Over the past 16 months, as a society, we have been collectively torn apart – cut off from face-to-face contact with family, friends, colleagues, and live, in-person artistic experiences. As performers – musicians, singers, actors, dancers – take the first cautious steps to return to studios and stages, it remains unclear whether these torn edges can be fully repaired.
An evening of new choreography entitled Tear the edge demonstrates a bold return to normality. The first performance took place indoors in the chandeliered ballroom of the Beaux-Arts mansion near Dupont Circle, the Perry Belmont House, before an audience of about 60 unmasked ticket buyers.
Diane Coburn Bruning created Chamber Dance Project in 2013 to fill a void in the dance community. As the area receives frequent visits from some of the world’s top companies, and its local team, the Washington Ballet, puts on a busy season of classical and contemporary works, Chamber Dance focuses on smaller chamber pieces – like its name suggests – to an eclectic selection of classical and 20th and 21st century musical choices, performed live. Bruning’s model for the small part-time troupe takes advantage of the typical large off-season ballet company. Thus, its dancers spend the year in professional companies such as the Washington Ballet and BalletMet, the Milwaukee Ballet, the Pittsburgh Ballet, among others. Bruning brings them together for an intensive rehearsal period and the brief summer season, often performed in unexpected venues rather than traditional theater spaces. Thus the glorious Perry Belmont House.
The July 14, 2021 program included four remarkable world premieres, including the opening, A light, by white-hot choreographer Claudia Schreier, who received promising reviews for her work for the Dance Theater of Harlem at the Kennedy Center, pre-pandemic, of course. The work for five, using a contemporary classical string quartet composed by Chris Rogerson, sets the dancers in swirling rhythms and scissor-sharp leaps. The two women, in pointed shoes and elegant leotards in earthy tones, are carried and manipulated alone and together by the three men. Schreier is a sidekick to George Balanchine and it shows in the intricacy of the partnership work she designs, the splicing legs and little garlands as three, four or five connect and trace spatial paths.
While Balanchine’s works are often described as plotless, perhaps it’s better to say storyless but not meaningless, as movement and gesture carry meaning and viewers make their own interpretations. A light doesn’t tell a story, but right now it feels like a flight, away from stasis, darkness and isolation. What Schreier has yet to refine is Balanchine’s wise idea of paring down his choreographic masterpieces, akin to Coco Chanel advising clients to remove a piece of jewelry or a scarf before leaving. Sometimes Schreier could too.
Bruning’s four men share a different, slightly more grounded, playful and physically competitive energy as the quartet – Christian Denice, Davit Hovhannisyan, Alexander Sargent and Graham Feeny – slide and slide, dive and tumble to selected Boccherini trios. While the demeanor is playful, with heavy kicks, drops, and what I would call a “butt pirouette,” other moments allowed these guys to display more graceful notes, careful balances, small footwork more commonly danced by women and care in associating with their fellows.
Dancer Christian Denice contributed two works, Arriving, a pas de deux on a cello solo by Phillip Glass, and Housing, a complex group work using a score for the Kronos Quartet with sections provided by Stephan Thelen, Aftab Darvishi and Glass. Housing is subtly inspired by modern dance’s loose limb release technique as the three women and three men favor looser torsos, as the sock-clad dancers glide and dive through space in a cannon and l in unison as the music swells their arms snaking like ribbons before settling. With dancers dressed in gray tones – the women in muslin dresses, the men in trousers and tunics – Housing suggests a shifting community, but there is an added effect with hair-ography: the dancers eventually let their hair down, and especially the women’s long locks added a sultry, free feel to the piece.
Besides her choreographic contributions, Denice also performed Bruning’s piece Saraband, a lush and seductive solo. The choreographer brought out Denice’s innate qualities as a compact and powerful performer. His feet massaging the ground, he rolled without taking a step. His gestures sometimes subtly semaphoric, sometimes shape and define the void. Here the focus is on the physical virtuosity of ballet technique, allowing Denice to focus on his innate qualities as a strong and powerful mover.
The program allowed the string quartet to shine without dancing: Sally McLain and Karin Kelleher on violin, Jerome Gordon on viola and Todd Thiel on cello. McLain shared Jesse Montgomery’s “Rhapsody No. 1” solo; the quartet plucked and strummed “Playful Pizzicato” by Benjamin Britten.
Duration: approximately 75 minutes
The Chamber Dance Project Performs Tear the edge Sunday, July 18, 2021, at the Washington National Cathedral, 3101 Wisconsin Ave., NW, Washington, DC. Tickets are $30. Visit chamberdance.org/performances-national-cathedral/ for more information and tickets. (Masks will be required for everyone in attendance. Ticket buyers who cannot attend will receive a link to watch a video of the performance in a few weeks.)