Chamber Dance Company                                                                                                                                 University of Washington Department of Dance                                                                  Meany Hall                                                                                                                                                                Seattle, WA


October 15, 2017

The Body Politic: The Revolutionary, Pastime, Go Down, Moses, Tenant of the Street, Harmonica Breakdown, The Light Has Not the Arms to Carry Us, Arms, Dark Matters

Dean Speer

UW’s Chamber Dance Company does what no one else does — its artistic raison d’être is the reconstruction, staging, and video recording of historic modern dances. This year’s edition featured all-female choreographers and brought to mind women in my own personal ancestry and dance lineage that I find awe-inspiring, and in one case, someone — my high school Russian teacher — who completely changed my life’s career direction. I thought of Hebzibah, my paternal great-great grandmother, who was a doula who traveled around by canoe in the Duluth area delivering babies and running a hotel; 1857 shipwreck survivor California Van Hagen Bogue, my maternal great-grandmother, and her daughter Helen, who not only was the first woman in her family not to wear a corset but who encouraged and admonished her grandchildren to never give up and to follow our dreams. Dance-wise, Gloria Hudson, my first serious ballet teacher, who giggled during pas de chat illustrating that ballet can be fun, and Gwenn Barker, whose strong teaching and uncompromising personality influenced scores of dancers, came to mind.

Titled The Body Politic, this excellent program included a range from a 1922 Isadora Duncan solo, The Revolutionary, to a Scriabin etude, played by pianist Darinus Vaicekonis and strongly danced by Alexandra Bradshaw-Yerby, to Canadian hot property choreographer Crystal Pite’s 2009 Dark Matters. Bradshaw-Yerby brought Duncan’s unique style alive and allowed us to glimpse what this pioneering artist’s interpretations must have been like. (Although photographed, Duncan was never officially filmed; there is an uncredited snippet of someone who could have been Duncan taken from a distance through a small crowd.) This was a powerful dance that resonates in the memory.

Pastime (1963) by Lucinda Childs, then with the Judson Dance Theater, features a female dancer within stretch fabric, the premise being that she appears as if she’s in a bathtub — to a sound score of various household plumbing sounds. Barbi Powers turns on the tub, extends a leg above and over its side, repeating these actions several times, including lengthening out, as if lying down in the tub and then returning it to its shape. The program notes advise us that we should imagine the water on the outside of the tub; the dancer/tub then floating.

I have long very much admired the work of second-generation modern dancer and Broadway choreographer (Annie Get Your Gun) Helen Tamiris and the single excerpt from her Negro Spirituals suite (1932) of Go Down, Moses is one of its most moving and deeply artistic sections. Staged by Karena Birk from Labanotation, and sung live by the amazing baritone Lavert Woodward, Jr., accompanied by Paul Moore, I recall the last time Chamber Dance Company did this with the late great black dancer and locally beloved Kabby Mitchell, III. This round it was powerfully danced by Brandin Steffensen. I only wished we could have enjoyed more sections of Tamiris’ work. For those who want to see Tamiris dancing, I recall a PBS special from a few years ago to check out. Her concert dance work often focused on prejudice and racism.

Eve Gentry’s Tenant of the Street (1938) early tackled the societal issue, with which we are still more than grappling, that of homelessness. Reconstructed to a sound score of San Francisco street sounds, it begins with dancer Bradshaw-Yerby shuffling in, bent slightly over as if weighed by the burden of her lot. As she dances, she straightens as if reliving her life, then comes back to the present, bent over and exits. This was as disturbing and moving today as it must have been in the late ’30s.

The first half of the program concluded with Jane Dudley’s humorous 1938 Harmonica Breakdown, delightfully danced by Alethea Alexander. Beginning with a two-dimensional elbows-hung-at-90-degrees shape and a walking theme, it builds to fun isolations and sophisticated play.

The three works of the second half were equally full of portent and social commentary, beginning with the 2008 The Light Has Not the Arms to Carry Us choreographed by Kate Weare, Arms (1984) with reaching and yearning soulfully danced by Lucie Baker and Steffensen, and concluding with Pite’s Dark Matters (2009) (excerpt).

In launching and superintending Chamber Dance Company, Hannah C. Wiley has filled some gaps in our collective dance art community, and at the same time provided the means and method for Masters’ degree candidates to explore their historic past and to give them important projects.

I can hardly wait to see and enjoy the next edition!