Chamber Dance Project in Sur Photo Paul Wegner

Chamber Dance Project in Sur
Photo Paul Wegner

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY
August 6, 2015

Jerry Hochman

Chamber Dance Project was founded in New York in 2000 by Artistic Director Diane Coburn Bruning as a summer project for uniting dancers, musicians and choreographers. By directly involving all three in a creative process, and presenting programs to audiences on a chamber scale, the idea was that the experience of contemporary ballet could be redefined. Whether that’s particularly unique, or provides a particularly ‘renaissance’ experience (as the company suggests) is debatable, but what is not debatable is that Chamber Dance Project provides an interesting framework for interesting dance.

From its quiet beginnings, the company has gone far beyond its origins, relocating to Washington, D.C. where it has presented two successful seasons. While not a complete success, this evening at The Joyce
Ballet Festival proved highly enjoyable.

The program consisted of four ballets, and two musical intermezzos without choreographic accompaniment. The instrumental performances by Claudia Chudacoff and Chaerim Smith on violins, Derek Smith on viola and Marion Baker on the cello, were first rate, and the solo musical interludes sensational – particular Allegro Con Brio (the fourth movement of Prokofiev’s Sonata for Two Violins in C Major, Op. 56), played by Chudacoff and Smith.

Overall, the dances were well executed by the company’s six dancers, but the choreography by Bruning and several different ‘visiting’ choreographers was somewhat uneven. The most polished was the concluding piece, Sur (the only dance not having its New York premiere); the least was a ‘structured improvisation’ for the company and a pair of meandering photographers called S1-8 and S1-9. For the latter, the dancers are given general instructions just before curtain, and the musicians play a score they’d not previously played together, with the result being a different ‘dance’ at every performance. It sounds like an interesting concept – and it probably was a lot more fun to be involved in than to watch.

Wild Swans, which opened the program, is choreographed by Darrell Grand Moultrie to a composition of the same title by Chia Patino. Moultrie has a Broadway background, and the qualities with which he imbues Wild Swans attest to that – a well-crafted and highly theatrical slice of swan life. The piece begins with Luz San Miguel emerging from upstage center as if from a forest, or a lake. Looking exotic, regal and just a bit fearful, San Miguel dances swan-like for a while, until she’s joined by two more female swans (Francesca Dugarte and Morgann Rose), who are subsequently replaced by three male swans, and then the six pair off.  Except for the vivid impressions made by San Miguel and Dugarte (dancers with the Milwaukee Ballet and the Washington Ballet, respectively), the piece was atmospheric, but not much more.

Exit Wounds…and Then They Come Home, which closed the first half of the program, and Arranged, which opened the second half, are interesting and somewhat complementary, contrasting bookends.

A male duet choreographed by Bruning (restaged by Ballet Master Luis R. Torres), Exit Wounds is an intense, curious dance of power, loss, and despair and a tour de force for its two dancers, Jacob Bush, a member of the Atlanta Ballet, and Davit Hovhannisyan, a principal dancer with the Milwaukee Ballet. But it’s also a dance about attraction, affection, and withdrawal, which makes it somewhat difficult to cleanly decipher, although perhaps that’s the point. It was a moving duet, but also strangely unfocused. The dance’s title would appear to reference some in-country or post-war battle scarring. But it appeared that there was more to the piece then a visualization of wartime comrades united by post-traumatic stress. What I saw was a relationship that was more personal and intimate than that (though there was no overt sexuality). The very obvious emotional components which dominate the piece were vividly presented, but the lack of clarity left me respecting the dancers’ efforts (both did a superb job with the emotion-laden choreography) but not particularly enjoying the piece.

If Exit Wounds was curious, Arranged was just strange. Instead of an intense, passionate duet for two men, Arranged is a passionless (at least on the surface), intense dance for three women – one of whom moves by herself, the other two as a pair. Like Exit Wounds, however, the significance of Arranged is not clear.

As the ballet begins, San Miguel is seated toward the upstage end of a diagonal line of folding chairs, and Dugarte and Rose are seated next to each other downstage, with legs extended. Each wears a white-as-snow leotard, and is covered from head to mid-body with a white veil. Gradually the women move one extremity, then another. As the dance and the accompanying score progress, the three remain essentially tethered to their chairs, but briefly move off them for more varied action (although I use the word ‘action’ advisedly – it’s very slow-moving). The piece culminates with Dugarte removing the veil from her face, letting her hair down, and arching backward while Rose looks at her. Other than that brief quiet dramatic image, the piece’s only drama is whether there would be any drama. And while it looks interesting because of the unusual staging and costumes, the dance devolves into something that is unnecessarily strange, affected, and dense.

My first reaction to Arranged was that the three women were selections for arranged marriages. Perhaps the veils and white leotards were metaphors both for brides in wedding dresses, and for these brides being unable to choose freely (and maybe the chairs being representative of church seating). But as it proceeded, the piece seemed less about that (if it’s about anything) than about some ‘arrangement’ – of chairs, and of the women seated on them. And the two women seated next to each other seemed dominated by their own relationship than to some offstage relationship to which they were bound. In that sense, together with the intense but hidden emotional voltage, it looked like a stifled sexual relationship – with San Miguel’s character being the odd woman out. The musical accompaniment, Arvo Part’s Fratres, also has an interesting indirect reference to ‘sisters’.  But I have no idea whether these theories have any validity, or whether any ‘meaning’ really matters.

Ballet and tango have been paired previously, but as expressed in Sur by choreographer Jorge Amarante (restaged by Torres), the combination is both quieter and yet somehow equally incendiary.

To the first and second movements of contemporary Latvian composer Peteris Vasks’ String Quartet No. 4, and various tango-themed pieces by Astor Piazolla, Sur broadens the scope of the tango, stretching its boundaries to include classical, balletic sensibilities and a South American/Southwest flavor. There was structured balance, ardent as much as fierce, with body contact and control that at times looked almost like something Pilobolus would attempt, but with less obvious athleticism. The tangos that comprise Sur are definitely tangos, but they’re tangos that breathed fresh air rather than the combustible vapors of a dance hall. Sur is structured well and has a level of visual excitement, but was kinder, gentler, and yet every bit as sensual.

The Joyce Ballet Festival continues this week with three programs from three more emerging companies. If they are as inventive as that by Chamber Dance Project, they will be well worth seeing.