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A Century Of Dance Saved At The University Of Washington

A dancer and stager rehearse Loïe Fuller's 'Lily of the Nile.'
University of Washington/Steve Korn
A dancer and stager rehearse Loïe Fuller's 'Lily of the Nile.'"

One of the things that’s so exciting about dance is one of the things that can be most frustrating:

Dance is ephemeral.

It’s live, it’s in the moment, and then, poof, that dance you’ve just seen is a memory.

University of Washington dance professor Hannah Wiley has spent the past 25 years trying to capture and save some of that ephemera through her Chamber Dance Company.

The dancers are masters degree students in the UW dance program. Most of the year the students focus on academics: dance history, kinesiology, or pedagogy.

But every summer these graduate students — all former professional dancers — spend their days in the studio, learning some of the classic modern dances from the past century.

“The Chamber Dance Company really just takes up a summer quarter, but it takes up my whole year,” Wiley laughs.

Wiley chooses choreography she likes or that she believes is worth re-mounting for an audience. Then she tries to track down written or video records of past performances, photographs — even people who once performed the works.

Every October, the results of Wiley's research and the student rehearsals are presented to an audience. It's the Chamber Dance Company’s one and only annual production. The performances are videotaped for posterity and archived at the UW’s Suzzallo Library.

Wiley estimates that over Chamber Dance's 25-year history, she’s presented more than 100 dances; the earliest was choreographed in 1896 by Loie Fuller.

Re-mounting old dances isn’t like producing a play by Shakespeare or performing a Beethoven symphony. There are no official scripts or scores. In fact, there’s no single notation system for dance. Sometimes a choreographer made notes; sometimes she took photos. Even when a dance was choreographed in the digital era, for the most part, it’s still passed down from one dancer to the next, body to body.

When Wiley chooses to present dances by living choreographers, like Twyla Tharp, very often an approved "stager" comes to mount the dance if the choreographer can’t do it. These stagers have worked with the choreographer or with a dancer who worked closely with the choreographer. In the case of Twyla Tharp's  "The Fugue," UW graduate student Charlie Hodges had danced with Tharp’s company, so he taught this dance to his fellow students in 2013.

Sometimes there’s no one still alive who danced the dance or learned it from somebody who did. In the case of Loie Fuller’s 1896 work, “Lily of the Nile,” or a Bauhaus-era work by German artist Oskar Schlemmer, Wiley relied on scholars who recreated the works from written accounts and old photographs.

The University of Washington Chamber Dance Company archives at Suzzallo Library is one of the largest of its kind. Wiley says dance scholars from around the world travel to Seattle to research historic dances. But that’s not the only reason she does this work. It’s clearly a labor of love.

“I’m probably proudest of the fact that we’re able to capture this ephemeral work,” she says, with a catch in her throat, “and change people’s artistic lives because of it.”

The Chamber Dance Company celebrates its 25th anniversary October 15-18 at Meany Hall on the University of Washington campus.