive at an excerpt from Joe Goode’s grace (2004) and the night’s first non-solo. A trio danced by Blake, Sean O’Bryan, and Rachael Lincoln, grace dealt in human relationships through a tangle of dense choreography. The three were deeply intertwined in cause-and-effect partnering. Sometimes the two men manipulated Lincoln; sometimes she drove the action, diving over one only to be tossed in the air by the other before all cascaded to the ground. All of a sudden, Lincoln spoke: “right off the top of my head, this isn’t working.” Her monologue punctuated the movement, adding a shade of humor and using language as a frank means of bringing inner experience to light.
Each of the works in the first half represented a key shift or moment in the history of modern dance. After this clear chronology, the two 1990s works that comprised the concert’s second half seemed relatively unremarkable. Which is too bad: both are lovely examples of contemporary dance not too removed from the now. Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith’s Moonlight, from Notes on a Séance (1999), swelled with melancholy atmosphere as two women and two men spiralled around each other. While using such familiar music—Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”—can run the risk of cliché, Shapiro and Smith managed to bring new shades of meaning to the piece with the constantly shifting pairings of the dancers. An excerpt from Doug Elkins’ Center My Heart (1996), closed the show. As the evening’s most upbeat piece, it was in one sense, a natural closer. Eight dancers in bright, sari-influenced costumes danced Indian-inflected choreography (with music by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) with angular arms and percussive footwork. It was a celebratory dance full of joyous unison, but it’s easygoing pace was not quite enough to end the night on a high—especially after so much emotional intensity in the rest of the concert. Again, both Moonlight and Heart are strong, compelling dances and were beautifully performed; programmed differently, they would be standouts.
Programming quibbles aside, this year’s CDC concert once again made a strong argument for the continued performance of historical works. Seeing a dancer of today perform dance of a bygone era deepens our understanding of the work—the artist, the aesthetic, the artistic preoccupations of the time. 2015 is a historic year of anniversaries for dance at the UW; the department’s appreciation for history is no small part of its success in moving forward.
For more information on UW Chamber Dance Company, visit their website.