The hesitant, self-doubting narrator of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” famously wonders, “Do I dare to eat a peach?”
No comparable skittishness hampered the genesis of “Prufrock,” a movement-theater work making its world premiere June 20-22 as part of Chamber Dance Project’s program at Sidney Harman Hall.
“It’s risky,” co-conceiver/director Diane Coburn Bruning says of the piece, which deploys five dancers and an original score to explore Eliot’s poem, one of the bedrock texts of literary modernism.
Risks notwithstanding, suggests co-conceiver/director Matt Torney, when matched with the movement and stage pictures he and Bruning have devised, “the poem reveals itself in new and surprising ways.”
First published in 1915, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” takes the form of a monologue spoken by a balding man who’s achingly aware of his own awkward persona, stodgy existence and disconnectedness from others. Filtered through the narrator’s wryly brooding sensibility, the poem brims with striking images: half-deserted streets, yellow smoke slinking like a cat, mermaids riding waves. References to Shakespeare, Hesiod and the Bible crop up.
“Eliot is creating a picture of early-20th-century life by assembling these fragments,” says Torney, noting that in general the poet’s style, with its “collision of old and new,” is something he himself finds “very fertile artistically.”
Bruning has herself long been fascinated by “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a work she first encountered in English class, at Butler University, and later used as the basis for a pas de deux and a 10-minute film. She attributes her interest in part to the poem’s evocative, nonlinear arrangement of “powerful and brutally honest images.”
“Prufrock” originated with Bruning’s yearning to create a piece that incorporated text — an approach she hadn’t recently adopted in her work with Chamber Dance Project, the contemporary ballet company she founded in New York, brought to Washington, and leads as artistic director.
A choreographer who has worked with dance, opera and theater companies in the United States and abroad, Bruning had a vision for her planned new word-encompassing work: pools of light pinpointing discrete sequences of movement on an otherwise dark stage.
To pursue the idea, she reached out to Torney, a previous collaborator on a 2010 site-specific production of the musical “Improbable Frequency” for the Irish arts troupe Solas Nua. Now associate artistic director at D.C.’s Studio Theatre, Torney had directed the Solas Nua piece, signing up Bruning (recommended by a colleague) to choreograph. The partnership went smashingly, earning “Improbable Frequency” a Helen Hayes Award nomination for choreography.
Torney was open to innovative ideas, Bruning says, “so I got to stretch and do some things that I thought were really interesting.”
It helped that Torney had a terpsichorean background himself. He recounts that he studied ballet and contemporary and jazz dance during his youth in Belfast, and even served as dance captain for a U.K.-Ireland tour of “West Side Story.” The art form provided a welcome escape from the violent period in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. Dance “connected me to the deeper human experience, beyond just the political reality,” he says.
After he and Bruning had committed to a new project for 2019, they began brainstorming for texts. They mulled over the potential of historical documents and political speeches. Then Torney, who describes himself as a “great lover of 20th-century poetry,” began to think about Eliot’s verse. “The Waste Land,” Eliot’s allusive masterpiece about spiritual aridity, initially sprang to mind. But “the quality of it was a little bit too strident,” Torney says. “Then I thought: ‘Prufrock’!”
Having settled on the text, the collaborators began dreaming up potential moments — a tea party; a head on a platter; a struggle against drowning. During the development process, Torney at times acted as dramaturge; Bruning took the lead on choreography. (The two aren’t the only 21st-century artists translating Eliot into movement: Last year, in New York state, Pam Tanowitz Dance debuted a critically acclaimed dance version of Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”)
Torney will read the poem aloud during each performance. To complete the production’s audible dimension, the creators turned to sound designer James Bigbee Garver, who composed an original electronic score that he will perform live at each performance using a laptop and DJ controllers. At Bruning and Torney’s joint interview, at Chamber Dance Project’s offices, they played a stretch of the music, hauntingly spare and percussive.
The poem “wanted something spacious and sound-scape-y,” Torney says.
The other pieces on the upcoming Chamber Dance Project program are likely to do more showcasing of dance technique: The bill includes Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Rondo Ma Non Troppo,” Alejandro Cerrudo’s “Extremely Close,” and Bruning’s own “Songs by Cole” (set to Cole Porter). By contrast, Torney and Bruning consider “Prufrock” movement-theater, rather than pure dance.
“We’re not doing grands jetés en tourant,” Bruning says.
Here’s another thing “Prufrock” won’t do: Get cerebral.
“We’re not interested in creating an analysis of the poem or explaining it,” Torney says. “What we’re interested in is mining the landscape underneath the poem for images that demand movement.”