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Chamber Dance Project Finds Fertile Artistic Ground in Virtual Dance Programs

by Steve Sucato
October 23, 2020
Chamber Dance Project
New Works 2020 (& beyond)
Online Film Performance Series
July 31 and September 24, 2020

Steve Sucato is a former dancer turned arts writer/critic. He is Chairman Emeritus of the Dance Critics Association and Associate Editor of ExploreDance.com.
Embracing the new realities of performing in a world under pandemic, Washington, DC-based Chamber Dance Project (CDP) took its annual summer performance series online for the first time. In New Works 2020 (& beyond), July 31 and September 24, artistic director Diane Coburn Bruning and company presented a mixture of filmed performances of repertory works and dance specifically made for the camera.

In July’s part one of New Works 2020 (& beyond), CDP’s dancers worked with three guest videographers on a trio of filmed performance works shot on location in sites around where the dancers (who hail from around the country) live.

In keeping with safety protocols, the solo and duet pieces were performed by dancers who live together and who learned and rehearsed the choreographic works online over Zoom.

The virtual performance event began with an audience welcome by Coburn Bruning and CDP dancer Julia Erickson hosting a red-carpet pre-show over Zoom featuring some of the company’s dancers and choreographers integral to the works being shown. While informative with behind-the-scenes interviews and insight into the program’s works, the pre-show festivities ran way too long for audiences already suffering from virtual viewing fatigue. It would have been better if this content were interspersed over the coarse of the program.

First up of the three dance works on the program was a filmed version of Coburn Bruning’s “Sarabande” (2006) that was originally created on RUBBERBANDance Group’s Victor Quijada. Set to music by Benjamin Britten from his Simple Symphony, the 8-minute solo was performed this time by freelance dancer/choreographer Christian Denice on location near the Sepulveda Dam in Van Nuys, California.

The outdoor shoot by guest videographer Aaron Cota, showed Denice in an arid field costumed in white and kicking up dust with his bare feet as he performed the solo amidst scrub brush and rocks. Said to be a man’s introspective reflection on his life, Denice’s performance and the film’s setting captured the inherent solitude of being human. But because the injurious nature of the terrain Denice’s dancing seemed a bit reserved both physically and emotionally in Coburn Bruning’s outstretched and reaching contemporary dance choreography.

Next, dancers Austin and Grace-Anne Powers performed fellow CDP dancer Cooper Verona’s ethereal pas de deux “In the Silence” at Shale Hollow Park in Lewis Center, Ohio. The married couple, both company members with BalletMet, were also costumed in white and danced on a white stage the pair had erected out of foam blocks and a tarp in the middle of Park’s woods.

To the sounds of bird’s chirping the film began with a close-up of Austin’s hand reaching out to grasp Grace Anne’s arm and pull her toward him and into an embrace. Their make-shift stage was dappled with the shadows of leaves as light filtered through the tree canopy above them and created a vision of natural beauty that was captured wonderfully by guest videographer Jennifer Zmuda. The dancers moved through Verona’s low-to-the-ground and entwining choreography with poetic grace and a sense of weightlessness and melancholy.

Originally created 6-years ago, Verona, a corps de ballet dancer with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, says the 6-minute pas de deux was inspired by feelings he had after receiving news that his father had been diagnosed with cancer. This updated version of the piece set to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s “Psalom,” saw the couple, within that pastoral setting, trade levels of strength in supporting one another in a heartfelt expression of the fragility of life.

The program’s pièce de résistance came with its final film offering, a version of Coburn Bruning’s signature work “Berceuse” shot on location by guest videographer Rachel Malehorn at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Created in the late 1990’s, the 6 ½ minute pas de deux was performed by Milwaukee Ballet’s Luz San Miguel and Davit Hovhannisyan.

Dancing on the shiny white floors of the museum’s grand lobby area, Hovhannisyan and Miguel appeared nothing short of angelic, albeit wearing all black. The heavenly setting had them looking as if they were dancing atop a reflective pool of water.

Performed to music by French composer Benjamin Godard and inspired by the Hellenistic sculpture of The Winged Victory (Nike) of Samothrace at Paris’ Louvre Museum, Coburn Bruning’s pas de deux was a masterful work of art itself. Its elegant sculptural shapes and body-melding lifts were executed to perfection by Hovhannisyan and Miguel and left the viewer with a blissful feeling that they had been touched by angels.

Rounding out the program viewers got to hear from the guest videographers and enjoy a sneak peek at the Zoom rehearsal process of Denice’s new work-in-progress “Dwellings”.

September’s part two of New Works 2020 (& beyond) brought back a 2015 filmed version of Coburn Bruning’s “Exit Wounds” performed at Virginia’s Ballet Nova Center for Dance. Set to music from Philip Glass’ “String Quartets Nos. 2 & 3,” the men’s duet was performed by former CDP dancers Andile Ndlovu and Luis R. Torres.

A work about the traumatic and lasting effects of conflict and war on those at the center of it, “Exit Wounds” explored the relationship of two men coping with PTSD. In the work/film, the two dancers grappled, embraced, flipped and lifted up one another. A frenetic display of physicality, fear, and the internal demons haunting the men, the work showed a relationship between the two in which one sought to shepherd the other forward through life. Coburn Bruning’s contemporary dance choreography for the duet rose and fell with the intensity of the music and revealed how humanity’s horrors can adversely shape lives. The work/film concluded with the caring image of Torres rocking Ndlovu in his arms.

After a reprise of Coburn Bruning’s “Berceuse” and a lovely slice of life short film by dancer Francesca Dugarte Jordan (choreographed by her husband Jonathan Jordan, both of BalletMet) celebrating their newborn son Alexander, the program closed with the world premiere of Coburn Bruning’s dance film “A Single Light”.

Featuring and original soundtrack by James Bigbee Garver, “A Single Light” was filmed by the dancers themselves at their homes using gopro sports action cameras provided by CDP. It opened on Hovhannisyan in slow, controlled tumble down a flight of stairs at his home; an image emulated by the film’s other male dancers, Verona, Denice and Austin Powers.

Cut to Hovhannisyan in a corner looking frightened and a bit crazed, perhaps reflecting on our collective nightmare scenario of being confined to our homes for months because of the pandemic and experiencing chronic cabin fever. It was a powerful image that the short film would return to again and again, each time Hovhannisyan brilliantly appearing to further loose his grip on sanity.

While the men in film seemed to be awash in drama, Coburn Bruning had Erickson and Grace-Anne Powers appearing to revel in their pandemic situations. The two women sported headphones and shimmed and shaked about their homes as if taken by the music playing in their ears. Their legs and feet wiggling to the beat as they both finished their joyous dances by plopping onto their couches.

Offering up a range of emotion that most all of us could identify with in living in this pandemic world, Coburn Bruning’s choreography viscerally and illustratively tapped into those emotions with the film.

Following another scene featuring Erickson and Mrs. Powers, this time lying face up on their respective kitchen tables with the camera looking down on them as they wriggled and spun about, Mr. Powers was again travelling his flight of stairs this time a la a scene from the 2019 film Joker in which Joaquin Phoenix as the title character did the same, maniacally kicking up his legs and water from puddles as he made his descent.

“A Single Light” concluded with the pas de deux that inspired the film’s title. Shot in their basement using a single light source, Hovhannisyan and Miguel moved through a shadowy world devoid of color to the sounds of anxious panting. Adopting a film noir look, Coburn Bruning’s intimate choreography for the pas de deux and the couple’s tender performance of it, conveyed a message that out of the darkness of the pandemic can come a single light of beauty and hope.
Luz San Miguel and Davit Hovhannisyan in Diane Coburn Bruning’s “Berceuse”.

Luz San Miguel and Davit Hovhannisyan in Diane Coburn Bruning’s “Berceuse”.

Photo © & courtesy of Rachel Malehorn


Christian Denice in Diane Coburn Bruning's “Sarabande”.

Christian Denice in Diane Coburn Bruning's “Sarabande”.

Photo © & courtesy of Aaron Cota


Austin and Grace-Anne Powers in Cooper Verona’s “In the Silence”.

Austin and Grace-Anne Powers in Cooper Verona’s “In the Silence”.

Photo © & courtesy of Jennifer Zmuda


Screenshot of Davit Hovhannisyan in Diane Coburn Bruning’s “A Single Light”.

Screenshot of Davit Hovhannisyan in Diane Coburn Bruning’s “A Single Light”.


Screenshot of Grace-Anne Powers in Diane Coburn Bruning’s “A Single Light”.

Screenshot of Grace-Anne Powers in Diane Coburn Bruning’s “A Single Light”.


Screenshot of Luz San Miguel in Diane Coburn Bruning’s “A Single Light”.

Screenshot of Luz San Miguel in Diane Coburn Bruning’s “A Single Light”.

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