The Homage Factory

In over twenty years, an original work has never been created at the Chamber Dance Company; rather, this group has built a repertoire of old choreography as a way to celebrate the history — and maybe the future — of modern dance.

Catherine Cabeen, a willowy thirty-one-year-old who dances with deep precision, is leading a rehearsal of Bill T. Jones’s “D-Man in the Water, Part 1.” The piece, originally performed in 1989, will be part of the fall lineup of the UW Chamber Dance Company. Cabeen has danced the piece many times and knows it well. “You have to think forward. Think up,” she reminds the group. “Imagine you are just touching the surface of water, not going through it.” Cabeen demonstrates by extending one long, fluid arm downward, her palm flexed across an invisible surface. It is as if a calm sea had suddenly appeared in the studio and she is laying her hand on it. The dancers mimic her, trying to get it right.

Brenna Monroe-Cook; Detail of photo by Steve Korn.

Recreating modern dance, as opposed to creating it, is what CDC has been about since its debut performance in 1990, when artistic director Hannah Wiley began the company. In the twenty years since then, CDC has reconstructed the original works of forty-five modern dance choreographers — revolutionary works created from the beginning to the end of the twentieth century, such as Martha Graham’s politically charged masterwork, “Chronicle” (1936); Alwin Nickolais’ choreographic breakthrough, “Tensile Involvement” (1953); and Dan Froot’s satirical and humorous homage to the male ego, “Bull” (1994).

An original work has never been choreographed for CDC because Wiley, 59, built the company to reconstruct historic dance works. She hires contemporary dancers, videotapes the performances and archives the videos into a kind of library of choreography. The company is now in the process of digitizing the collection and making it available to the public in the UW Odegaard Library.

Before the dancers ever step into the studio, Wiley must obtain rights, secure financial resources and determine the best method and sources of reconstruction for each work. The ideal source is the original choreographer, as was the case with the reconstruction of “The Pursued,” a 1947 dance that visiting choreographer Joseph Gifford taught the company and which they will perform this season.

When it’s not possible to bring in the original choreographer, Wiley attempts to find a dancer who has performed the piece, as in the case of Cabeen and “D-Man.” Sometimes Wiley uses a Labanotation score (a system of movement notation that records choreography on the page very much the way a musical score records a musical composition). For older works, the reconstruction process demands literary sources and period photos, or Wiley brings in dance historians or disciples of the original choreographer. When Wiley embarked on a reconstruction of some early-twentieth-century works of Ruth St. Denis, she knew the dances had been recorded in Labanotation, so she collaborated with renowned dance historian and Labanotation expert Lois Rathvon to reconstruct the dances on the company.

Matthew Henley; Detail of photo by Steve Korn.

Once the actual work in the studio begins, the entire company braces itself for some long hours. “D-Man” alone required forty-four hours to reconstruct on the dancers and another twenty-five hours in rehearsal before it was performance-ready.

Wiley draws her performers from the talented alumni list of the MFA Program in Dance and carefully vetted undergrads from the university’s dance department. But how does Wiley narrow down her selections of “authentic” modern dance from the world’s wide-ranging canon? “I use many different criteria,” she says. “But, above all, I have to like the piece, unless it’s simply so critical to dance history that we have to reconstruct it.” Virtually all of the dances that have made it into CDC’s repertoire are critical to dance history and merit the efforts, whether they are iconic works by Isadora Duncan, who is considered the mother of modern dance, or more obscure works by Michio Ito or Dore Hoyer. According to Cabeen, “The history of modern dance is the history of rebellion.” And one look at the forty-five choreographers that make up CDC’s repertoire lends evidence to that claim. These choreographers shattered the status quo of their time.

In the upper-level rehearsal studio at UW’s Meany Hall, a dozen lissome, perspiring dancers in tights, T-shirts, leg warmers and sweats catch their breath in the middle of a rehearsal of “D-Man” and wait for Cabeen’s instructions.

As a dancer, Cabeen performed “D-Man” for seven years with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in New York and was Jones’s assistant choreographer. She has internalized the complex moves of this dance, and, when her memory fails her, she relies on her notes to jump-start her recollection of the steps, gestures and timing of the twelve dancers in the cast.

Cabeen hums the melody from the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet to give the dancers a point of reference and then tells them to take their places. On Cabeen’s cue, an assistant switches on the recorded octet at the precise mid-movement bar. Dancers leap onto each other’s backs and launch into an athletic frenzy of piggyback runs, frenetic rolls and precarious leaps over rolling bodies. Mendelssohn’s score soars as do the skilled young women and men, who have so quickly assimilated their moves. The music peaks and, in a flash, bodies are perched on shoulders in swift gravity-defying lifts.

The Mendelssohn stops. With the punishing demands of the choreography, it’s a miracle a pileup hasn’t occurred on the studio floor. The dancers regroup — all eyes on Cabeen — eager for critical comments that will help them make the dance happen now just as it happened back then.


CDC’s 2009 Season

October 22 – 25 at Meany Theater on the UW campus.

The program is largely composed of works by choreographers who were part of the monumental New Dance Group, an artistic co-op in New York that produced some of modern dance’s most inventive works and, unfortunately, just closed its doors earlier this year:

 “Lynchtown” by Charles Weidman (1936)
 “Tenant of the Street” by Eve Gentry (1938)
 “Harmonica Breakdown” by Jane Dudley (1940)
 “The Pursued” by Joseph Gifford (1947)
 “Strange Hero” by Daniel Nagrin (1948)
 “Dink’s Blues” by Donald McKayle (1959)
 “D-Man in the Water, Part 1” by Bill T. Jones (1989)

For tickets, call 206.543.4880 or visit