Chamber Dance Project in Sur Photo Paul Wegner

Chamber Dance Project in Sur
Photo Paul Wegner

Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, DC
June 27, 2015

Carmel Morgan

Chamber Dance Project, which emerged on the DC dance scene last year, bills itself as “a renaissance organization of dancers, musicians, and choreographers dedicated to redefining the experience of contemporary ballet.” More specifically, it is a small pick-up company of seasoned ballet dancers, including dancers from the Washington Ballet, Cincinnati Ballet, and Milwaukee Ballet, under the leadership of Founder and Artistic Director, Diane Coburn Bruning, who left New York City for the DC area nearly six years ago and currently teaches choreography at George Mason University.

An onstage quartet of similarly seasoned musicians accompanies each dance piece and forms an integral part of the group. Having live music is a luxury, especially for small dance companies, and the composition of Chamber Dance Project provides a unique
opportunity for artistic cross-collaboration.

Nowhere was this artistic collaboration more evident than in SI-3 and SI-6, a structured improvisation conceived by Bruning, and easily the most enjoyable work of the evening. The structure of the improvisation was posted backstage just prior to the performance, and the musicians were given a score they had never played together. That makes what takes place a spontaneous premiere; and it was a real audience-pleasing treat.

Dressed in warm-up wear, the dancers began in a wide circle. Pairs entered the center and increasingly engaged with each other, while the rest stood at the edge. Then the dancers approached the musicians, led by Ballet Master Luis R. Torres. In a flock and following the movement of Torres, they crept up to the quartet until they hovered over them. The dancers swiped and repositioned two music stands, the musicians moving with them and continuing to play while being manipulated. A foot dangling in the air beside a musician’s head shook and mimicked vibrato. It was chaotic and silly, but the audience erupted with genuine laughter and the performers were aglow with the playful spirit.

Journey, a duet created by Bruning for Lisa Tachick and Peter Boal in 2003 and that is dedicated to Bruning’s father, also stood out. The pace is slow, and the movement has a spare, stripped down style, allowing the viewer to appreciate the expressive intimacy of dancers Francesca Dugarte and Jacob Bush. Wearing simple white tops and black shorts, they danced closely, sometimes chest to chest, sometimes side by side. Dugarte often clung to her partner. She leaned full-tilt into him; she hung her body over one of his knees, then rolled off his subsequently straightened leg. One could feel the pain of parting as Bush walked off the stage, leaving Dugarte, who had slid off of him one last time, on the floor.

Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Wild Swans was purportedly inspired by the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem of the same name. To music by Chia Patino (also titled Wild Swans), three men and three women act out swan-like moves. There are hands clenched like bills; arms jutting out from behind, bent deeply at the elbow, resembling wings; and undulating heads dipping into unseen water. The ending, during which the dancers gather in a cluster, jerk their limbs, and grab themselves, is an odd surprise. While technically demanding and well executed, the movement in this world premiere piece came across as flat and rather mechanical.

If I were to hazard a guess, Bruning’s Exit Wounds…and then they come home is about soldiers returning from war with post-traumatic stress disorder. It begins in near darkness, with two dancers showing up as shadows. The pair often cling to each other, not unlike in the earlier Journey, except that here both dancers are male. To hauntingly lovely movements from three of Phillip Glass’ string quartets, one dancer climbs atop the other’s back and huddles there. Folding and unfolding, ducking and maneuvering, the men remain tied together.

This performance of Exit Wounds was made particularly interesting thanks to the replacement of injured dancer Chris Lingner with Davit Hovhannisyan, who is considerably taller than his partner on the evening, Bush. Frequently, it was the much smaller Bush carrying Hovhannisyan’s weight. Hovhannisyan struggled to completely collapse his lanky body in order to pass through Bush’s opened legs, and Bush literally had his hands full sitting on the floor cradling Hovhannisyan. The inverted dynamics, though, made for compelling dance.

In the evening’s final work, Sur, by Argentinian Jorge Amarante, the music surpassed the dancing. Tango can be intoxicating, and Chamber Dance Project’s four musicians (Claudia Chudacoff and Chaerim Smith, violin; Derek Smith, viola; and Marion Baker, cello) made the combination of compositions by Peteris Vasks and Astor Piazzolla sing. The dancers, however, didn’t quite capture the sexy rhythms or the controlled footwork of tango. The three couples seemed frenzied, the choreography overly busy. The excitement of Sur was driven by bows driving across strings and not female dancers being flung around by their male partners.

In both halves of the performance, the musicians played a piece sans dancers (Don’t Tread on Me or My String Quartet by Russell Peck and the Allegro Con Brio from the fourth movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins in C Major Op. 56). Having these music-only interludes gave the audience a chance to refocus the senses, and it definitely added a lot to the overall production.

Looking ahead, it would be nice to see Chamber Dance Project in an even smaller and more informal venue, where the interactions between the dancers and musicians could be even further magnified.