CONFUSION OF ANGELS BLOG
Updated: Aug 12, 2018
Confusion of Angels: Dio de Los Muertos Revisited
In October of 2006, we premiered “Confusion of Angels,” a work in response to the growing number of casualties in the Middle East, especially children. It took the form of a Dio de Los Muertos altar that came to life with dance, music and film and it was a co-presentation by the Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble and an arts and education organization called MECA (Multiculturalism and Education Counseling Through the Arts) as part of their annual Dio de Los Muertos Festival in Houston. “Confusion of Angels” featured choreography by me, music by Thomas Helton, cinematography by Yunuen Perez Vertti, and set design by Sandra Tapia Luna. It was performed by Lindsey McGill. Brooke Barnes, Sasha Filpovich, Michele Brangwen, Thomas Helton, Seth Paynter and Carol Morgan. Lighting Design by Jeremy Choate. Production Assistants: Brian Nelson & Cindy Schumacher.
I have long been a fan of composer George Crumbs “Black Angels,(1970)” a spectacular work for electrified string quartet, written in response to the Vietnam War. It follows the path of a soul ascending into heaven. (For those of you who may not have seen it, the musicians speak, walk around, change positions, play their instruments upside down, bow wine glasses, all things then and now still considered taboo for music for a string quartet). This work was a tremendous inspiration to me on many levels: it showed me that a wild and strange work could be powerful because of its content…in other words, that the format and realization were new and nontraditional was not the reason for the impact. It was a great, powerful work and the new concept was merely a vehicle for a beautifully expressive masterpiece.
I took George Crumbs idea of the journey of a soul as the narrative thread for “Confusion of Angels.” I wanted to trace the journey of a child who was trying to make sense of why it has exited the world. I knew I wanted to end with a film of floating candles in the Reflecting Pool at the Rothko Chapel. I wanted to begin with the child, as portrayed by dancer Brooke Barnes, passing into another realm. My idea was to film her inside the Rothko Chapel. The painter Mark Rothko, for whom the nondenominational chapel is named, in his later years entertained his guests within the enclave of his paintings; he felt they protected him. I thought it would be ideal to film the dancer surrounded by the paintings, protecting her, enveloping her and creating a sacred space.
My first attempt to gain permission to film inside and outside the Rothko chapel failed. It was FOTOFEST International’s artistic director and Houston arts visionary Wendy Watriss who intervened on our behalf by calling the equally dynamic and visionary Cissy Farenthold, who was then the Board President of the Rothko. I still remember the email from the executive director, granting me a one-time opportunity to film our meditation for peace: “Dear Ms. Brangwen, you may dance around the reflecting pool.” In retrospect, while the “around’ conjured an image for me of someone mistakenly thinking all contemporary dance is chicks holding hands and frolicking in togas, she may have really just been trying to clarify not “in” the pool, not “in the chapel itself.”
I now knew I could film the ending to “Confusion of Angels” as I envisioned it, with dance that incorporated the floating of candles in the Reflecting Pool on the grounds of the Rothko Chapel. I had been thinking and dreaming about this idea for years. But now, where to film the aforementioned beginning. I wanted to alternate between film and live dance for the performance work. My good friend Sandy Marcello asked me to describe the feeling I was looking for and upon hearing my reponse, she suggested the Labyrinth at Domicincan Sisters on Alemeda. The sisters were supportive and welcoming. They understood the need to rehearse in the space before filming. They treated our need to create a work of art as a natural and true occurrence. Anyone that scouts locations for filming will tell you that people often say yes at first for the novelty, but no one really relishes the disruption of filming in their space. These sisters were amazing and very special, and they came to the performance.
In times past, we had the budget to rent a scaffolding for overhead shots, but it was not possible for this shoot. I remember Yunuen standing on a ladder and holding the camera steady, suspended at arms length almost over her head for the full duration of a take. As I edit this essay in 2018, I think about how maybe things are about to change for women in many fields. Filming with a camera is artistic but it is also athletic. Climbing, scrambling around and holding heavy equipment steady for long periods of time is still sometimes thought of as a man's job. I know Yunuen faced that attitude as she began her career because we talked about it. She is a creative and adventurous cinematographer and editor. Her courage and her passion for her work behind the lens was something we as performers could feel in front of the lens.
The second section was a live dance that took place in the space between Sandra Tapia’s ethereal hanging altar pieces at Barnevelder Theater, with the musicians Thomas Helton, Carol Morgan and Seth Paynter flanking the dance area, as if forming a safe space for the story to unfold. Sandra chose to combine traditional elements of a Dia de Los Muertos altar with pictures of missing children from all over the world. The altar was stunning and audience members were invited to come and view it up close before and after the performances. The dance was meant to represent a kind of limbo, where Brooke’s character was met by two guardians that took her on the journey to discovering the reasons for her departure from earth. In other words, if I have to be blasted out of existence at such a young age, can you tell me why?
The Money Trail:
As I prepared the work, I read Craig Unger’s widely respected book “House of Bush, House of Saud,” which basically details US foreign policy in the Middle East starting at about 1980. The reading of the book was so chilling. Friends would make comments like “why are you reading that, why are you putting yourself through that.” Well it was because I wanted to know more. I wanted to understand more. I don't think it is possible, both then and now, to understand our policies without following the money that has gone back and forth.
I made a short prologue that we danced in silhouette behind a gauzy traveler curtain to Thomas Helton’s neo baroque opening, to begin the story with the idea that it’s the money trail at the root of everything.
Angels at the Reflecting Pool
Many cultures believe that flame is a means of communication to the celestial world. The prayer candle is based on the idea of floating your prayers to a deity, or to the universe. For this dance, the symbolism went both ways. I felt if there are angels, they would most certainly be confused by the sheer numbers of innocent souls entering their realm. The candles were a message, a prayer to humanity for peace.
At the end of this aforementioned middle section, Brooke’s character after discovering greed as the source of her departure from the earth, walks from live performance into her representation in the film. It was meant as a kind of Feng Shui, a letting go and acceptance of what had happened. It was like a releasing of the soul.
We had rehearsed during the afternoon at the reflecting Pool. There was a gentle October wind but it was sufficient enough to repeatedly blow out the candles. There was nothing we could do. This was by far the best candle of all the ones we had tested in the weeks leading up to the shoot – I had made experiments as to what would float best and stay lit longest -- and we had bought 70 of them and had them ready. This was our one night to film and we had to make the best of it. I wondered if we would get anything usable if the wind blew out all the flames.
I explained to everyone at the start that we had only this one chance to get everything. As the filming began, the wind died down and the area become incredibly tranquil and calm. The afternoon’s breeze had blown tiny acorns from the trees down onto the plaza and a person from a house neighboring the chapel grounds brought a broom to sweep the area where we were dancing.
Seth played the simple and plaintive chant that Thomas Helton had written over and over on the EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument). He made the choice not to embellish it too much because of the solemnity of the dance. But the EWI requires a lot of breath and he played for hours without complaint or a request for a break. The audio engineers sat quietly under a tree, their DAT sharing the one outlet outside that we could access.
When it came time to film the placing of the candles in the water - which for me was one of the most important parts of the dance movement wise, just the simplicity of the hands placing the candles in the water - Jeremy Choate, who was lighting the shoot dimmed the lights. I was very worried the footage would be too dark and not usable. He and I and Yunuen conferred before shooting. Trust me, he said, it we use the film lights we brought it will be too bright, and it won’t feel like candle light. Yunuen said, I will shoot it all close. When I saw the footage, it took my breath away. It was exactly as I had hoped, with the flames illuminating the candles like lanterns.
Not one candle blew out. When they were placed in the water they were carried by the various currents in the reflecting pool, each one taking a different path across the water. Some of them began to spin. They looked like souls dancing. It was like entering into some mysterious realm of the scared.
I can not see the Reflecting Pool at the Rothko Chapel that my heart does not stir in remembrance of that film shoot. I feel this way not only for what we accomplished, but for having had such talented and good people – one of whom is sadly no longer with us – create this with me.
In the years following this premiere performance, we have not recreated the altar but we have often shown the film of the final dance at the Reflecting Pool in venues in Texas and New York. I have included some images and a video clip. The film created at the reflecting poll will be released this fall online as part of ARTCAST, our Internet television series that features new dance, music and film from multiple cities.