REVIEW: “Chambers of the Heart” by Word Dance Theater at the Josephine Butler Parks Center

From the DC Dance Journalism Project

Word Dance Theater presents Chambers of the Heart
November 11-13 at the Josephine Butler Parks Center

Review by Taryn Brown

I believe it is safe to say that we all have some similar ideas of what “love” is. A myriad of descriptors might come to the tongue, mixed emotions of wanton desire and eventual loss may race through the heart, or perhaps images of people from the past and present flicker in the mind’s eye. Whatever it is, it is truly something that involves a combination of the physical, emotional, and mental worlds within our own self-perception. That is where we find our honest meaning of the word, “love.” 

At some points confusing and at other times fully ascertained, romantic love takes many twists and turns through the course of its lifecycle. As such, Cynthia Word and Word Dance Theater’s Chambers of the Heart provided a similar roller coaster type feeling on 15th St. NW in the District this past weekend. The performance was filled with poetry, modern dance, opera singers, a pianist, DIY art, monologues, and spoken scenes. Through a loose structure of dramatic and choreographic vignettes the piece highlighted visions and revisions of relationship-based sequences.

cynthiaword-img_1037One of the most striking elements of the performance was the space. The Josephine Butler Parks house was built in 1927 in the historic Meridian Hill neighborhood. Complete with balustrades and grand staircases, this neo-renaissance architectural gem provided an apposite location for Chambers of the Heart

The overall piece utilized two floors of the house. Artwork, dances, and acted scenes took place in large rooms, on stairs, in a hallway, and on the outdoor terrace and veranda. Although there was a formal introduction, this piece of pieces was a “choose your own adventure” for the audience. We were allowed to meander and explore the work as it unfolded, repeated, and varied in several locations.

Choreographic motifs within the several dances presented included balancés, pushing and pulling, skips, hops, and modern dance partnering. The dynamics seemed to stay set within a directed range, and movements were dominated by roundness and circles. This gave a sense of an overall femininity within the choreographic design. As well, it made it devoid of sharp lines or contrasting tension. There was perceived strain in some of the dancers, but it was mostly evidenced in longing facial expressions and arm reaches.

The relationship between Isadora Duncan’s legacy and Word Dance Theater was responsible for much of the lyrically romantic movement themes. Duncan-esque designs weren’t just in the movement choices, but they were also deeply entrenched in the costumes, music, and overall theatrics. Duncan was not known for constraint, she was known for passion. And at this, Word Dance Theater succeeded. They truly put it all out on the table, and the audience ate it up. On a side note, there literally were different types of “love” labeled candy to eat (which I did). 

cynthiaword-img_1047Structurally, the event was a challenge. It wasn’t that it was difficult to travel around and watch different vignettes. I truly enjoyed that. However, the flow from the beginning to the end of the event felt slightly odd. I varied widely with feeling connected to the action. At some points I felt like I was purely coldhearted because I had no emotions. At other times I really could signify with a character and get a relationship going with them. For me, an honest moment that worked was when one man was reading a love letter in an aggressive way to a soloist female who seemed to be dancing in her own world. The tension was phenomenal, but the piece was short. Another moment was when a female actress engaged with me one on one and showed me a love letter in her hand. She said, “here, read this.” 

The most significant sequence that gave me an “aha” moment was toward the end of the experience when similar duets in design and time were being performed in several rooms at once. It was a simply amazing experience to see and feel. It seemed like I was inside a three-dimensional impressionistic painting. The fact that it happened after so much seemingly mellow chaos made it even more special. It felt like the dancers were genuinely expressing the uniquely universality of this thing that we call “love.” Different people were doing similar movement at the same time. We all know it when we see it and we all feel it together, but it’s hard to say exactly what it is.

Chambers of the Heart was a highly attended event. According to their Facebook event page, they sold out several shows. It’s important to note that the large audience made the experience even more enjoyable. I was proud that so many people in the DMV area wanted to take part in this Post-Victorian era rebellious art event. More importantly, it gave me warm fuzzies when I realized I was witnessing an event about human love, with a large group of humans who were also witnessing an event about human love, with a large group of performers who were telling us about love, within a house that encompassed the architecture of love…