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University of Washington Chamber Dance Company

Classics for Now of Modern Dance

by Dean Speer

February 2, 2006 -- Meany Hall Theatre, Seattle, Washington

Every once in awhile, you come across a showing of work that impels one to shout out, “Go see it! Now!!”  The University of Washington’s Chamber Dance Company has ginned up such a concoction for their 2006 round of historic or significant modern dance reconstructions. These have ranged from as early as Loïe Fuller (1895) to Mark Dendy (1996) and includes “greats” such as Martha Graham and lesser-knowns like Dore Hoyer (1962).

Filling out this bill were Ted Shawn’s “Mevlevi Dervish” from 1929; Charles Weidman’s 1961 tribute to Doris Humphrey, “Brahms Waltzes;” “Two Ecstatic Themes” (1931) by Humphrey herself; Zvi Gotheiner’s contemporary 1998 work, “Brazilian Duets,” and concluding with a major piece by José Limón, “There is a Time” from 1956.

Li Hengda whirled and whirled with only changes to the arms and torso breaking the hypnotic trance of Shawn’s early solo, “paddle-turning” without stop and with no spotting, concluding with a slight increase of speed and arms trust open and up to the sky. A very deceptively simple solo – effective and interesting.

If you like the Opus 39 piano waltzes of Brahms as much as I do, you’d be an instant fan of Weidman’s piece that pays homage to his colleague and dance partner, the American modern dance pioneer Doris Humphrey. It uses many of her classic motives, patterns, and spatial shapes – reaching in one direction but falling in another, inventive arms positions, using small groups of dancers to create visual tension. And importantly, lyric and lush movement phrases built well using traditional compositional devices.

I remember my first male ballet teacher, William (Bill) Earl performing the male solo – piece number four – and just adoring the choreography. I recall he did this rendition, which included segments from other portions of the dance and included a brief verbal narration at the end of the last waltz, as much as a tribute to Weidman who had recently passed on (1975) as it was to Humphrey.

My only disappointment with Chamber Dance’s version is that it did not include the entire work (leaving out, among others, my beloved number four). The music was strongly performed in its original four-hand piano version by Asta and Dainius Vaicekonis. The dancers were nicely prepared in the style, seemed to enjoy themselves and brought the essence of this classic work to life. Each seemed to have strong technique and all had a good stage presence.

Erricka S. Turner came into her own with “Two Ecstatic Themes.” It was a piece just right for her. It begins in second position with large undulations and circles of the torso –but to the back and sides, but not front – which make it unusual and really stand out. We were told that Humphrey had created this work during the period when she had fallen in love (in her mid 30s). The program notes describe this piece as “the physical drama of rising versus sinking...” True. It also frames the “...affirmation of faith in the world and humanity.” And it shows love. Turner moved big within the text of the choreography and brought a level of artistic maturity to the two solos that was most pleasing to see.

“Themes” was staged by former Cornish College dance chair Lois Rathvon from the Labanotation Score. It’s notable that Humphrey was among the first wave of dance choreographers to embrace notation as a means of preserving work. Rathvon has set a fair number of works on Chamber Dance Company, and it was nice seeing this solo which was new to my viewing eyes. I like the Humphrey canon and look forward to hopefully seeing more in future seasons.

At the other end of the dance floor spectrum was Gotheiner’s “Brazilian Duets,” which is comprised of three separate duets set to the music of Marlui Miranda. Notable was the second duet for two men, which used contemporary partnering techniques such as weight-sharing.

The post-interval portion of the program was given over to Limón’s weighty, but not lugubrious “There is a Time,” which springs from the platform of Ecclesiastes 3. Its twelve sections run the gamut of human experience. It opens and closes with the dancers holding hands in a circle and swaying and rocking back and forth. Unexpected was the ”A time to keep silence, and a time to speak” section which was done a capella and to off- and on-stage rhythmic hand slapping by the male soloist. This one really got my attention.

”A time to laugh...” featured Turner in an allegro solo with an outrageous costume – orange headband, orange skirt underneath her brown dance dress. I was also pleased that she was using the modern dance basic of dancing in bare feet, while the other dancers were wearing light pink ballet slippers – which tend to give the appearance of bare feet, almost. I know a lot of dancers who really dislike having to dance barefooted, so I’m not sure if it was a dancers’ choice or if the stager or Limón himself wanted this. Sometimes ”the moderns” used ballet slippers – Martha Graham in her “Appalachian Spring” for example.

As I have written before, UW Chamber Dance Company has created for itself a special and important dance niche in the Northwest and one that we will continue to applaud and look forward to. It’s important to be reminded of our rich dance heritage, and one of the best ways of doing this is augmenting print and electronic writings and ephemera with what it’s really all about – the dances themselves.

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