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Modern dance, reconstructed

Brenna Monroe-Cook of Chamber Dance Company Credit: Steve Korn

In the world of modern dance, rules are optional. The vocabulary of movement is confined only by the limitations of the human body and the imagination of the choreographer. Since Isadora Duncan donned her first tunic a century ago, a boundless and wildly diverse canon of works by countless choreographers has taken shape and is still evolving.

Seattle’s Chamber Dance Company (CDC) debuted in 1990 and, since then, the company has reconstructed works created throughout the 20th century by 45 of these choreographers. And the company is adding new reconstructions to their repertoire every year.

An original work has never been choreographed for CDC, according to Hannah Wiley, 59, who founded the company as part of the University of Washington’s Dance Program. Wiley began CDC with the mission of reconstructing modern dance works on live dancers, videotaping the performances, and archiving the videos. She has remained dedicated to this mission and is still the company’s artistic director.

“All the works we reconstruct and perform have significant artistic and historic merit,” Wiley says. “The choreography is absolutely authentic.”

For Wiley, a single thread throughout every concert is crucial. The theme that binds the upcoming 2009 concert together is social issues — mass hysteria, prejudice, poverty, homelessness, war — topics that seem as meaningful today as when these dances were created. This year’s performance includes: Lynchtown, by modern dance pioneer Charles Weidman (1936); Tenant of the Street, by Eve Gentry (1938); Harmonica Breakdown, by Jane Dudley (1940); The Pursued, by Joseph Gifford (1947); Strange Hero, by Daniel Nagrin (1948); Dink’s Blues, by Donald McKayle (1959); and D-man in the Water (Part One), by Bill T. Jones (1989).

All but D-man in the Water (Part One) were created by choreographers at New York’s New Dance Group, an artistic cooperative that produced some of modern dance’s most incisive works. D-Man originated as the choreographer’s personal response to the AIDS crisis.

How does Wiley narrow down her selections to those dances the company will reconstruct? “I use many different criteria,” she says. “But, above all, I have to like the piece, unless it’s simply so critical to dance history that we have to reconstruct it.”

Reconstructing a modern dance work, especially one obscured by time, is a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. Wiley employs a variety of sources, the ideal ones being the original choreographer (if he or she is still alive) or a dancer who has performed the piece, as in the case of D-man.

Catherine Cabeen, 31, a recent graduate of UW’s Master of Fine Arts Program in Dance and a CDC company member, was formerly a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Bill T. Jones Dance Company, both in New York. She served as Jones’ assistant choreographer and has performed his D-man numerous times. Even though Cabeen has internalized this work of art, she uses copious notes about the choreography to accurately reconstruct the piece on CDC dancers.

Wiley also relies on a system of notation called Labanotation that documents the details of movement very much like a musical score documents a musical composition. To reconstruct older works, she utilizes literary sources, period photos, dance historians, and disciples of the original choreographer if they are available.

The journey from reconstruction to performance is a labor of love, and meticulous planning and coordination are essential. Before the dancers ever step into the studio, Wiley secures the rights to reconstruct and perform the piece, obtains financial resources, and isolates the most effective method and sources of reconstruction. When work in the studio begins, Wiley, her staff and the dancers face some long hours. D-Man alone required 44 hours to reconstruct on the dancers and another 25 hours of rehearsal for it to be performance-ready.

CDC’s dancers are used to long hours in the studio. This seasoned company consists of graduates of the MFA Program in Dance, such as Cabeen, current MFA students, and carefully vetted undergrads from the university’s dance department. A requirement to enter the MFA Program in Dance is at least eight years as a member of a professional dance company.

For CDC dancers, the opportunity to reconstruct modern dance history draws them to the university’s dance program. Such is the case for 28-year-old Brenna Monroe-Cook, a first-year MFA student. Since childhood, Monroe-Cook was classically trained in both ballet and modern dance. As an adult, she has pursued modern dance as her medium of choice and, prior to moving to Seattle for the opportunity to dance with CDC, she toured internationally with the famed José Limón Company. According to Monroe-Cook, “Of all the types of dance I could have pursued, modern dance feels like the most expressive endeavor.”

Chamber Dance Company performs annually every fall. The 2009 concert will be held Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 22-25, at Meany Hall for the Performing Arts on the UW Campus. For tickets, call (206) 543-4880 or visit the website for Meany Hall tickets.

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