By Steve Sucato
The familiar quote, “If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain,” takes on new meaning for Washington, DC-based Chamber Dance Project’s annual summer performance series, New Works. “Because of the pandemic” — a phrase now firmly rooted in the global lexicon — the company had to cancel its in-theater performances this summer in favor of a virtual experience for audiences. New Works 2020 (& beyond), 7 p.m. EST, July 31 and September 24, not only brings CDP’s audiences free performances into in their homes, but in making the filmed dance works being streamed, the dancers did not per usual all gather in D.C., rather they remained in their home cities with the means to make the dance films they were a part of coming to them.
“When this all hit [the pandemic], we instituted a no whining policy,” says CDP founding artistic director/choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning. “I said we are going to look to a beyond this and in the meantime we are going to be very creative.”
Another unfortunate outcome of the pandemic’s effects has been the loss of a core tenet of CDP’s productions, the use of live music. Because of limitations in online technology, there was not a way to snyc-up the company’s quartet of musicians playing live separately from various locations. So the decision was made to go with recordings.
“We tried, but the time lag [over the Internet] is deadly,” says Coburn Bruning.
New Works 2020 (& beyond) is made up of two different programs. The first, July 31, consists of a red-carpet pre-show hosted by CDP dancer Julia Erickson with interviews of the dancers (several making their CDP debut) and Coburn Bruning. Three filmed dance works will follow including reprises of two Coburn Bruning favorites.
A signature work of Coburn Bruning’s, “Berceuse” makes its return in film form. Created in the 1990’s, the 6 ½ minute pas de deux performed by Milwaukee Ballet’s Luz San Miguel and Davit Hovhannisyan and shot by guest videographer Rachel Malehorn at the Milwaukee Art Museum, “Berceuse” takes its inspiration from the Hellenistic sculpture of The Winged Victory (Nike) of Samothrace at Paris’ Louvre Museum. Coburn Bruning says the pas de deux takes on a sculptural feel in her choreography and in the way the dancers move.
Originally created in 2006 on former CDP dancer Victor Quijada, now artistic director/choreographer of Montreal-based RUBBERBANDance Group, the second of Coburn Bruning’s ballets on the program, “Sarabande”, is set to music by Benjamin Britten from his Simple Symphony. It was filmed outdoors in Van Nuys, California by guest videographer Aaron Cota near the Sepulveda Dam and performed by CDP’s Christian Denice. Denice says the 8-minute solo is about memories and a reflection on a life lived.
“I only used the original version from 15-years ago as a reference,” says Denice. “We [he and Coburn Bruning] found the physicality and emotional states within what I brought to the work.”
Company newcomer Cooper Verona, regularly of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, makes his CDP choreographic debut with a filmed version of his pas de deux “In the Silence”, danced to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s “Psalom”.
Created some 6-years ago, Verona says the 6-minute pas de deux took its inspiration from feelings he had at the time about mortality after receiving the news that his father had been diagnosed with cancer.
The pas de deux, performed by fellow CDP newcomers, husband and wife team of Austin and Grace-Anne Powers from Columbus, Ohio’s BalletMet, was filmed in the woods of Shale Hollow Park in Lewis Center, Ohio by guest videographer Jennifer Zmuda.
Verona says the woodland location of the shoot matched his internal vision of the work’s setting being a serene locale and lended to his wanting to capture in his choreography “a feeling of weightlessness.”
Weightlessness was not the feeling Austin and Grace-Anne says they felt in the set-up to filming. Where they would normally be called upon to be just performers in a normal CDP production, because of the nature of New Works 2020 (& beyond), “it is impossible to be only a dancer at right now,” says Austin. “We are having to be the production department, stagehands and more.”
The morning of filming the Powers backpacked some 50lbs of gear including 54 foam tiles and several large canvas drop cloths up hills and across a ravine to the film site where they assembled the lot to be their dance floor for the shoot. Similarly, Zmuda hauled some 40lbs of camera equipment and says she had her own issues with the terrain.
“It was challenging to walk around while filming,” says Zmuda. “My focus was in the camera and I was using my peripherals as much as possible to see where I was stepping, but I did fumble over rocks and unsteady ground as well as got scratched up by branches.”
One benefit of being sheltered at home because of the pandemic for the Powers is that they have gotten to dance with and partner each other more now than ever.
“This summer we have been getting more opportunities to discover how we move together,” says Grace-Anne. “Austin and I have different tendencies in the way approach things and I think our partnering now has become more intuitive.”
While the Powers and Zmuda’s shoot involved some heavy lifting, the California sun’s heat was the main contention in filming “Sarabande,” says Denice. The beach-sand-hot dirt floor he danced on burned his feet and the clouds of dust he kicked up while performing the solo quickly ruined his white costume he says.
In addition to the elements and other considerations, the dancers also had to become their own camera crews for a few other projects that are a part of New Works 2020 (& beyond). One is is Denice’s new work-in-progress piece “Dwellings” which will be previewed during the July 31 production.
The piece, recorded over Zoom to music by Philip Glass and others says Denice, “is a celebration of these sanctuary spaces that we have created for ourselves in our homes during the pandemic.”
Denice says he wanted to capture the emotions of what it is like for the dancers not to be in the familiar womb-like confines of the studio and having to create that kind of space in their own environments.
“Later when we get to come out of those spaces and back into the studio I want to see how different it is for the dancers,” says Denice. “Maybe we appreciate it more, maybe it’s different and challenging to do so.
CDP’s dancers were also responsible for filming themselves for the September 24 premiere of Coburn Bruning’s new dance film A Single Light. Each of the dancers involved in the film were sent by the company video monitors and gopro sports action cameras to film themselves dancing in their own environments to new choreography created for them by Coburn Bruning. The film’s original soundtrack is by James Bigbee Garver and the same creative team behind Coburn Bruning’s 2019 work “Prufrock”.
“The film is just vignettes of different spaces and different people,” describes Coburn Bruning. “I used a modified rondo motif with views of spaces in the dancers’ homes such as corners, stairs and seating areas that reoccur throughout.”
Prior to shooting the dancers were given camera workshops from multi Emmy Award-winning filmmaker David Hamlin. Coburn Bruning herself has a filmmaking background having received fellowships to study at Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute as part of her list of accomplishments.
In addition to A Single Light, CDP’s September virtual performance will include the first public screening of a filmed version from Coburn Bruning’s powerful 7-minute “Exit Wounds” (2015) performed by the original cast of Luis Torres and Andile Ndlovu to music by Phillip Glass.
Get FREE tickets to New Works 2020 (& beyond) at: https://chamberdance.org/beyond/
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.