UW’s Chamber Dance Company celebrates 25 years as a “living museum” for superb choreography.

Share story

Dance lovers — as opposed to dance scholars — may not quite realize what Seattle has in Chamber Dance Company and its annual performance showcase with the Dance Program at the University of Washington. But former Seattle Times critic Sheila Farr sums it up nicely when she calls it “a living museum of modern dance.”

This year, Chamber Dance Company (CDC) celebrates its 25th anniversary and the dance department celebrates its 50th. For five days starting on Oct. 16, these anniversaries will be marked by “Opening Doors: Celebrating 50 Years of Dance at the UW.” Performances at Meany Hall and Velocity Dance Center, plus an array of workshops and panel discussions, are on the agenda.

CDC’s program will include works by Loïe Fuller, Michel Fokine, Martha Graham and other legendary choreographers, while three “Choreographers Showcases” will feature Program alumni.

Five notable UW dance program alumni

Dale Merrill (MFA, 1992)

Merrill, the former artistic director of Seattle’s Spectrum Dance Theater, enrolled in the UW’s graduate program while still running Spectrum. After earning his MFA, he helped found the College of Performing Arts at Chapman University (California) and is now dean of the College of the Arts at California State University, Fullerton.

Holley Farmer (MFA, 1996)

After earning her MFA, Farmer performed with Merce Cunningham Dance Company (1997-2009) and was part of the original cast in Twyla Tharp’s “Come Fly Away” (2010). She taught an MFA choreography course at Mills College (California), setting Cunningham’s work on the resident dance company there. She now teaches at City Center (New York) and Brooklyn Studios for Dance.

Catherine Cabeen (MFA, 2009)

A former dancer with Martha Graham Dance Company and Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Cabeen made a big splash in Seattle after getting her MFA with shows that drew on her multidisciplinary UW studies. She’s now an assistant professor of dance at Marymount Manhattan College.

Tonya Lockyer (MFA, 2010)

Before she came to the UW, Lockyer worked with Paula Josa Jones, Donald Byrd/The Group and Contemporary Dancers Canada and performed her own work. In 2011, she became artistic director of Velocity Dance Center where she plays a vital leadership role in Seattle’s dance scene.

Daniel Linehan (BA, 2004)

Linehan’s career, post-UW, has taken him to New York, London and Belgium. His text/dance solo piece, “Not About Everything” (presented at Velocity two years ago) has been performed in 75-plus venues. He was a New Wave Associate from 2012 to 2014 at Sadler’s Wells Theatre (London) and is now artist-in-residence at l’Opéra de Lille (France).

Dance instruction existed at the UW almost from the start. But for decades, it was part of the physical-education curriculum and more about personal development than performance.

That changed in 1965 when the UW School of Drama launched a new dance division, hiring Ruthanna Boris, formerly with the Ballet Russe and New York City Ballet, as its director. The key figure in making the UW Dance Program what it is today, however, is CDC founder Hannah Wiley, who studied at the UW from 1968 to 1973, when classes were held in the old UW Armory.

“There were ROTC guys shooting rifles while we were in our little pink tights,” she recalled in an interview last month.

After a performance career that also included theater roles, Wiley taught dance at Mount Holyoke College. In order to gain tenure, she was told, she needed a graduate degree. She duly went to New York University and earned one, but found herself in an odd situation for a performer with her level of experience. She was the oldest student by a decade or so, but still had to take basic technique classes: “And I was 31 years old! I was done.”

At the same time, she looked at the 22-year-olds around her and wondered why they were still in school instead of launching dance careers.

“It felt like the idea of how a graduate program in dance should look or be shaped hadn’t been thought through,” she said. “Graduate study in dance shouldn’t happen at 21, in my humble opinion. And then when you do come to a graduate program, the intellectual challenges should match your maturity.”

When Wiley was hired by the UW in 1987, she had her chance to put her ideas into action in a newly autonomous Dance Program with its own budget. By 1990, she had established a graduate program unlike any in the country. CDC was part of it.

Three dancers in the late stages of their professional careers were admitted to the two-year program each fall. They comprised the six core CDC performers. Their tuition was waived and they received monthly stipends for their contributions to the department.

While a few graduate students resumed performance careers after earning their MFAs, most became educators. They studied other branches of the arts as well as anatomy, physiology, educational philosophy and other subjects. They also took courses on dance administration.

Dance preview

‘Opening Doors: Celebrating 50 Years of Dance at the UW’

Various times and venues, Oct. 16-20, see dance.uw.edu for details and prices or call 206-543-9843.

‘A Century of Modern Dance’

Chamber Dance Company, Oct. 15-18, Meany Hall for the Performing Arts, University of Washington; $10-$22 (206-543-4880 or artsuw.org).

“All things that you do not chat about when you’re in a professional dance company,” Wiley smiled.

Where do these MFAs end up?

“They’re in education, and they’re deans, and they’re directors of programs,” Wiley said. “We’ve infiltrated the entire dance education system of the United States.”

At the same time, grads significantly expand their dance knowledge through their participation in the “living museum” of CDC. And they help Wiley expand its repertoire.

During CDC’s first 10 years, she had trouble acquiring rights to the pieces she wanted to stage. But once choreographers realized that some of their best dancers were enrolled in the program — and that the program was a vital way to preserve their legacy — they eagerly gave CDC permission to perform their pieces.

More than 100, many documented on DVD, are now in the CDC repertory, including work by Isadora Duncan, José Limón, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp and dozens of others.

As impressive as the graduate program and CDC are, noteworthy dancers have emerged from the undergraduate program as well. Keith Sabado, a longtime performer with Mark Morris Dance Group and the White Oak Project, graduated in the 1970s. A more recent success story is choreographer Daniel Linehan, who’s gone on to a big career in Europe.

In short, CDC and the UW Dance Program are forging ahead in every dance direction imaginable.