Chamber Dance Project Brings ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ From Page to Stage

Choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning and Director Matt Torney discuss the process and inspiration behind world-premiere theatrical dance performance of T.S. Eliot's 1915 poem

‘‘Do I dare/Disturb the universe?” asked T.S. Eliot’s protagonist in the confessional modernist masterwork “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Through a world-premier devised performance, choreographer and Chamber Dance Project Artistic Director Diane Coburn Bruning and theatre director Matt Torney answer that question affirmatively.

Francesca Dugarte and Jonathan Jordan in rehearsal of 'Prufrock.' Photo by Luna Photography.
Francesca Dugarte and Jonathan Jordan in rehearsal of ‘Prufrock.’ Photo by Luna Photography.

The two had no doubts in their responses of “Yes” to Mr. Prufrock’s question to himself. Together with five renowned dancers (Jonathan Jordan, Ryan Carlough, Francesca Dugarte. Julia Erickson, and Daniel Roberge), live music, a soul-rendering sound design and pinpoint lighting, they will navigate the intricacies of the 131 lines of fragment-rich text about a rather chaste middle-aged being’s internal musings that are the 1915 poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

Bruning and Torney are nearing final preparations for “Prufrock” that they co-conceived and are co-directing at DC’s Harman Hall. The duo first worked together at the Solas Nua production of Improbable Frequencies. Bruning was the Helen Hayes-nominated choreographer for the production, while Torney was the director.

When I visited with them last week, they quickly beguiled me with their vision for the “Prufrock” literary text. They spoke vividly about their longtime interest in “Prufrock” as a poem and how a performance can reveal its “inexpressibility as an ode to loneliness,” as Torney suggested.

But, “Prufrock,” that most unsatisfied middle-aged being, I said to myself? Really? I was incredulous at first. Bruning and Torney dispelled my doubts as they spoke about their longtime fascination with “Prufrock.” For both, the poem has been a part of their creative dreams for some time. Now Associate Artistic Director at DC’s Studio Theatre, Torney mentioned that “Prufrock” has been with him as a seminal reading since young adulthood. A few years ago, Bruning was director/choreographer for a short film, “Prufrock,” as a Sundance Film Festival Fellow.

I re-read Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” a number of times before my interview with Bruning and Torney. It is an intimate self-assessment of a balding, middle-aged man. Through internal monologue, he chats about a life-long search for love and meaning. The world around him is in an uncertain, anxiety-filled time, so he thinks. Prufrock speaks of love, loneliness, isolation, anxiety, indecision, disorientation, relationship issues and society in general.

Diane Coburn Bruning. Photo courtesy of Chamber Dance Project.
Diane Coburn Bruning. Photo courtesy of Chamber Dance Project.

Bruning and Torney made abundantly clear that “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is full of visual and aural clues; fragments and sequences and tempo and colorings that make it ripe for dance-music-sound storytelling. Torney noted the lines, beats, and rhythms of Eliot’s “Prufrock.”

As a tandem, Bruning and Torney were animated as they used descriptive words such as “feel,” “express,” and “capture” for their devised work. They also spoke of other literary figures of the 20th-century canon such as Samuel Beckett and the images of Salvador Dali with “the tastes of the absurd.”

Bruning has taken the 131 lines and devised 15 vignettes – vignettes to express Prufrock’s intimate thoughts that she first sketched out into a little notebook she carried with her. She then developed a large movement language mixed with smaller facial gestures along with props such as a small chair to have the human body a canvas for Eliot’s words such as “Let us go then, you and I.”

During our meeting, I heard a sampling of James Bigbee Garver’s sound design. It was a remarkable heartbeat that aims to further impact Eliot’s lines. Celebrated lines like “In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo,” or “I have gone at dusk through narrow streets,” or “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,” or “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” And this: “That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.”  Live music will be led and performed by Chamber Dance resident musical artist Claudia Chudacoff.

Matt Torney. Photo by Teddy Wolff.
Matt Torney. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

I was swept away into the new “Prufrock” creation. Listening to Bruning and Torney, I could see it. I could hear it. I could “feel” it. There was dramatic emotion. But wait, there is more afoot. At the four performances of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Torney will live read the text of “Prufrock” as a key underlying element of the performance. I was given the opportunity to hear what his voice might sound like live in the acoustics of Sydney Harman Hall. His voice was hypnotic and mysterious. His cadence opened my mind deeper into the text. His voice dipped and dived. Torney’s inflections and pitch accentuated Eliot’s text. There were lines and spaces and silences that “gave words time to breathe” as Torney mentioned.

DC-area audiences have an opportunity to experience something ambitious that aims to close the distance between text and movement. A chance to take in a multi-disciplinary perspective on a legendary poetic work. A one-of-a-kind experience with T.S. Eliot’s text not as a solitary, dispassionate read, but as a communal experience. It should be a much different way to absorb it.

Who knows what varied personal responses audience’s will have to Prufrock’s vision. Get ready for your own.

Chamber Dance Project New Works performs June 20-22, 2019, Sidney Harman Hall – 610 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, go online.

Musicians list:  Claudia Chudacoff, Violin
Derek Smith, Violin
Chaerim Smith, Violin
Sean Neidlinger, Cello