At the UW, Chamber Dance Co. is resurrecting history

Oct 9, 2011

The year 1994 might not seem that long ago to you. But in the world of modern dance, it's ancient history.

Or at least history, the year in which Bebe Miller choreographed her funky, athletic "Cantos Gordos."

Since a dance work may just last minutes on stage and then disappear, dance professor Hannah Wiley at the University of Washington insists on giving modern dance classics the spotlight. And preserving it for posterity.

"What makes us unique is what the repertoire is," Wiley says about the works her Chamber Dance Company performs. "A lot of the work we perform has never been seen west of the Mississippi."

Wiley founded the graduate MFA in dance program at the UW. And she also started the Chamber Dance Company (CDC), which is the graduate student company. It's a small company, thus the name (akin to "chamber music groups.") And its mission is to resurrect seminal works in modern dance that may date back to the late 19th century.

Isadora Duncan. Martha Graham. Jose Limon. Vaslav Nijinksy. The CDC has revived more than 100 works since its founding in 1990.

A CDC concert gives audiences a chance to witness history.

But it takes a certain amount of work to put a dance concert together.

A dance performed decades ago -- even a century earlier -- might not have been recorded. Wiley hunts down any information she can find -- archival records, photographs, someone's memory -- in order to recreate a piece. (It's much easier when a choreographer is still alive).

"It feels like detective work to me to try and find the dance," Wiley says. "Who remembers it? Where is it stored? What other dances go with that dance? That's all extremely fun for me. It drives me. I love that."

A mission to preserve history

Wiley was a dance student at the UW in the 1970s.  She took her first modern dance class as an undergrad. But she quickly realized dance students, unlike other artists, didn't have access to their own history.

"In music and in theater I had the opportunity to practice at the great works in those two areas of art," Wiley says. "And in dance, we have no practice, no embodiment of our history. At that time in the '70s, we couldn’t even look at it, let alone embody it. And so I began on a mission to change that for dancers. "

Wade Madsen is a Seattle choreographer who teaches at Cornish College of the Arts. He's a regular CDC concert attendee.

"It's one of my favorite concerts to go to because it’s beautifully produced, beautifully danced...It's a history that I'm either going to seek out on video, which isn’t the same as looking at a live performance."

At its 2011 fall concert, CDC will perform a program called "Relationships." It will feature Miller's piece; a work called "Embrace" by Madsen; and "To Have and To Hold" by Daniel Shapiro and Joanie Smith.

Performances take place Oct. 13 through Oct. 16 at the UW's Meany Hall.