REVIEW: Chamber Dance Project Presented at the Millennium Stage of the John F. Kennedy Center
by Mariana C. Barros
Any chance to go to the Kennedy Center always feels like a magical way to spend an evening. I’m not sure if it’s the deep-red carpet that welcomes you into the lobby or the grandness of the high marble walls. Maybe it’s JFK himself (okay, his bust) that greets you once you make that left past the box office. Either way, the marriage of art and glamour present there always makes me feel like a giddy quinceanera as I walk through the front doors. On Wednesday, June 7th, I had the chance to feel like a cheeky 15-year-old once again and see the Chamber Dance Project present a slew of snippets of some of their past and upcoming works on the Millennium Stage.
Chamber Dance Project is led by award-winning founder and artistic director, Diane Coburn Bruning, and is composed of a collection of talented dancers from ballet companies across the country who come together each summer during the ballet off-season. The company was first founded by Coburn Bruning in New York City in 2000, then re-established in Washington D.C. in 2014 with its first season at the Kennedy Center. The objective of the project is to bring dancers and live musicians together in intimate settings in an effort to redefine contemporary ballet and provide a heightened impact on audiences. This is exactly what they delivered with their excerpts of Rue Noir (2016), Songs by Cole (preview), and Festival (2016).
The performance began with a five-person New Orleans jazz band entering from the doors behind the audience as they made their way down the aisle to the Millennium Stage. The band was led by a vivacious leader, Mosche Snowden, playing the trombone, and featured Kenneth McDonald on trumpet, John Woodbridge II on the saxophone, Sean Sidley on the drums, and Sterling Anderson on the sousaphone. They introduced us to the show with a song that effectively transported us into the heart of the French Quarter. One by one, beginning with Gian Carlo Perez (Washington Ballet), the dancers presented contemporary ballet solos that fused classical ballet with jazz moves inspired by the music of the French Quarter. Perez’s movement was ethereal. Aided by his tall stature and controlled long limbs, he seemed to float as he moved across the stage. The second dancer to enter was Angie Sansone (Kansas City Ballet) in a stunning blue dress and en pointe. Her movement was a bit more centered on classical movement, but it was fun watching her follow the intricate notes that came from the melody of the brass and the beat of the drums. After Sansone, came Patric Palkens (Boston Ballet) who was then followed by Luz San Miguel (Milwaukee Ballet). Palkens burst through the stage with incredible amounts of energy, and San Miguel exuded beauty and grace through her movement. Lastly, came Andile Mdlovu (Washington Ballet) who absolutely captured my attention, not just in his initial solo, but every time he came onstage with his smooth, slick movement.
The solos were a good way to introduce the merging of classical ballet and the jazz music of NOLA. It was refreshing to see this diverse group of dancers implement their technique in unconventional ways with street music. Rue Noir continued with a modern love affair pas de deux between Sansone and Perez, a solo by Ndlovu, which I described as “liquid,” and finally a trio with the three men, Perez, Palkens, and Ndlovu. In his solo, Ndlovu danced with a yellow umbrella that matched his crisp yellow shirt filling the stage with silky movements. He partnered with his prop smoothly and ingeniously. Choreography by Jennifer Archibald successfully depicted a wide range of emotion and adventure that can unfold during any given night in the French Quarter. Costumes by Monica Leland were my favorite of the night, though I should clarify that it was the men’s costumes that stood out. They were so elegant and reminded me of the Princess and the Frog.
The second work presented was a preview of Songs by Cole, which is set to premiere June 22nd, with music by Cole Porter (by arrangement with the Cole Porter Family Estate) and played by Barry Gurley. This set of works were choreographed by Coburn Bruning and gave a taste of the wide range she is well known for. First, C’est Magnifique (sung by Gurley), a comical duet performed by San Miguel and Perez, where San Miguel played a marionette and Perez her constant handler. The dancers were at opposite spectrums in height; San Miguel the most petite and Perez the tall giant. In a classical setting, this difference in height would be unlikely to be used, but in this context, it fit perfectly. These dancers were intricately linked throughout. San Miguel often being lifted and placed at the whim of her titan partner. This piece was then followed by a solo, You Do Something to Me, danced by Ndlovu with singer Lena Seikaly as his love interest. Once again, Ndlovu was captivating while he showcased his acting chops as a love-struck character. Even as he stumbled around, his movement was smooth. It was lovely to see the dancer interact with the musicians playing; at one point Ndlovu joined Gurley on the piano bench, awestruck by the singing of his elegant love interest (Seikaly).
After the solo, came a music-only interlude of Ms. Seikaly singing Cole Porter’s Night and Day, followed by another pas de deux, Miss Ottis Regrets, danced by Sansone and Palkens. This pas de deux was the most emotional of the night and incorporated lyrical movements and complicated lifts. The two dancers were intertwined throughout the piece and carried the weight of the subject at hand, Miss Ottis’s guilt, throughout their movement. Palkens and Sansone character dynamic were intimate and present drawing me into their world. One downfall to this piece was the poor spacing. From where I was sitting, true center in the house, the dancers went out of view for about 16 counts behind Gurley and Seikaly who were downstage left. Given that the piece was so emotionally driven, this did take me out of the story for a bit. Nonetheless, this was a poignant, well-executed number.
A fun piece classified as “hip hop,” Festival, rounded out the evening and introduced two dancers who were not seen in the previous two pieces; Ashley Murphy (Washington Ballet) and an unnamed male dancer joined Ndlovu, Palkens, and Sansone for this last piece. Though the piece was listed in the program, and mentioned by Coburn Bruning in her introduction, as hip-hop, I think it can more accurately be described as street-jazz, and was really a far cry from hip hop. This mis-categorization took me away from the piece, and perhaps created a barrier I just couldn’t get past. Having recently attended a true hip hop dance crew’s show (this genre is amply represented here in the District), I couldn’t help but have a distaste for inaccurate representation. On the one hand, I don’t blame them, for they brought Mosche and his company back for the accompaniment of this piece, and I can understand why it could be difficult to set a hip hop piece to jazz music. Also, at the end of the day, these are classically trained ballet dancers, so I can’t quite blame them for maintaining technique and classical posture throughout the choreography. However, I strongly feel that classifying this as a hip hop piece is mischaracterizing the movement for what I believe to be an attempt at diversity simply for the sake of diversity.
Overall, I was entertained by the Chamber Dance Project’s performance. As the ballet season ended just a few weeks ago, I would imagine that these dancers put these works together in a short amount of time. This lack of rehearsal time showed in slight lack of synchronicity at times and small differences in the quality of movement from dancer to dancer. But I think it can also be attributed to the fact that these dancers spend most of their time training under different directors. Nonetheless, this was a great performance put on for free by gifted choreographers and extraordinarily talented dancers.
Coburn Bruning has gathered a diverse group of dancers, who not only execute dance beautifully, but are also capable of portraying complex characters believably. Her take on contemporary ballet mixed with non-classical music is refreshing. She has successfully brought ballet into the 21st century while maintaining pristine technique, and with it the best qualities that make ballet so mesmerizing.
Chamber Dance Project can be seen next at the Sidney Harman Hall on June 22nd – 24th where they will be premiering their full-length show of works in collaboration with Cole Porter’s music. Information on these performances can be found on their website, www.chamberdance.org.