On Chant: Rehearsal

Blog written by Alix McDonough

Diane Coburn Bruning, founder and artistic director of Chamber Dance Project, invited me to a rehearsal of her ballet, Chant, which held it’s world premiere on June 21 at the Lansburgh Theatre.

When the rehearsal begins, I feel as though I’m stepping through a pair of gigantic carved wooden doors into a magnificent Gothic Cathedral.  The vaulted ceiling is so high it almost breaks my neck to look up at it.  The only light comes from stained glass windows and votive candles.

I’m in a vast space that’s so quiet that the sound of my footsteps on the stone floor is deafening.  The organ is silent.  I sit down on a wooden pew. I feel like I’m waiting for something to happen.  Something happens.

I see a group of women wearing short black robes with hoods lined in purple.  They sit in a circle in the corner of the room.  Waiting. I can hardly see their faces.  They’re talking in voices that overlap each other. I can’t understand the words.   It sounds like they’re repeating “Veni Sante Spiritus” over and over like a mantra.

Now I hear an African drum and the sound of Gregorian chant.  The women stop talking.  The chanting gets louder. Three men in black skirts seem to swoop onto the floor like giant predatory birds alternately attacking then protecting each other.

When the women join the men, I feel the mood change.  The dance softens. I see slightly classical movements woven into this very contemporary dance.

When the rehearsal ends, I feel sorry to leave this cathedral that seemed so real to me.


Following this stunning rehearsal, I met with Diane who, in collaboration with Andile Ndlovu, choreographed the ballet.

The music for Chant was arranged by Michael McCarthy, Music Director at the Washington National Cathedral.  This was his first experience writing a score especially for ballet.

I asked Diane how Gregorian chant had inspired her to create this extraordinary performance.

She told me that she was raised Catholic!.  She remembers that, when she was very young, she heard priests chanting in Latin during mass.

“I think it became grounded somewhere in me so that when I heard beautifully performed Georgian chant years later, it just resounded deeply for me.”

Do you hope to give the audience that same feeling that captured you when you first heard Gregorian chant as a child?

“I never like to dictate or tell them [what to feel]. I can only create from and for myself and hope it has impact.”

When the ballet has ended and the audience leaves the theater, it is Diane’s hope that they take away with them a “powerful and moving experience”.