Chamber Dance Company University of Washington
October 16, 2016, afternoon
Every couple of generations or so, dance creators, choreographers, and other creative artist types seem to collectively decide among themselves that they will be tossing out what has gone before and begin anew — creating their own art and voices from a clean slate.
This was true of the American Modern Dance Pioneers such as Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey, among others; the next generation of Merce Cunningham and later, Paul Taylor; and a third generation in the ’60s that included the so-called Judson Church Movement.
This newest movement tried to redefine what performance dance is and could be. Some of this, I think, has been very successful while other goals have become in themselves unobtainable, such as “No to virtuosity” or “No to moving or being moved.” Every dance has some level of virtuosity to it and no performer can really control how an audience will react emotionally — or not — to what they experience.
The University of Washington’s Chamber Dance Company presented a weekend of reconstructions of dances either directly from this ’60s era or strongly influenced by it. From Lucinda Childs’ 1964 Carnation to Zvi Gotheiner’s 1992 Chairs.
Conceived by its Founding Artistic Director, UW Professor of Dance Hannah C. Wiley, Chamber Dance Company has created a unique niche for itself by focusing on the reconstruction, staging, performance, and archiving of historic modern dances. This alone is reason enough to see its annual shows. Another is its very strong performers, mostly masters degree candidates, all of whom have already had fairly extensive careers as trained dancers. This year, three members of the ensemble have worked with the famous Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company of Salt Lake City, for example.
The first piece on the bill, Trisha Brown’s 1971 Accumulation, falls into the category of what I call faux casualness, when it’s actually a highly virtuosic dance disguised as “pedestrian” movement. Aptly titled, it begins with the dancer — Joseph Blake — making a hitchhiking gesture with his right wrist and thumb, and this motif does accumulate and layer and the left is added, then undulations of the torso, then a lift of the left leg to attitude side. It keeps building and building until concluding. You think to yourself, “How do they even keep track of all that?!” This was a dance that looked challenging to do, and was mesmerizing to watch.
Steve Paxton’s 1967 Satisfyin Lover is set to no music and simply [not!] has its cast of 42 walk across the stage from stage left to stage right, but with occasional twists with variety in the numbers, groupings, and diversity. Some cast members go to sit in one of the three metal chairs that are on stage right, a bit down toward the audience. Some linger just a bit, while the last takes a fair amount of time, before he gets up, turns to his immediate left and journeys off as the curtain comes down. The diversity of humanity represented was interesting — all ages, from a toddler to seniors, some dancers, some former dancers, the former chair of the dance department at Cornish College of the Arts, some not dancers at all, a well-known arts patron, one in a motorized wheelchair, one with only one leg, some famous, some not, some wealthy. Part of the fun for me was knowing many of them, and then enjoying everyone back on stage for a full cast bow. It was an interesting piece that, amazingly, if you did not count and tally the number of performers, it still told you, ah, here’s the end.
I love the quote that Yvonne Rainer made about Paxton that was recounted in his program biography: “…she invented running and Paxton invented walking.” How true to see it in this light.
Carnation by Lucinda Childs was probably the most strange — and I believe intentionally so — dance on the program. Dancer Laura Halm hams it up with props and grand gestures, including a plastic bag into which her right foot and ankle are inserted, a food strainer that was used as a hat, helmet, and mask, doing a handstand against an upstage left white board, lying down and covering herself with a sheet, jumping into and on the plastic bag, fake smiling at the audience while posing fetchingly, and then returning to a seated position at a table from whence she began, looking up at the lights, blackout. That pretty much summarizes it.
Four out of the five dances were “chair pieces” as was the fourth, shockingly called, Chair/Pillow by Rainer . To the wails of Ike and Tina Turner, six dancers on chairs alternate having a compatible and competitive relationship with their respective oversized and fluffy pillows. Sometimes tossing them, sometimes sitting on them and then having a hard time pulling the pillows out from underneath themselves.
Reconstructed from Labanotation by Karena Birk, it was a short and interesting exercise — a dance that had promise but really didn’t go anywhere.
Concluding the program was contemporary choreographer Zvi Gotheiner’s excerpts from his Chairs from 1992, and it was probably the most satisfying work of the afternoon. One of the principal sections featured two women sitting side-by-side, each making different swooping motifs, one up, one down, interacting with one lifting and turning the other, and placing her back into her chair. This action was repeated several times and was equally lovely each occurrence.
UW Chamber Dance Company and its important work is one to watch and note for its important contribution to the Puget Sound Arts scene and also for its contribution to research and its revisiting of some great dances of the distant and not-so-distant past.