At the University of Washington, the Chamber Dance Company is playing a unique and significant role by preserving and performing significant classic work that otherwise might fade away. In the process, the Chamber is creating a special archive, revitalizing professional dancers and teaching the next generation.

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IN DECEMBER 1938, as economic despair and racial discrimination continued to scourge society, dancer-choreographer Jane Dudley joined a crush of New Yorkers who packed Carnegie Hall to hear “Spirituals to Swing” — the revolutionary concert that brought the power of black folk music, jazz and blues to mainstream audiences. Mesmerized by the rhythms of blind bluesman Sonny Terry, Dudley went out and bought his record, “Harmonica Breakdown.”

“It was as if some mysterious creature came up and tapped me on the shoulder, and that was like an ache,” she later recalled, “and then I sank into the blues.”

This month, the electrifying dance Dudley composed to “Harmonica Breakdown” some 70 years ago will be performed — likely for the first time in Seattle — as the centerpiece of the annual concert season by the University of Washington’s Chamber Dance Company.

The program, titled “The Shape of Dissent,” is devoted to works made during the Great Depression and beyond by the New Dance Group, who took their concerts to the working classes in factories, community centers and schools. When professional ballet was still an all-white, highbrow affair, and modern dance tended toward mythic themes and self-expression, they employed performers of all races and explored issues of joblessness and oppression, war and mob violence.

“The Shape of Dissent” is the type of program UW professor Hannah Wiley imagined 20 years ago when she founded Chamber Dance Company. Seattle audiences may not fully realize the importance of Wiley’s work in tracking down, researching, performing and archiving rarely seen, historically significant modern works. But for those who love dance, Chamber performances have been a revelation: a way to see thrilling early dances we might otherwise know only from books and photographs.

Even in that context, this year’s program of New Dance Group works is special. When Wiley started planning the concert several years ago, she had no way of knowing that the economy was headed for the worst crash since the dances were created. Her lineup couldn’t be more fitting: One piece is about a homeless woman, another about the terror of bombings on civilians, another about mob violence. It’s as though a trajectory begun by socially conscious artists of the 1930s intersected with Wiley’s deep-seated philosophy about dance preservation at just the right moment:

“The economy was going downhill, and all of a sudden we are in a societal parallel to the ’30s and ’40s, and I thought: ‘Hot dog! This looks good.’ “

HANNAH WILEY may not have been born to dance, but she’s pretty sure she was born to teach. As she grew up in the 1950s near Spokane in a small town called Opportunity, there wasn’t much opportunity to enjoy the performing arts. But Martha and Owen Wiley, both with experience as teachers, made sure their three children got the best of what was available. That meant piano and cello lessons for Hannah, as well as ballet classes. In annual ballet performances, Wiley played cello with the youth symphony in the first half of the program, then danced in the second half.

Even though Wiley shone as a dancer, she thought of it as something she did, not who she was. “I loved acting. I loved the music stuff. I just loved it all. And at one point my mom did say to me: ‘If you want to go to New York to college . . .’ But I didn’t even have to think about it.”

Instead, Wiley moved west, to Seattle, and dabbled around the curriculum at the UW. She joined the university symphony, studied criminology and elementary education, eventually ending up in drama.

She tried out a modern-dance class (then classified as P.E.), but gravitated back to ballet, then part of the drama department. Wiley graduated in 1973, still wavering over her career. She was working nights as a barmaid at the Rainbow Tavern when she got a phone call. On the line was Karen Irvin, head of the dance program at the venerable Cornish School (now Cornish College of the Arts). Irvin asked Wiley if she would come teach a ballet class of 3- to 5-year-olds.

“I went and met with her, and said, ‘I really don’t know what to do.’ So Karen reached in a drawer and brought out a bunch of plastic flowers and said, ‘Wear this in your hair and make them love you.’ . . . And I did.”

Teaching came naturally to Wiley, and she gave it her all for a few years before performance beckoned again. She was invited to dance with Ballet Folk of Moscow (later American Festival Ballet) at the University of Idaho and toured with the company. She also kept her hand in the Seattle theater scene, choreographing for or performing at the Skid Road Theater, the Palace Theater and Empty Space. There she met actor Kurt Beattie, now artistic director of ACT. The two married in 1978, the year after Wiley was recruited to join the dance faculty of Mount Holyoke in Massachusetts. “I just packed my little VW and drove across the country that August. All of a sudden, I was an assistant professor of dance at an Ivy League college.”

Within a couple years Wiley was appointed chair of the Five College dance department, a coalition including Mount Holyoke, Amherst, Hampshire, Smith and the University of Massachusetts. Her long-distance marriage with Beattie ended in 1984, but at Mount Holyoke she thought she’d found a perfect fit for her dance training, organizational skills, analytical acuity and tenacity. “I kind of have a thing for administration,” she says.

Her abilities, though, were soon challenged. Mount Holyoke told her she’d need a master’s degree to be considered for tenure. “So, I went to New York University and was one of the oldest students. I was taking dance classes that I had been teaching: I didn’t want to relearn what I knew.” Yet she understood that the degree carried weight. “I could see a lot of artists who hadn’t been to school, the real practitioners, weren’t getting tenure.”

Wiley got her master’s degree and her tenure. She now looks back on her 10 years at Mount Holyoke as “the perfect place for me to mature as an educator and administrator.” But she wanted a challenge and found it when the UW posted a search for head of its dance program. “I missed the tempo and edge of Seattle. I had been coming back most summers to teach here. My family all lives in Washington. All of a sudden there was this job at a huge university in a beautiful city, and I got to think bigger.”

IN 1987, WILEY came back to the UW with a dream and a plan. Her dream was to create a master of fine arts degree in dance. And at its core, she aimed to build a unique kind of performance group. The company would form around mid-career professional dancers readying to transition to the next stage. Just three a year would be admitted to the two-year program, all as teaching assistants with full tuition waivers. That meant the company would be a small chamber group, with a shifting core of just six dancers. For dances that required a bigger cast, Wiley could fill in by bringing in a few outstanding undergraduates or hiring local professionals.

She figured everybody in the dance program would benefit: Undergraduates would get to learn dance history by watching live performances of groundbreaking dances done by professionals. Mid-career professionals would have a way to extend their performing lives. And they wouldn’t have to be embarrassed by performing amateur work by choreographers-in-training — an experience Wiley remembered from her own grad-school days.

In most MFA programs, dancers are trained to be choreographers. So, to distinguish the UW, Wiley chose a more scholarly approach: historical research, with the full resources of the university to draw upon and the opportunity to learn by doing.

It took two years to get the new degree approved and off the ground. In late 1990, Chamber Dance Company staged a small debut showcase concert at Meany Studio Theater. Afterward, Wiley says, a representative from Safeco Insurance Co. came up from the audience and handed her a check for $10,000. That allowed the company to book its first full-scale performance at Meany the following February. With help from other private and corporate donors, the program took off.

Since then, Wiley has restaged more than 90 dances, including amazing work by pioneers Isadora Duncan, Loie Fuller and Vaslav Nijinksy. With little fanfare, the company and its fast-growing archive of video, interviews and information, has become an important repository of dances.

“I think about my grandparents when I see CDC, because they were alive when many of these dances were created,” says Lodi McClellan, a former Chamber dancer who’s now a professor at Cornish. The Chamber’s work, she says, helps us understand what people valued. It “allows audiences to reflect on where we’ve been and where we are going with dance, but also who we are as a culture.”

OF COURSE, opening those time capsules is not as simple as it sounds. You can’t just go out and perform somebody else’s dance. Like a piece of music or a play, a dance is owned by its creator. If you want to perform it, you must buy the rights. But unlike a symphony or a play, a dance does not usually come with a written score or script. If the choreographer is alive and busy with new work, he or she will often send someone who knows the work inside out to “set” the dance. That means not only teaching the dancers steps and movements, but also helping them revive the spirit of the work.

But what if the choreographer is no longer living? Who holds the copyright for the dance and who is qualified to pass it on? The choreographer may have designated a keeper of the dance who has that authority. Yet often that doesn’t happen. And because most modern-dance troupes exist to perform new work, few have the interest or resources to research and restage a range of historical modern dances. As a result, some important early dances are dying along with the artists who once performed them.

That’s why Wiley makes it part of her job not only to find aging choreographers but also to seek out dancers who still hold in their body-memory the work of those who’ve already died. At times she has had to sift through conflicting information about who owns the copyright. She’s been denied permission for a dance or been offered an impossibly high fee. The Chamber might pay as little as $30 or as much as $8,000 for performance rights.

For this year’s concert, Wiley composed her program around Dudley’s stirring “Harmonica Breakdown.” For context, Wiley selected Eve Gentry’s Depression-era “Tenant of the Street,” a harrowing piece built around an experience Gentry had as a child. Seeing a woman bent over a trash barrel, Gentry asked her father what she was doing. “Looking for something to eat,” he told her. Gentry never forgot that moment.

Wiley also chose Joseph Gifford’s 1947 “The Pursued,” prompted by Picasso’s painting “Guernica,” with its terrifying images of civilian bombings during the Spanish Civil War. She added Charles Weidman’s brutal 1936 “Lynchtown,” as well as works from the 1940s and ’50s by Daniel Nagrin and Donald McKayle.

To close the show, Wiley settled on a section of a 1989 piece by choreographer Bill T. Jones. “D-Man in the Waters” has roots in the social consciousness of the New Dance Group and, even though it references the AIDs epidemic, includes this exuberant dance of optimism and mutual support. Wiley says she added “D-Man” as “a hopeful closing to a program that addresses some of the sadder aspects of history.”

To set “Harmonica Breakdown,” Wiley hired London dancer Sheron Wray, who learned the dance from the choreographer and worked closely with her in London for years before Dudley’s death in 2001. Dudley chose Wray to be the one person authorized to transfer “Harmonica Breakdown,” which is owned by Dudley’s trust.

Wray flew to Seattle for two weeks in July to work with two Chamber soloists. “I have to be very true to the design of the piece,” Wray said before a rehearsal. “It’s a map, it’s not a territory. The body is the territory.” Part of Wray’s mission here was to help each dancer adapt the distinctive, very demanding contracted movements of Dudley’s dance to her own body’s shape, size and range of movement.

Wiley stayed close for the entire process, absorbing the choreography and the chemistry of the dance. At the same time, she had 14 other balls in the air. A cast member of another dance was having medical problems and needed to be replaced. She was coordinating with the lighting and production designer, working around the usual injuries and absences (one guy got married, another broke his toe), keeping track of costumes, monitoring rehearsals of other dances, and taking time to compare notes with distinguished visitors, like her friend Kabby Mitchell, a former Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist, who stopped in to observe.

As Mitchell watched Wray teaching the dance, he subtly mimed the dancers’ movements from his chair at the front of the studio, memorizing the piece instantly. It was clear he was dying to jump up and start dancing the solo, which Dudley originally choreographed for herself.

“Do men ever perform this dance?” Mitchell called out.

Wray laughed: “Men always ask me that when they see it,” she said. One of the dancers chimed in: “Hey, you guys get enough good solos!”

But Mitchell pressed Wray again. This time, she shook her head and said bluntly: “You wouldn’t look good in the dress.”

That shut him up.

Wiley stayed on the sidelines, observing it all with a satisfied smile. She knew audiences were going to love this dance.

Sheila Farr writes about the arts from Seattle. Her books include “Fay Jones” and “James Martin: Art Rustler at the Rivoli.” Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.