The energy was so high at Thursday’s debut of the Chamber Dance Project that when it was over, you still felt the gas pedal was on. A sympathetic kinetic buzz carried you out of the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, which was not quite full. But dance and music lovers have through Saturday to rectify that.
With the project’s four well-crafted works, its appealing dancers and spirited onstage string quartet — and the option of spending intermission outside on the city’s most beautiful balcony, watching the setting sun gild the Potomac — could you script a classier evening? Perhaps in Paris, or Florence. But Washington felt quite continental indeed.
There are many reasons to celebrate the Chamber Dance Project, not the least of which is the arrival of an imaginative and determined new dance force into our midst. Diane Coburn Bruning, the project’s artistic director, founded the summers-only touring group in 2001 in New York. She decided to move here after the recession prompted her to find freelance work with such area theaters as the Shakespeare Theatre Company (where she choreographed “Wallenstein”).
Washington welcomed her so warmly — including a dinner party hosted by the Washington Ballet’s Septime Webre — that Bruning decided to revive her project, which she had shut down. In a short time she assembled a board of directors and pulled funding together for this weekend’s performances and an earlier showing in Baltimore, she said in an interview. Chamber Dance Project is a short-term enterprise: a pickup group of dancers and musicians, assembled for a few summer engagements. Next summer, Bruning hopes to take the project on tour. In the interim, she will be teaching choreography at George Mason University.
Bruning’s concept is what every dance director hopes for — “fabulous dancers, fabulous musicians, fabulous choreography,” as she said — but she is going about it in a smart, practiced way. She has hired dancers who are on the customary summer hiatus from their full-time companies, including the Washington, Joffrey, Milwaukee and Richmond ballets. She is committed to live music and put local string musicians in the spotlight. In addition to accompanying the dancers, they played two recital pieces: Bach’s “Andante” from Sonata No. 2 in A minor (with the lively Claudia Chudacoff on solo violin) and American composer Russell Peck’s jaunty, accessible “Don’t Tread on Me or My String Quartet,” which got the evening off to a jolly start.
One mustn’t forget the elegantly dressed Argentines, who smartened up the audience and filled the aisles with soft-spoken Spanish and cologne. With funding from the Embassy of Argentina, Bruning brought in a sparkling new talent, Buenos Aires choreographer Jorge Amarante of the Ballet del Teatro Colon, to create his first work in this country.
The result, titled “Sur,” is a contemporary twist on the tango, with music by Peteris Vasks and — of course — Astor Piazzolla. The dancers seem to be flying apart; tango steps are fragmented and finally evaporate altogether in a moving central duet, which felt like air, like the breeze outside on the marble terrace, romantic and soft. There were gently sweeping lifts, but the most arresting moment was when the couple nuzzled their forelegs together, as if rejecting the tango’s sharp legwork.
Bruning created three of the dances, including the vigorous “Time Has Come,” a world premiere dedicated to the esteemed New York ballet teacher David Howard, who died last year. There was a lot going on here; it felt like a thick catalogue of the swift, tricky combinations of steps that Howard was known for. More rehearsal was needed to pull it off with grace, but its humor was fresh, particularly in a pas de deux in which the ballerina was in command, pulling at her partner’s leg until he slid to the stage in a split. Once on the ground, he did a slow push-up with her balanced regally on his back, like a water skier bouncing over waves.
Bruning has a fluid style of choreography, and her craftsmanship is clear. In her duet “Exit Wounds,” danced by the Joffrey’s Fernando Duarte and the Washington Ballet’s Luis R. Torres, with music by Philip Glass, arcing lifts seemed to come out of nowhere and emotions shifted just as suddenly. A complicated and often unexpected tone underpinned the evening; you saw this also in the nostalgic duet “Berceuse,” with introspective music by Benjamin Godard. Bruning clearly isn’t afraid of complications. Considering the aims of her endeavor, this is a good thing.