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  • Writer's pictureMichele Brangwen

Asa Nisi Masa: Dance & Music As Incantation

Asa Nisi Masa, with choreography, editing and costumes by Michele Brangwen and music composed by Danielle Reich, Thomas Helton and Tim Hagans, also features movement and music created spontaneously in the moment by all performers. Dancers Robin Gilbert, Cristian Laverde König and Michele Brangwen; saxophonists Robin Verheyen and Jon Irabagon; trumpeter Tim Hagans; bassist Thomas Helton and vocalist Danielle Reich, interact with each other live on a rooftop in NYC.

It is April of 2021 and I am staring at my 5' x 6' piece of marley dance floor, laid over plastic tiles and held down at the ends with stacks of books. Each of the four edges is nestled dangerously close to the surrounding furniture. I was about to begin working on choreography for our third project created during the pandemic and I thought: "I don't think I have one more dance in me that could be created in so small a space." A tiny voice in my head replied: "well, you better."

My creative work is channeled into a professional performing ensemble of dancers and musicians that I have led for 21 years. Aside from keeping true to my ensemble's mission of creating and producing work year round, I felt that continuing to work during the past year and a half was for me like continuing to breathe.

I have heard artists say during this time, "I'm not going to create work just for the sake of creating work," and I respect that point of view although I don't personally share it. I don't think making work for the sake of making work and making strong work are mutually exclusive endeavors. Creating is a journey, and regardless of limitations and/or generous resources, you don't know where it will take you until you begin. Seeing my dancers smiling faces on Zoom every week during the pandemic made my living room lift off into the heavens; the jokes, the good naturedness about the technical difficulties, the enthusiasm, gave me the courage to keep going. It was the only time I felt a degree of normalcy when almost nothing about life was as it had been.

As we began work on our third film, Asa Nisi Masa, in the spring of this year, we decided to work together on the rooftop once we all had completed the vaccination process. We began again via Zoom with the idea that soon we could rehearse together on the open roof. Along with set choreography and written music, there is usually a section of dancer and musician interaction/improvisation in our live performance works. The movement and music is created spontaneously in the moment, inspired by the concept and the emotional life of the work.

For Asa Nisi Masa, I wanted to see if we could return to this way of working and record it live on the roof. I knew the sound might be an issue but I wanted to try. In 20 years, we have never done a live performance without live music and the musicians as integral parts of the visual imagery. Due to the pandemic, however, this would be the first time any of us would dance to live music in more than a year. Some of my sound and audiophile friends tried to dissuade me...wind, sirens, helicopters, traffic noise...forget about it. Well, let's try. Maybe the unevenness of the sound will add to feeling of being in the moment? And hey, didn't the Beatles record an entire album on a rooftop. I think it's been done. As with all aspects of the creative journey, you really don't know what you will have until you do it.

A combination of old, borrowed and new sound recording equipment did the job. The sound was much better than I expected. For me the live improvisations are the most exciting parts of the film. There were these incredible moments like dancer Cristian Laverde König, with trumpeter Tim Hagans and saxophonist Robin Verheyen, seeming to take every note of the musicians' effusive call into his body and in the end, trading riffs with them as if his body was a third horn. Dancer Robin Gilbert and the same two musicians tell a mysterious story that seems full of pathos and longing, culminating in Ms. Gilbert drawing the two musicians into her in an engulfing embrace. To me, this is magic. I know in my improv, it was such a joy to float over Thomas Helton and Tim Hagans playing free on the rooftop; I felt as if someone had let me out of a cage.

For Asa Nisi Masa, I had been playing with the idea of costumes that included an easily removable tunic that was designed to be taken off and hung on the roof towards the end of the work, kind of like a secular interpretation of the idea behind the Tibetan prayer flag. The prayer flag is not a request for something by the person who hangs it, but rather it is hung in an effort to send goodness out everywhere into the world. I thought the idea that the flags would start out by actually being worn by all of the artists would give the gesture of hanging them a feeling of being personal. We would in a sense be sending ourselves, our dance and music, into all spaces.

So here I am, with a lot of ideas and a lot of hope, and this tiny rectangle of space. I tell myself, you better make something and it better be strong, and don't repeat yourself. As this was the third time around in this micro studio, it was difficult to create material and I was frustrated. Then I would hear the news from other parts of the world and I would feel that my dissatisfaction with my limited space was indulgent and ungrateful. Don't complain, just make it as good as you possible can. I told the dancers it would be like an accordion, in that it would open out once we were on the roof. So unlike the other two previous projects, the only way we could make this fit at home was to mark some steps or leave them out in Zoom rehearsals and reconstruct once we were together.

Finally in late June, everyone was through the vaccination process and we all met on the roof. It was so exhilarating despite the sweltering heat. The deck felt like the sand at the beach on a sunny day, you could dance on it because you were moving, but you could not stand still on it for more than a few seconds. We would run the choreography and then dash under the deck for discussion and notes. It all felt so fresh and different, yet so wonderfully familiar.

The way in which the phrase Asa Nisi Masa manifested itself as the title to this new work felt to me like a tiny piece of magic. When I launched my performing company 20 years ago, we premiered a dance and music work called "The Fountain" that was inspired by the actress Anita Ekberg wading through the Fountain of Trevi in Fellini's film "La Dolce Vita." I was captivated by the quality of her body language, sensual and free, and by her beautiful beckoning gesture to Marcello Mastrioanni to join her. "La Dolce Vita" is in actuality a very serious and prescient film - foreshadowing how the focus on media hype and spin would erode our sense of self and our fragile human connection to each other - but as a young choreographer, I instead latched onto the metaphor of the fountain as a symbol of life and truth and the main character's need to possess it rather than find it in himself. I was so taken by the simple image of Ekberg walking in the water, with her gown trailing behind her, and the soft beckoning gesture of her arms reaching out toward the viewer.

Around this time, Steve, one of my closest friends, realizing how I loved "La Dolce Vita," asked me if I had seen Fellini's "8 1/2." He was shocked that I had not and insisted I come over and he would show it to me. "You need to see this. This is the journey of every artist." I would watch it every year after that, sometimes again with this dear friend, and we would discuss different scenes and our impressions of them. With every viewing, I found something new. I was new to running a professional performing ensemble and the stress of managing the artistic and the administrative challenges would often make me think of Marcello crawling under the table at a press conference to avoid questions he could not answer. The film is about the journey of making art and how this mysterious and fragile process must in a way be separate from the artist's ego, and how the self judgement and self doubt must ultimately give way to honesty and courage. Like Martha Graham said "it isn't your job to judge if it is good or not, the world will do that." It is our job as artists to make it.

Listening to the music that composer Danielle Reich wrote for the very ending of the Asa Nisi Masa, when the tunics would be blowing in the wind, made me very emotional, an effect her music often has on me. We had discussed the music having the feeling of everything being OK. What she had written felt absolutely perfect. What immediately came into my head was a scene from the film "8 1/2." A beautiful, unforgettable scene where the main character remembers an evening from his childhood, with his younger self running free, having a warm bath with other children, being wrapped in warm blankets and placed in a warm bed, and the sweet sound of a woman singing. The scene ends with the children sleeping, the grandmother watching over them and then tending to chores in the kitchen, the younger women taking the candles upstairs, and the wind gently blowing out the fire.

It is such a beautiful scene to have fixed in your memory; I take out my DVD of "8 1/2" and watch that scene, looking for inspiration for the choreography for this final section of the film. On rewatching, I realize that I had completely forgotten that right before this incredible scene, the main character in the film is asked explain his use of the phrase Asa Nisi Masa. The people at the spa where he is staying want to know what it means. This question triggers this welcoming respite of memory which we get to see in the film. In his recollection, just before the children fall asleep, a little girl chants Asa Nisi Masa, explaining that it is a magic incantation.

I text my friend Steve:

"I am watching that scene in 8 1/2 where he is in the bath and wrapped in warm blankets and put to bed, with a woman singing and the wind gently blowing, trying to get some ideas for the ending choreography."

Steve texts back three words:

"Asa Nisi Masa."

He remembered better than I did that it is a magical incantation that triggers the memory. This is what I am trying to do...make an incantation. I want to conjure a sense of well being, and maybe the idea that there really is no time.

We ended the film with a group improv on the upper most deck as the tunics blow in the wind; it was totally wild and free. Thomas was not able to be there as he had to go back to Houston, but he sent an amazing improvised ending the day of the filming. The dancers and musicians together on the roof responded to it in the moment as if he were there, everyone enjoying just being able to move and be together.

I started researching the phrase Asa Nisi Masa and discovered that some people speculate it involves the use of a kind of an Italian children's game meant to disguise words by adding either a "sa" or a "si" after the word. If you extract the root of each word of the phrase Asa Nisi Masa, you get the word "Anima," which is Italian for soul. Whether this was Fellini's intention, we will never really know. To me in seemed like the perfect title for this new work. Dance and music is the very essence of our souls. It is our version of magic, and what better offering can we make to this fractured world than this that is our very essence.

Fall 2021, Michele Brangwen


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