On Wednesday, seven ballet dancers will invent a new dance based on audience suggestions. This may not seem crazy to anyone familiar with improv comedy shows like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” But it’s edgy for the ballet world, according to choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning. Her contemporary dance troupe, the Chamber Dance Project, will make up a new dance each night of their summer performance series, which runs through June 28.
“This is definitely our dive off into the abyss,” she says.
The members of the Chamber Dance Project are all professional ballet dancers on summer hiatus from their home companies. Coburn Bruning began asking them to improvise during rehearsals a few years ago to encourage them to abandon their habitual grace and good posture.
“I’d start with having them write their name in cursive with a shoulder, and then give them spatial assignments, like ‘move on a low level and pursue so-and-so,’ ” she says. “I would end up in fits of laughter watching them, or my eyes would well up with the beauty of what they were creating. So I thought, ‘This is really selfish of me to keep it to myself. Why don’t I put it onstage?’ ”
The dancers were game, but the four musicians who accompany them balked.
“These are classical musicians and, much like ballet dancers, they are not trained to improvise or think they can create,” Coburn Bruning says.
So, rather than asking them to make up a piece, Coburn Bruning gives the musicians their scores just before they step on stage.
“They are going out onto their edge, and that’s good enough for now,” she says. “We will try to keep pushing them into the river and maybe get them to improvise in the future.”
In addition to the improvised dance, Chamber Dance Project will perform several choreographed works.
For instance, a piece by Coburn Bruning called “Arranged” features three women, nine chairs and a carpet of rose petals. It was inspired by a photo in The New York Times of two rows of brides facing one another. Coburn Bruning wondered what brought these women together with no groom in sight, and she gave herself the task of creating a dance that explores that question using only slow movements.
“I like to assign myself a problem — get myself into a box and then try to get out of it in the most interesting or creative way,” she says.
Another piece literally puts Chamber Dance Project dancers in a box: “Four Men in Suits” stars a quartet of dancers with their feet planted inside a small, shallow box.
When choreographer Ann Carlson debuted the piece in 1985, it featured four actual Manhattan lawyers and was named after them, “Sloss, Kerr, Rosenberg & Moore.” For five tense minutes, the men uttered phrases and made jittery movements that distilled their high-pressure lives. Carlson has since updated the piece (the men now tap impatiently at their cellphones), replaced the lawyers with dancers and renamed it “Four Men in Suits.”
Mimicking D.C.’s endemic lawyer population has proven to be a tough task for the ballet dancers, Coburn Bruning says.
“There are these tongue twisters in the piece that are a real challenge,” she says. “Talking is one thing lawyers are much better at than we are.”
Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW; June 24-28, various times, $18-$70.
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