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On June 14, the Chamber Dance Project opened its practice room to outside observers for one rehearsal. A pair of dancers took their beginning pose, entwined. Artistic Director Diane Coburn Bruning gave the cue to begin: “And lights up.”

The dancers, Davit Hovhannisyan and Luz San Miguel, both from the Milwaukee Ballet and in their second year of performing with D.C.’s Chamber Dance Project, embodied the intimacy and physicality of the pas de deux with the near-seamlessness of two longtime collaborators. The piece was full of spins and dips, with repetition in the circularity of their movements, controlled until a penultimate moment in the music when the twists and turns began to take on a new quality, tinged with a desperation, an emotional intensity cracking through before the music slowed again and the dancers moved into the last part of the dance.

This is Bruning’s “Journey,” a piece that has particular emotional resonance for her: It’s dedicated to her late father. As the dancers moved, Bruning stepped over to the string quartet playing Samuel Barber’s “Adagio,” telling the players to make the music surge more, to push the volume.

And then they began again, with a new dancer pair: Atlanta’s Jacob Bush and Washington Ballet’s Francesca Dugarte. Bruning’s willingness to let go and allow her work to be performed by many dancers and seen by many audiences without telling them in program notes what they’re supposed to think is an important point in her development as a choreographer.

“I love the duet form,” Bruning says. “For me, ‘Journey’ is interpreted. The important thing is that people feel something from it. That’s why I brought that back.”

In the longstanding debate of technique versus expression, contemporary ballet has emerged as a fusion of classical ballet and modern dance—a synthesis exemplified by Chamber Dance, where the ballerinas wear toe shoes and have impeccable technique but move with the fluidity of modern dance, unconstrained by traditional positioning.

The company is a true blend of old and new, but not in the way of most other contemporary ballet companies. In its insistence on some elements of the art that have fallen out of fashion, it’s a throwback: In most dance companies, the days of having a pianist at each rehearsal are gone, replaced by stereo systems. Chamber Dance Project is bucking that trend. “There’s got to be live music, otherwise, is it a performing art? I argue no,” says Bruning. “It doesn’t always have to be a string quartet,” but the collaboration between musicians and dancers is integral to the project. (To her, even the orchestra pit would be too far removed: The Chamber Dance Project’s string quartet, led by violinist Claudia Chudacoff, performs onstage with the dancers.) And Chamber Dance isn’t fully modern-experimental in the vein of Deviated Theatre’s postapocalyptic dance operas. But in a city without its own major modern dance company, where locally-based dance companies with community ties are often eclipsed by the Kennedy Center’s gravitational pull, Bruning’s nascent company fills a gaping hole in D.C.’s performing arts calendar.

The Chamber Dance Project season falls in the summer, when most companies are on break and dancers are left looking for other jobs and struggling to keep up their technique. Chamber Dance, now in its second season in D.C., steps into this gap, giving dancers new projects while gaining access to a group of otherwise unoccupied and extremely talented principal dancers.

This year’s dancers hail from the Atlanta Ballet, the Cincinnati Ballet, the Milwaukee Ballet, and the Washington Ballet. (Those coming from out of town flew in at the end of May.) In a larger company, dancers spend more time offstage between scenes. But the Chamber Dance Project is not just a small company that offers more onstage time—it’s one with compressed rehearsal time, which means more of the dancers are active in rehearsal at any given moment.

Bruning is the company’s founder; when asked about its sophomore season, she laughs, pausing to consider that phrasing: “But we are not sophomoric.”

The roots of Chamber Dance go back to 2000, when Bruning started the project in New York City. After the company went on hiatus in the wake of the Great Recession, Bruning came to D.C. in 2010 to choreograph for theater and opera performances. “I was so impressed with the theater, the community, and I thought I’d really like to be a part of this, although in dance,” she says, and she decided to stage Chamber Dance’s reincarnation in D.C. Bruning’s taking a slow and steady tack in her new city, and many of her plans (to expand by one dancer a year, for example, and to do more touring) chart a measured course that illuminates her concern for the company’s long-term solvency.

A dance company needs many spaces: an administrative center, a rehearsal space, a performance venue. Bruning found a multitude of organizations willing to support and partner with Chamber Dance, from Metro Offices (which subsidized administrative space) to BalletNova (where Chamber Dance rehearses) to the Shakespeare Theatre Company (which runs the Lansburgh Theatre, where Chamber Dance is performing this year). “I was taken aback and greatly encouraged by that,” Bruning says. She’s made it her mission to help the D.C. arts scene grow, in part by offering subsidized tickets to family matinee performances.

This year, the company’s repertoire is composed of contemporary works by four living choreographers, in line with Bruning’s vision of her company as a place that promotes current choreographers with powerful voices in addition to dancers and musicians. “I like to say, ‘Go for the jugular,’” she says. “Not [choreographers] who tell people how to feel, but who evoke strong responses.”

The 2015 performances will be split between two program lineups to be danced in alternating performances. “I think that’s part of being grown up—you don’t just do the same thing every night,” Bruning says. “You have a revolving rep, and I want a big rep… and I want audiences to come back more than once, I want them to come back and see it several times.”

Program A contains the world premiere of “Arranged,” by Bruning; the D.C. premiere of Ann Carlson’s witty “Four Men in Suits”; and a reprise of “Time Has Come,” also by Bruning. Program B replaces those three with Bruning’s “Journey”; her male duet “Exit Wounds,” set to a Philip Glass score; and “Sur,” the tango-ballet cross by Argentinean choreographer Jorge Amarante.

“Wild Swans,” one of the world premieres, will be included in both programs, as will “Duo,” a musical stand-alone from Sergei Prokofiev’s “Sonata for Two Violins.” The last shared item in both programs is appended with the letters “SI,” standing for “structured improvisation,” a new Chamber Dance experiment.

Comedy improv may be popular, and movement improv exists in some modern-dance circles, but it is not endemic to traditional ballet companies. “This is my harebrained idea,” Bruning says. “It’s not only pulling back the curtain; it’s catapulting us over the cliff, and the dancers and musicians are right with me, and I couldn’t be more excited and proud.” It’s a calculated risk in a form that’s new but not untested, and it wholly depends on the virtuosity and versatility of its performers and their willingness to follow Bruning’s lead.

To ensure that both halves of the collaboration are moving on unfamiliar footing, for each SI performance, Burning chooses a score the musicians have never played before. At the company’s June 14 rehearsal, Bruning handed the quartet a surprise set of sheet music, and the group began sight-reading a startlingly lovely all-strings version of Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida.”

The dancers began swirling, swooping around each other without touching, waiting for the cue that would signal the switch in their movements to a second set of instructions. Their unrehearsed and undirected dancing was spellbinding, a set of highly trained and graceful bodies moving nearly at random, clustering together only to break apart again. The result was a piece that viewers had never seen before, and will never see again. So far, audiences have been enthralled.

“How do you not run into each other? How do you not collide?” one audience member asked at the rehearsal. “Oh, we did,” Hovhannisyan answered, to laughter. Luis Torres, Chamber Dance’s ballet master, admits that it’s always scary at first. “You always feel, ‘Oh my god, I’m not going to have anything to do, and everyone is watching.’” But then the music begins, and dancers build off the actions and reactions of the others. “The material is endless,” he says.

Chudacoff and Bruning commissioned both the score and the choreography for “Wild Swans.” The music was written by Ecuadorian composer Chia Patino, inspired by a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay: “Nothing to match the flight of wild birds flying./ Tiresome heart, forever living and dying,/House without air, I leave you and lock your door.” To pair the score with movement, Chamber Dance Project tapped guest choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie, who has worked on Broadway and with that bestower of instant cultural cachet, Beyoncé.

On stage near the dancers at rehearsal, Moultrie cued them with snaps and the occasional stage-whispered “Soft!” marking the precise moments when their movements should occur. The six “Wild Swans” dancers end up together at the front of the stage, moving in disparate action in what Moultrie called an inorganic opposition with classical ballet, that giant of the dance world, the overbearing bigger sibling.

“The idea is to not put them in white costumes with feathers on their backs,” he states. There are other ways to play the swan. 

Photo by Eduardo Patino