Luz San Miguel and Davit Hovhannisyan know about journeys. Born in Madrid and in Yerevan, Armenia, respectively, the two are leading dancers with the Milwaukee Ballet. This summer, they are in Washington to perform with the Chamber Dance Project, a contemporary-ballet company headed by Diane Coburn Bruning, in a mixed-repertory program at the Lansburgh Theatre.
On a recent afternoon in a rehearsal room in Falls Church, however, San Miguel and Hovhannisyan were focused on a trip that didn’t involve geographical displacement. They were working on “Journey,” a pas de deux Bruning choreographed to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” As Bruning watched, the dancers worked their way through movements that evoked the moods of a troubled relationship — love, trust, clinginess, restlessness, yearning for independence.
Sometimes, the petite, dark-haired San Miguel clung to her partner like a graceful limpet; other times, Hovhannisyan supported her in a triumphant lift. Often, one or the other seemed so delicately balanced as to be on the verge of falling.
Bruning, an athletic woman wearing dangly earrings printed with the letters “D.C.,” watched the piece through and then gave notes. “Can this be more of a drop, almost emotionally?” she asked, speaking of a moment when a kneeling San Miguel seemed to float upward, then subside, then float up again, encircled in the arms of the kneeling Hovhannisyan.
The dancers repeated the sequence — with more drop.
Other bits of feedback were congratulatory: “You know that ride in the amusement park? You’re doing ‘The Scrambler’! I love it!” Bruning said of a spinning movement.
This is the second year in a row San Miguel and Hovhannisyan have worked with the Chamber Dance Project, which operates in the summer and relies on performers who are on break from their full-time companies. Bruning founded the project in 2000 in New York; she subsequently moved to the D.C. area and brought the troupe with her. It’s an intimate undertaking: The company has only seven dancers, plus the string players who provide accompaniment for performances.
Bruning has worked with dance, opera and theater companies across the United States and abroad, choreographing pieces including “Ramblin’ Suite,” a collaboration with the Red Clay Ramblers that was an Atlanta Ballet commission.
During a stint with the Milwaukee Ballet, she met San Miguel and Hovhannisyan, who went on to participate in the Chamber Dance Project’s 2014 Washington debut at the Kennedy Center.
The two Milwaukee dancers performed Bruning’s duet “Berceuse,” and the choreographer liked their partnering so much that she cast them this year in “Journey,” a piece she created more than a decade ago.
“I’m really happy to bring it back,” Bruning says.
San Miguel, 38, trained in Madrid and Antwerp, Belgium. She danced in Germany for six years and in 2000 moved to the United States, where she has performed with the Tulsa Ballet and other companies. With the Milwaukee Ballet, she has performed such big-gun roles as Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake” and Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet.”
Hovhannisyan, 33, began studying Armenian folk dancing when he was 6 and was enrolled at the National Ballet School of Armenia four years later. As a 17-year-old apprentice at the Armenian National Ballet Company, he went on tour to Los Angeles. When his colleagues went home, he stayed. Had he gone back to Armenia, he says, he would have found himself obliged to serve in the military for two years, which didn’t bode well for his dance career.
“Your body changes at that age, and if you don’t take ballet for two years, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says.
Life in California was tough. Hovhannisyan pieced together a living with odd jobs — installing water pipes, working in a carwash, waiting tables at a nightclub.
After he made a ballet videotape and sent it round to companies, a San Diego troupe hired him. In 2004, he joined the Milwaukee Ballet, where he has danced such principal roles as Prince Siegfried in “Swan Lake.”
He and San Miguel have danced together often the past decade, which gives them an edge in approaching a duet such as “Journey,” and they say they appreciate the collaborative ethos that governs Chamber Dance Project’s work.
“Everybody has a say in it. Everybody is very open,” Hovhannisyan says.
Bruning, San Miguel adds, “gives you the structure. But she encourages you to make it your own.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
Chamber Dance Project June 24-28 at the Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW. Tickets: $18-$70. 202-547-1122. www.chamberdance.org. (Note: Luz San Miguel and Davit Hovhannisyan perform June 25.)