Wiley, Hannah (b. 1950) and Chamber Dance Company

  • By Sheila Farr
  • Posted 6/17/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10797
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University of Washington professor Hannah Wiley founded Chamber Dance Company in 1990 as the mainstay of a new Master of Fine Arts degree in dance. Her plan was for MFA candidates -- all professional dancers preparing for the next stage of their careers -- to further their academic training while continuing to perform. Each year Chamber Dance Company presents a program of rarely seen historical choreography, ranging from early twentieth-century dances by Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950), or Loïe Fuller (1862-1928) to works by contemporary masters such as Paul Taylor (b. 1930), Twyla Tharp (b. 1941), and Mark Morris (b. 1956). Early on, Wiley expanded the company’s mission to include preservation as well: videotaping and archiving the works, conducting interviews with aging dancers and choreographers to capture their memories -- and in some cases the dances themselves -- before they disappeared. The company’s repertory now includes more than 100 works. In 2011, for her extraordinary vision and dedication, Wiley was honored with the Floyd & Delores Jones Endowed Chair in the Arts, the UW’s most prestigious appointment in the arts. 

Childhood Opportunities

Hannah Wiley grew up in the small Eastern Washington town of Opportunity, where her parents stood out as intellectuals and progressive thinkers in a conservative rural area. Martha Margaretha Spille (1916-2013) and Owen Wiley (1912-1989) came from poor farming families -- Owen grew up in Tennessee and Martha in Indiana -- and started their careers as schoolteachers in Kentucky, where they met. After they were married, Owen went to dental school in Portland, Oregon, on the G.I. Bill, and he and a business partner decided that Opportunity, just east of Spokane, was a promising place to open a dental practice.

Owen and Martha wanted to give their children opportunities they hadn’t had. Martha envisioned her only daughter as president of the United States or maybe a mathematician. She never planned on a career in the arts for any of her kids, but she and Owen, a former barbershop-quartet singer, did their best to make sure all three --Steve (b. 1944), Hannah, and John (b. 1952) -- had well-rounded educations, including ample exposure to music, dance, and theater. 

The Wileys were not ordinary parents and family life was never boring. Owen, who liked advanced technology and ideas, bought a German spy camera in the 1950s, installed solar heating panels on the family house in the 1960s, and recommended vitamin supplements to his dental patients. He was one of the first in that part of the state to own a jet boat, which he used to reach the family cabin at nearby Lake Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Martha -- not a natural homebody -- served her stint as a 1950s housewife with determination, cooking up three hot meals a day and making sure the kids were delivered to their various activities.

When she dropped Hannah off for her music lesson, though, Martha would wait in the car reading her New Yorker, savoring that hour of freedom. A staunch liberal, Martha worked for the Democratic Party and served on the platform committee at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles when John F. Kennedy was nominated for the presidency. As the kids got older, she earned her master’s degree in Guidance and Counseling and returned to work as a high school counselor.

Early Music Education

Martha had the conviction that well-raised children should have 10 years of piano training, so Hannah and her brothers did. Hannah studied cello, too, and by high school was proficient enough to earn her spending money by taking on students herself. Right from the start, she loved teaching.

At about age 10, Hannah began taking ballet lessons, a late beginning for anyone on a professional track. Her teacher was Jane Larkin (1907-1996), a well-regarded instructor and choreographer who once a year with another local ballet teacher, Thelma Young (1907-1995), created ballets performed with the Spokane Junior Symphony. Hannah would play cello in the orchestra for the first half of the program and dance in the second half.

Hannah took to ballet easily, with her natural turn-out, musicality, and graceful extension. Her parents sent her off to Banff School of Fine Arts summer program for two summers in her early teens. During her high school years, Hannah twice crossed the Cascade Mountains by train with a girlfriend to attend Seattle Youth Symphony summer camp in dance at Fort Flagler, run by pioneering Seattle dance instructor Dorothy Fisher (1910-1988).

Despite her talent, Wiley didn’t feel a deep commitment to ballet. "I was physical and I think spunky and musical," she recalled. "But I didn’t suffer. My girlfriends in dance were giving up college and giving up this and that ... . I just didn’t feel that way about it" (Farr interview). The standard ballet rules included no horseback riding and no snow skiing, risky sports that developed the wrong muscles for a dancer. Hannah paid no attention. She remembers getting out of school to go skiing with her father. "I wasn’t saving myself for Terpsichore" she said, referring to the Greek muse of dance. "And I did get caught, because I broke my leg skiing" (Farr Interview). 

Dinner table conversation at the Wiley house was not your standard fare, and Hannah thrived on discussions about the latest educational theories. "I knew from the very beginning that education was my thing" (Farr interview). For her, the problem was deciding what to teach. In 1968, when Hannah graduated from University High School, she was still uncertain about what path to follow. "I loved acting; I loved the music stuff. I just loved it all. And at one point my mom did say to me: 'If you want to go to New York to dance' -- but I didn’t even have to think about it" (Farr, "Keepers" The Seattle Times).

Dance at the UW

Instead, Hannah moved west, to Seattle, and enrolled at the University of Washington. The UW didn’t offer a dance major at that time and there were no academic courses in dance. Ballet was taught in the Drama Department and modern dance was classified as Physical Education. To fill a P.E. requirement, Hannah signed up for a modern class taught by Robert Davidson, a proponent of the Skinner Releasing Technique developed by former Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham company dancer Joan Skinner (b. 1931?), then a UW faculty member.

Hannah, with the exaggerated turn-out of her classical ballet training, found herself at odds with the loose, meditative "releasing" style of the Skinner method. "I was wearing contact lenses and couldn’t shut my eyes, and I couldn’t relax, and I couldn’t unpoint my feet, or I didn’t wish to, or whatever. Anyway, I did not do well" (Farr interview). Despite her difficulty adapting, Hannah did later take a Graham technique class from Norman Walker (b. 1934) and continued to study Graham with Phyllis Legters Stonebrook (1934-2010) after graduating.  

She also signed up for ballet with Evelyn H. "Eve" Green (1919 -1993), daughter of Seattle pioneer Minnie E. Hagmoe (1894-1995) and sister of Seattle City Council member Phyllis Lamphere (1922-2018). Green had joined the UW faculty in 1967 after studying in New York with a roster of dance greats, including George Balanchine (1904-1983), Anna Sokolow (1910-2000), Martha Graham (1894-1991), and Robert Joffrey (1930-1988). A warmhearted woman and dedicated supporter of the arts, Green became Hannah’s mentor and friend.

Hannah also studied with acclaimed former dancer and choreographer, Ruthanna Boris (1918-2007). An early Balanchine ballerina and later a soloist with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Boris was an innovative instructor who pushed the university to elevate dance to the status of other studies, an action "extremely important not only here but across the country," Wiley said. (Farr, "Ballet with Miss Boris"). Boris was also a demanding taskmaster, known for pushing some students to tears. The two ballet teachers, with their clashing personalities, made a powerful impression on Wiley: "I loved Eve and was awestruck by Ruthanna. I remember her once asking us if we knew what self-actualization was. Things like that would just send me into orbit. She would train the dancers as if they could think abstractly" (Farr interview).

The first thing Boris did was send Wiley back to 100-level classes, to relearn the fundamentals of ballet. Used to excelling at everything, Wiley was mortified. But she later realized that Boris was right. Because Wiley had advanced so rapidly as a dancer, she had skipped through the basics with little thought. She found that by systematically relearning the core movements and principles of ballet, she not only strengthened herself as a dancer, but also learned how to teach. Miss Boris showed her high regard for Wiley by including her in a recital group that toured during the summers, performing Boris’s choreography along with other works.

Teaching and Dancing 

Wiley graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Drama in 1973, still not sure what she wanted to do. For a while, she waited tables and worked as a barmaid in the University District. One day she got a phone call from Karen Irvin (1909-1999), the ballet mistress at Cornish Institute of Allied Arts (now Cornish College of the Arts), asking if she would teach preschool ballet class. When Wiley met with the elegant Miss Irvin -- in her characteristic bracelets and high heels, a scarf tied around her sleek platinum ponytail -- she confessed that she didn’t know how to teach such little kids. Irvin’s response was unforgettable: "She reached in a drawer and brought out a bunch of plastic flowers and said: 'Wear this in your hair and make them love you'" (Farr interview). Hannah did. 

From 1973 to 1975, Wiley applied herself to teaching as Cornish sought accreditation. She taught a dance-history class that was among the first college credit courses the school offered. She was invited to perform in the Brecht play In the Jungle of Cities at Skid Road Theater in 1974, directed by her old grade-school-through-college classmate Richard E. T. White (b. 1950), who later became Theater Department Chair at Cornish. Then the phone rang with another opportunity -- this time, as a dancer. Wiley was invited to join Ballet Folk of Moscow (now Ballet Idaho), as an artist in residence with the University of Idaho. At 26, Wiley felt a bit old to be starting a performance gig, but it was an alluring offer, so she quit her job at Cornish and flew off to a new adventure.  

Development and Change

During the next year and a half of touring and teaching master classes, Wiley had a life-changing experience. New York choreographer Mary Anthony (b. 1907?) -- a leading modern dancer who began her career with German émigré Hanya Holm (1893-1992) -- came to Idaho and set her dance Songs on the company.  The work opened Wiley to a new understanding of what dance could be. "It just blew my mind," Wiley said. "There was something about this Jewish woman talking about -- and dancing -- love and survival. It was just a deeper experience than the ballets we were doing" (Farr interview). Dancing on pointe was painful and Wiley began turning her attention to the range of modern dance expression.

Her tour with Ballet Folk over, Wiley returned to Seattle to teach for the Seattle Parks Department and at Martha Nishitani's (1920-2014) dance studio in the University District. Wiley picked up acting and choreography gigs at The Palace Theater and Empty Space, where she met actor and director Kurt Beattie (who later became artistic director at ACT). Critic Roger Downey noted that Wiley looked "absolutely marvelous" as Lucy in Beattie’s 1976 Skid Road production of Dracula, where her performance drew screams from the audience (Downey, Seattle Weekly). By that time, Beattie and Wiley were living together.

In 1977 another career opportunity beckoned and Hannah was soon drawn away again.  Through a circle of connections she was invited to apply for a teaching position at Mount Holyoke College. She got the job. "So I just packed my little VW and drove across the country that August," Wiley said. "And all of a sudden I was an assistant professor of dance at an Ivy League college" (Farr, "Keepers"). She and Beattie married in 1978 and maintained a bicoastal relationship until their divorce in 1984. 

Mount Holyoke is part of a consortium of five colleges, including Amherst, Hampshire, Smith, and University of Massachusetts. Wiley soon was appointed chair of the Five Colleges Dance Department, overseeing a staff of more than 20 people, hiring and firing, on five very different campuses. After quickly analyzing the system, Wiley began implementing changes. She restructured course numbers so they were interchangeable on all five campuses, created a dance major, and set the curriculum. For a girl who had grown up talking educational theory around the dinner table, this was heaven: "I kind of have a thing for administration," she said. "I like it" (Farr, "Keepers").

Rethinking Dance Education

With her professional dance experience, teaching skills, and administrative bent, Wiley was in high standing for tenure -- but only if she would return to school and earn a master’s degree. She enrolled at New York University and, as one of the oldest students in the master's program, found herself back in dance classes that she long had been teaching.  A sense of frustration goaded her to begin thinking about what kind of education would help a dancer become a professor: "I could see a lot of artists who hadn’t been to school, the real practitioners, weren’t getting tenure. The real artists weren’t making it" (Farr, "Keepers"). As Wiley later explained, "Dancers have a wonderful body of knowledge but it isn’t in words. They haven’t been trained to talk about dance; they’ve been trained to do it" (The University Report).

She began to evaluate college dance education from the receiving end, as she expanded her course work to anatomy, biomechanics, and statistics. An aesthetics class taught by the author and acclaimed former Doris Humphrey dancer Ernestine Stodelle (1903-2008) was a high point for Hannah. In those pre-YouTube days, Stodelle sent her students to the library to watch videos of historical modern dance performances, including Martha Graham’s 1931 Primitive Mysteries. For Wiley, seeing that groundbreaking early modern choreography brought dance history to life and was, she recalled, "a huge aha" (Farr interview).

Wiley was attending contemporary dance performances in New York, too, and wondering, "why didn’t I know about this?" (Farr interview). She took in shows by Paul Taylor, Eiko and Koma, Twyla Tharp -- new to the scene and making waves -- the sexy and scandalous Joffrey Ballet, and Lar Lubovitch. She met renowned dancer and choreographer Anna Sokolow (1910-2000). "She was riveting, an important force and a female," Wiley later told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "There were not many of those voices around" (Campbell). Fueled with new ideas, Wiley wrote her thesis, Laws of Motion Controlling Dance Movement: A Qualitative and Kinematic Analysis of Saut de Basque, got her master’s degree in 1981, and was awarded tenure.

At Mount Holyoke, Wiley got to be good friends with another instructor, Gemze de Lappe (b. 1922), a former ballet and Broadway dancer and favorite of choreographer Agnes de Mille (1905-1993). Growing up, De Lappe had studied in New York with Irma Duncan (1897-1977), adopted daughter of modern dance innovator Isadora Duncan, and was known as one of the great interpreters of Duncan’s choreography. When the University of Massachusetts hosted the Chinese ambassador on campus, de Lappe taught Duncan’s 1903 dance Ballspiel to Wiley, a process known as "setting" the dance -- which Wiley performed at a special reception for the college’s foreign guests. Embodying that seminal modernist choreography was a formative experience for Wiley and helped shape her approach to dance education, including the concept for Chamber Dance Company.

By 1987, after 10 years at Mount Holyoke, Wiley had matured as an administrator and teacher and was ready for a new challenge. When the University of Washington posted a search for head of its dance division, she jumped at the opportunity to return to the Northwest.  "I missed the tempo and edge of Seattle. I had been coming back most summers to teach here. My family all lives in Washington. All of a sudden there was this job at a huge University in a beautiful city and I got to think bigger" (Farr, "Keepers").

Chamber Dance Company

 At the University of Washington, Wiley finally found herself with a stage large enough to put the ideas she had been developing into practice. Wiley presented the dean with a multi-faceted plan for a new Master of Fine Arts degree in dance. It was the kind of degree program she would have chosen for herself at age 32: an intellectual festival, with classmates who were peers, and no class that didn’t offer practical benefits. She wanted to teach courses that would help artists to succeed as educators and to hit the ground running.

Wiley designed the degree to help professional dancers transition to the next stage of their careers while continuing to perform. She envisioned a rotating chamber group of six dancers -- just three candidates would be admitted each year to the two-year program -- who would work as teaching assistants with full tuition waivers. For performances that required a larger cast, Wiley would hire local professionals or bring in outstanding undergraduates.

Most dance MFA programs train dancers to become choreographers -- not a viable career choice for very many.  But Wiley envisioned the UW program with a more scholarly approach, a way for graduate students to absorb dance history by embodying the canon of modern dance, rather than just reading about it. Chamber Dance Company performances would benefit undergraduates as well, by giving them first-hand exposure to a range of rarely performed historical choreography that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to see. "Watching an artifact become a living, beautiful thing. That’s what’s so contagious about it," said Wiley (Farr interview).

It took two years to get the new degree program approved and running. By late 1990 the Chamber Dance Company was ready to stage its first performance: a debut concert at the small black-box Meany Studio Theater. After the performance, a Safeco Insurance Co. representative stepped from the audience and handed Wiley a check for $10,000. Soon other private and corporate donors offered their help as well and by the following April, Chamber Dance opened the doors to its first full-scale program in Meany Theater. On the program were mid-twentieth-century modern classics by José Limón, Paul Taylor, and Bella Lewitzky.

Reviewers were enthusiastic about the company right from the start. In 1992, dance critic Jean Lenihan noted, "For the second year in a row, the University of Washington Chamber Dance Company has presented one the most intelligible dance concerts Seattle has seen all year" (Lenihan, Seattle Weekly). A reviewer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called the Chamber’s programs of historical modern dance, "a significant contribution to the art form" (Blake, Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Critic Chris Kaufman wrote enthusiastically: "The Chamber Dance Company is a conduit to modern dance’s past, and the enduring quality of these historical works makes its annual concert a must-see event" (Kaufman, Seattle Weekly). 

Nevertheless, Wiley at first struggled to get choreographers or their representatives to grant a small university-based company the performance rights for their dances. There would be a Catch 22. The choreographers would express concern that the quality of a university student group would not be up to their standards. When Wiley explained that the dancers were professionals, the choreographers would insist on charging the rates that a professional company would pay -- often many thousands of dollars out of reach. Sometimes the courtship just took persistence. Wiley tried for 10 years before she finally convinced Susan Marshall to allow the company to perform her aerial duet Kiss

And getting performance rights was just the first step. At the same time Wiley was negotiating for dances, she was writing grants, making travel arrangements for choreographers or their representatives to set the dances and coach the dancers, arranging all the details of costuming, lighting, casting, understudies, announcements, press photographs, and programs. Then the process of setting the dances and rehearsals would begin -- a summer-long engagement. All that was in addition to Wiley’s full-time job teaching classes, advising students, overseeing the UW dance program as director until 1999, and in various leadership positions since then.

 Each program was selected to take advantage of the unique expertise of that year’s cast. If Wiley had a dancer from the Bill T. Jones Company, say, as she did in 2009 with MFA candidate Catherine Cabeen, she might seize the opportunity to perform a piece by that choreographer. She could then give Cabeen the valuable experience of staging a dance she had long performed, training the company dancers not only in the steps, but the meaning, mood, and subtle nuances of the piece. Cabeen set the fast-paced, complicated movements of the first section of Jones's 1989 piece D-Man in the Waters on her Chamber Dance Company colleagues as part of her final concert before receiving her Master of Fine Arts degree and forming her own company.

The MFA program Wiley created for UW now influences dance education across the country. Chamber Dance Company alumni serve on the faculty of far-flung universities, including Bard College, Bryn Mawr, Vassar, McGill, The University of Arizona, Simon Fraser University, Reed College, The University of Utah, Cornish College of the Arts, and many others. Former Chamber dancer Betsy Cooper joined the UW faculty, serving as dance program chair and divisional dean of Art. Wilson Mendieta joined the UW faculty to start a new major in Musical Theater. Other alumni returned to stellar performance careers or new careers as dance critics, lighting designers, nutritionists, dance-company directors, physical therapists, and trainers. Brenna Monroe-Cook, a José Limón Company dancer before coming to UW, earned her MFA and then returned to New York to resume dancing with the company. 

The 1996 MFA graduate Holly Farmer was recruited by the Merce Cunningham Company while a member of Chamber Dance Company and went on to dance with Cunningham for 13 years. Then Twyla Tharp called, offering Farmer a lead role in her Broadway production, Come Fly Away. Farmer said before her experience with Chamber Dance Company she never thought it was possible to have an immersive exposure to dance history. "I got to do some Wigman, Nagrin, Duncan. These are things that as a dancer I did not expect to have as part of my education and it ended up being a huge discovery," she said (Farr interview).

Those stories go on.

As an educator, Wiley’s first priorities are to her students and dancers. But as director of Chamber Dance Company she consistently delivers high value to dance audiences as well. Wiley curates the annual programs to make vintage dances relevant, placing them in the context of contemporary works, tracing the lineage of modern-dance history from its earliest practitioners through the most innovative contemporaries. Discussing a 1997 program of postmodern choreography, reviewer (and former Chamber dancer) Lodi McClellan declared: "I left that rehearsal infused with a renewed love of life, and that’s never happened before at a postmodern concert" ("With Feeling," Seattle Weekly).  McClellan went on to become a professor at Cornish College of the Arts.

Chamber Dance Company exists to revive choreography in danger of being lost to time. In 2010, for example, Wiley assembled a program of dances that incorporated props, from poles and hoops to elaborate masks, helium balloons, scooters, and even a sofa. That concert brought to Seattle for the first time a group of dances composed at the Bauhaus in the late 1920s by designer Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943) and only recently discovered and reconstructed. The dancers performed those vintage treasures in conjunction with a 1980s multi-media piece by Alwin Nikolais, an innovative and acrobatic 1991 dance by Seattle choreographer Llory Wilson, and a vigorous 1978 finale by Lar Lubovitch -- a program you wouldn’t find anywhere else. As dance critic Sandra Kurtz once noted, "it takes a special kind of obsession to keep looking backward while the rest of the dance world hurtles ahead. Which is part of what makes the University of Washington Chamber Dance Company run so special" (Kurtz, Seattle Weekly).

The University of Washington’s Chamber Dance Company has grown to become a living museum of modern dance. Over the years Wiley built a repertory of more than 100 works that includes seminal early twentieth-century dances by Mary Wigman (1886-1973), Duncan, Nijinsky, and Fuller, as well as seldom seen pieces by contemporary masters such Zvi Gotheiner (b. 1952) and Tharp.  Perhaps even more importantly, Wiley revived dances by choreographers whose work was nearly extinct, introducing new audiences to stunning early-modernist pieces by Japanese American dance-maker Michio Ito (1892-1961) and Depression-era social realists Eve Gentry (1909-1994), Daniel Nagrin (1917-2008), and Jane Dudley (1912-2001), among others.  A full list can be found at the dance company's website, https://depts.washington.edu/uwdance/cdc.html. Videos of the company’s repertoire are available to watch at the UW library and some are available for purchase.


Sheila Farr interview with Hannah Wiley, January 8, 2009, and follow up talks, Seattle, audiotapes, notes, and transcripts in possession of Sheila Farr, Seattle; Sheila Farr telephone interview with Holly Farmer, June 10, 2009, transcript in possession of Sheila Farr, Seattle; Roger Downey, "Debut of a Vigorous Theatrical Talent: Kurt Beattie’s 'Dracula' at Skid Road," Seattle Weekly, October 27-November 2, 1976, p. 16; "A Biting 'Dracula' at Skid Road Show," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 5, 1976; Jean Lenihan, "The Most Lucid Thing There Is," Seattle Weekly, January 29, 1992; Jon Blake, "UW Program Makes Major Contribution to Dance," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 14, 1994; Chris Kaufman, "Dance," Seattle Weekly, January 28, 1999, p. 57; R. M. Campbell, "Hannah Wiley Puts UW Dance Troupe in a Unique Position," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 26, 1998, pp. E-1-3;  "Faculty Profile," The University Report, University of Washington, September 1988, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp. 3 -7; Sheila Farr, "Ballet with Miss Boris: She Kept You On Your Toes," The Seattle Times, February 11, 2007; Sheila Farr, "Keepers of the Dance, The Seattle Times, Pacific Northwest magazine, October 4, 2009, pp. 8-12; Michael Upchurch, "UW’s Chamber Dance Revives Haunting 'Hold,'" The Seattle Times, October 14, 2011 (www.seattletimes.com); Sandra Kurtz, "Bones in Motion," Seattle Weekly, September 19, 2007; Lodi McClellan, "With Feeling," Seattle Weekly, February 27, 1997, p. 37.

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