In a Meany Hall studio on the University of Washington campus, drenched in afternoon sun, a group of dancers are re-creating history. Doug Varone’s “Home,” originally choreographed in 1988, tells the story of a coupling — a quiet novel of a relationship, told through stillness and sudden movement. In an excerpt from Zvi Gotheiner’s 1992 work “Chairs,” two dancers balance — seemingly impossibly — on one wooden chair, lifting and supporting each other as their bodies become sculpture. And in “Moonlight,” from Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith in 1999, four dancers delicately interweave; suddenly, a diving horizontal lift made this onlooker gasp, in awe of the moment’s beauty.
This is the mission of Chamber Dance Company, founded in 1990 by Hannah C. Wiley: to identify, produce, archive and preserve great works of modern dance — specifically, works that may not be well known to Northwest audiences. Wiley, former director and current professor in the UW dance program, still runs the company, which this year celebrates its 30th anniversary season. (Last year was technically its 30th, but pandemics have a way of delaying things.) A special anniversary program will be presented at Meany Hall Oct. 21-24.
The company, made up of graduate dance students and a few guests, began when Wiley, then new to the UW, worked to design a new Master of Fine Arts program in dance. Aimed at professional dancers interested in teaching, it would give students a performance opportunity during that study — one in which they would “be exposed to and actually embody dances from the modern dance canon,” said Wiley in an interview last month.
The idea of Chamber Dance Company isn’t unique; Repertory Dance Theatre in Utah, for example, has been doing similar work since 1966. But it’s unusual for a company to devote itself solely to archival work. Wiley remembered, as a young dancer in the 1970s in New York for the first time, going to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and being dazzled by the wealth of archival dance films there.
“I would think, I’m a dancer and I’ve never seen any of these works in the canon!” she said, noting that classical musicians in training would routinely be exposed to classic works. “It seemed to me that it was really important for a liberal arts dance degree to include live history.”
In annual performances, Chamber Dance Company has presented more than 110 works, whose years of origin range from 1895 (Loïe Fuller’s “Night,” with its swirling skirts) to the 2010s. Its list of choreographers includes names like Twyla Tharp, Martha Graham and Vaslav Nijinsky (anyone who saw CDC’s “L’après-midi d’une faune” in 1998 never forgot its beautiful strangeness), alongside lesser-known contemporary dancemakers.
All are given the same treatment: a dance meticulously re-created, often by the choreographer (if still living) or a designated stager. Alberto (Tito) del Saz, artistic director of The Nikolais/Louis Foundation for Dance, has traveled multiple times to Seattle to stage works by modern-dance legend Alwin Nikolais (1910-1993). “Hannah has created this interesting environment; she paid a lot of respect and put a lot of importance into these constructions,” del Saz said in a telephone interview. “I think it is a unique situation — somebody feels the responsibility and the way of showing gratitude, showing the weight and the importance of these groundbreaking works in the dance community.” The dancers, he said, are “top caliber — always a pleasure.”
Mary Anne Santos Newhall, a retired dean and professor at the University of New Mexico who has staged works by Eve Gentry (1910-1994) for Chamber Dance Company, said that Wiley is “really a pioneer in the field. … What she’s done is create this living repository of dances.” The dancers in the MFA program can then take those dances, and the knowledge they learned from them, into their future careers at other institutions. “The performance and the preservation is monumental, but the impact on the field is, I would suggest, just as large,” she said.
Newhall noted that just as languages can be lost from oral tradition, dances can likewise disappear. “It has to be passed on from body to body, or we lose our language.” she said. “What Hannah is doing is preserving our language of dance.”
Though initially the Chamber Dance Company works weren’t carefully filmed, Wiley said she quickly realized how important it was to create a video component of the work. “It took me a couple of years to figure out that, oh my gosh, I could be building something that you couldn’t see anywhere else.”
Preservation is now a crucial part of the process, including not just filming the dances but interviewing the people involved — all the more important with historical works as the creators and participants age. Some of the resulting videos are unavailable for general viewing due to rights issues, but a dozen documentaries created by Wiley, each showcasing an individual choreographer, are online for anyone to view.
And during the pandemic, a curious thing happened. Needing a project during a long, quiet year, Wiley and a student approached the rights holders of all the works performed over the company’s 30 years, asking if they might consider making CDC’s archived videos available to researchers or students. Wiley was delighted to find that many who had originally specified their videos as private had reconsidered. “It’s not yet a blanket ‘everyone can see everything,’” Wiley said, “but we’re on the way to making 80% of the repertory at least available to students, or with permission from me.”
For the long-postponed 30th anniversary, Wiley has chosen five works from the relatively recent past. Most of the choreographers have been represented in CDC concerts before, but she’s excited to include the company’s first work by Camille A. Brown, who recently choreographed and co-directed “Fire Shut Up In My Bones” at the Metropolitan Opera. “City of Rain,” the 2010 Brown work to be performed at CDC, is a large-scale piece, “almost too big for the studio,” Wiley said. In rehearsal, even with a few dancers missing, it seems to magically fill the space with ever-moving bodies and the percussive stomp of rhythmic feet.
The rehearsal process, Wiley said, has been exceptionally meaningful this year after so many months of separation — dance, a communal art, thrives on people joining together. “We had a couple of stagers who actually wept,” Wiley said. “To be in the studio with dancers dancing … it was extremely emotional.”
Looking back over 30 years, Wiley has a few favorite dances. Three works from Lucinda Childs from the 1960s and ‘70s felt “really important and magical; they spoke of an era that I think is important.” Steve Paxton’s “Satisfyin Lover” needed a huge cast of about 45 dancers — “it was so fun to invite all sorts of people from the community to be part of it.” (Paxton, known in the dance world as the founder of contact improvisation, suggested the dance should be performed in the nude. “We didn’t do that here,” Wiley said, a smile evident even in a phone conversation.)
A suite of 1960s dances by the German choreographer Dore Hoyer (1911-1967) were “a real coup,” Wiley said. Those dances were nearly completely lost, but a historian found films of them, performed in Hong Kong. “She went to Germany and found a student of the woman who had performed them, and worked with her and learned them, and then she taught them to us — many, many steps of permissions.”
And for a series of dances by Japanese choreographer Michio Ito (1892-1961), the company brought over a student of his from Japan. “She was 88 or 89, and she brought a disciple of hers, and we had a Japanese interpreter and she staged those dances,” Wiley said. They ultimately gave up on trying to translate and “ended up discussing it with our bodies. … It kind of proved the universality of speaking with the body, dance as a universal language.”
Wiley isn’t sure what the future might hold for Chamber Dance Company; its budget has become increasingly difficult to sustain (buying performance rights and paying travel expenses for stagers grows pricier every year). Grants and donors, through a special College of Arts & Sciences fund, help fill the gap, but finances continue to be a struggle. And its emphasis on Western theatrical dance may change: “We have to look at all dance, and respond to the times, and I don’t think any of us know yet how that will look,” Wiley said.
In the studio on that sunny afternoon, Wiley watches quietly as art unfolds in front of her. Amazing how quickly 30 years can dance by.