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September 27, 2007

Old dances new again: Chamber Dance Company performs classic choreography, now more accessible

The UW Chamber Dance Company will kick off the academic year by presenting a new concert and providing an opportunity for the general public to see portions of its old ones.

The CDC, which is made up of graduate students who come from the ranks of professional dance companies, will perform in Meany Studio Theatre Oct. 6-14. At the same time, an archive of CDC performances from earlier years will become available in Odegaard Library’s Media Center.

Why should anyone care about old performances? Because CDC specializes in performing dances by the great choreographers of modern dance history — people like Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham and Jose Limon. And in the new archive, the CDC performances are separated by choreographer. Thus, someone interested in the work of, say, Ruth St. Denis, can view a DVD containing dances originally choreographed by her and reconstructed by the CDC with the help of a St. Denis expert.

Dance scholars and enthusiasts can gain access to the DVDs, not only through the Media Center’s catalog, but also through a page on the UW Dance Program’s Web site (http://depts.washington.edu/uwdance/repertory.html). There, all the choreographers will be listed alphabetically. A click on any one of them will take one to a page with a photo of the choreographer, a relevant quote, a brief bio and a list of the dances available. Clicking on one of the dances brings up the DVD’s library number. (Eventually, plans call for adding short clips of the dances to the Web site.)

The archive is the product of CDC Director Hannah Wiley’s anxiety. Wiley founded the dance company in 1990 and has directed it ever since. Over the years she has recorded every company performance on videotape — and has worried about preserving those recordings.

“My primary urge has always been, please don’t let us lose this,” Wiley said. “It’s so valuable for research on dance history. People approach me all the time about having access to our recordings. Some of these are dances you just can’t see anywhere else, and the archive is singular in that we’ve generated the work. We’ve found the people to come and help us reconstruct the work, and our grad students have made it come alive.”

Though she recognized the recordings’ value early, Wiley at first lacked the time, money and expertise to do anything with them. Then, in 2004, she got a UW Royalty Research Fund grant and at the same time a Donald E. Petersen professorship. She used the funds to transfer some of the work from video to DVD and to add related material, such as interviews with the dancers and with experts on the choreographers.

She started with the three choreographers whose work she was most afraid of losing — Mary Wigman, Michio Ito and Dore Hoyer — all of whom played important roles in the rise of modern dance, but whose work is not very accessible now. With the help of technical expert Thom Heileson, she’s been able to create complete programs on each of these choreographers that will be available in the archives.

The other DVDs in the archive are simpler, for the most part containing only the dances. Because they existed as part of concert program recordings, Wiley explained, she had to go through the original videos, pick out all the works by a given choreographer and in some cases where the dance had been performed more than once, choose the best version to include. She then had to edit the dances, insert titles and credits and transfer them to DVD.

“I’ve put in hundreds of hours this summer, but I’m glad to do it to make sure these dances are preserved and accessible,” Wiley said.

She’s been helped in that effort by Diana Garcia-Snyder, a graduate student and member of the CDC, and by John Vallier, head of distributed media services at Odegaard. In addition to being a dancer, Garcia-Snyder is a graphic designer with experience in Web design. It was she who insisted that a Web page be created for the archive and she who taught Wiley how to use the software that allowed her to work with the videos. Vallier has seen to the cataloging of the collection.

The full CDC repertoire contains about 80 dances, Wiley said. DVDs have been completed for 36 of these, and another 35 should be done by December. The others will be added eventually.

Meanwhile, the CDC’s upcoming concert will feature the work of Michio Ito, Doris Humphrey, Laura Dean and Zvi Gotheiner. The company will perform for the first time in Meany Studio Theatre, which brings the audience closer to the performers. It also means there will be two weekends of performances to make up for the smaller venue. (Concerts are usually on Meany’s main stage, which is currently being rewired.)

Wiley’s archive project has taught her some lessons that she’ll be applying as she continues her work with the company. “I’ll be interviewing people as we go along, when I have the chance,” she said. “That way, I can go back to the relevant DVD and add extra material as we get it.”

Tickets for the dance concert are $18, $16 for UW faculty and staff and $10 for students and seniors. They are available at the Arts Ticket Office, 206-543-4880, or www.meany.org.