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  • Michele Brangwen

MY LOVE IS STRONGER THAN THE UNIVERSE - DIONNE WARWICK

GRATITUDE FOR MY DANCERS, MUSICIANS, VIRTUAL CLASS, DIEGO'S ROOF & YOU



Click here to listen to a Fly Over The Groove podcast episode that contains this essay, along with trumpeter Tim Hagans performing live.



We are living in an overwhelming time. This is essay is not meant in any way to lessen or reduce our collective struggles and losses. It is an effort to illuminate the continuing of the artistic journey during these past months and to express my gratitude at being able to do so. I also seek to emphasize the importance of art and artists during this time, and the importance of people listening, watching, responding, for the energy and connection goes both ways.


Art is the ultimate sharing of the mysterious essence that makes us human. It is like the Bee Gees' song written for Dionne Warwick: "My love is stronger than the universe." Our love of dance and music is bigger than these circumstances. The power and motion in our bodies is more powerful that the limitations.


I have so much gratitude that I am rehearsing with my stunningly beautiful and poetic dancers over Zoom. I see their smiling faces on my screen and their positive energy permeates the entire experience. The week may bring a dull ache of worry and feelings of anxiety, but post rehearsal, my dancers have made my heart soar out of this body and into an unconfined space of sky and possibility.


We are continuing to create work together that we rehearse over Zoom. Then each artist is filmed separately in an outdoor location. For rehearsal and home class, we are all in tiny, cramped spaces. As I watch the recording of rehearsal to make notes for the next one, I am enchanted by the fluidity and the quality of movement the dancers bring to the work. Of course some movements don't quite fit in the space and have to be adjusted, but dance for me is about the quality and feeling of the movement, not some sort of abstract perfection of steps, although we always work towards that. And actually there is indeed a kind of perfection in their execution of the steps in the limited space. It isn't a compromise, it is an art form. Watching their work, one can have no doubt.


This is not to say it is easy. It is to say, rather, that it is essential. And that is why we do it.


We work with live music and our musicians are normally a key part of our rehearsal process. Dancing to them playing live and interacting with them is an essential part of our performance works. Now we are working with recordings of them playing, layered each track on the other because they are unable to record together. We do, however, know each of them well, know their sound, can envision them playing as if they were a part of us.


Our latest work now in progress, "Come, Come, Whoever You Are," set to the music of Danielle Reich, starts with a beautiful and calming ostinato played by bassist Thomas Helton, his deeply resonant sound coming through our speakers. In the middle, I hear Danielle's sterling voice soar above the music and feel incredible emotion well up in me.


Unlike "Orchid People," for this project we are using a section of improvisation in the latter half of the work. Most of our live performance works include a section of improvisation for dancers and musicians together. Improvisation that forwards the content of a performance work is an important part of what we do and I wanted to incorporate that into this second digital project. This spontaneous section of the new work also gives the dancers the opportunity to respond the space of the outdoor location they were being filmed in. This time, we would not all be filmed dancing in the same place, with the same kind of surface or outdoor temperature, so the movement could organically respond to all of those elements.


I encouraged the dancers to go down their hallways, into their kitchens in rehearsal, to get the sense of traveling and using other space. Even in the choreography, I created some traveling steps to take everyone away from their dance area and back, so we would keep the feeling of traveling in our bodies. I watch the dancers in the recording of the Zoom rehearsal and I get so excited by their creativity. I hear our musicians, and I feel them in the space with me. These artists become an elixir of the heavens designed for optimum hydration of the body and soul.


As we all know, Zoom makes your eyes hurt and your stomach queasy. Sound gets garbled, people get bounced out of rehearsal. I can't imagine learning complex choreography to complex modern jazz from a flat screen, but the dancers do so with such dedication and precision. I never compare this process to what we normally do. I only think, it is this or nothing, and nothing is not acceptable. Nothing is the abyss while creation takes us to a better place.


No essay on gratitude would be complete without expressing thanks to Diego and Gladys Salazar for giving us a safe, inspiring, artistic rooftop on which to film. After months of dancing in tiny spaces, it is like being released from a cage into paradise. No wings, no marley, but the sky is our theatre, the sun through the clouds becomes our boom lights, and the buildings are our steadfast and captive audience.


I don't want to focus on my own personal reactions to the ongoing circumstances of the pandemic because we all have faced this together; we all have had incredible experiences now with friends and loved ones. And the pandemic has laid bare our rapidly growing social and economic inequality and elitism. I only mention, to give context, that in the past few years I have had some unfortunate experiences with loved ones in emergency rooms. When the pandemic hit, it triggered my hospital PTSD in way that was debilitating; tears streamed down my face all day long even though no one that I knew personally was in the hospital at that time. It was enough for me to just read about other people experiencing it. What gave me a centered feeling and hope, was the ability to keep dancing and creating.


At first I did my own warm up in our tiny living area. I am a contemporary dancer, but all my life I have taken ballet as it is the best thing for me to keep strong in my body and placed. I was fortunate to find, at a young age, a teacher of unparalleled genius in Nancy Bielski. I not only learned the technique of ballet, but important things about dance that are universal.


Like cellist Yo-Yo Ma explaining that he learned from Leonard Bernstein that it is not the notes you play but how you go from note to note that makes the music, Nancy Bielski would say that it isn't the shapes you make with your body but how you move from shape to shape that makes the dance. The "integrity of the back" and the connection of the feet on the floor that she espouses are universal principles applicable to all dance techniques. I, like many dancers I know, walk on stage and hear her voice in my head. What do I do I hear? Just a phrase or an image she has repeated that instantly helps me be better placed, move more easily, balance more securely.


When Nancy Bielski began teaching virtual class from her home, I began taking class regularly. I would wake up and read the news. The heartbreaking reports of the pandemic seemed to instill a kind of paralysis in me...I just didn't want to move. When you live in a tiny apartment, there aren't many places to go once you get up. Setting up a make-shift dance floor, the space becomes a studio. Some days in my 6 feet by 5 feet area, it is hard to make the steps fit and other days, I am amazed at what I can fit, try and even execute without smashing into the furniture that hovers generously close to the edge of my mat.


All these boxes that Nancy Biekski must be looking at during an exercise, and yet I hear "Michele Brangwen, chin down," and I adjust. I hear her talk about how everyone seems to be not straight up these days, as in titling their hips. So I begin to be filmed dancing on the beautiful rooftop and the first thing I do is check the placement of my of my hips, and the upper body on top. It is all jacked up before I have even started to dance...let me get it all in place... and then we can fly.


Every day I take virtual class, I am amazed at my emotional transformation. Some days my heart feels so sad and heavy, but here I am holding my chair on my tiny floor and I can feel something stronger than the circumstances of this pandemic. I feel my life and my community flooding into me, in my space, because my love is stronger than the universe, and because of these amazing people. And because of you, for reading, for listening, for watching.


December 23, 2020


MBDE 2020:

Dancers: ROBIN GILBERT CAMPOS, YURITZI GOVEA, CRISTIAN LAVERDE KÖNIG, MICHELE BRANGWEN. Musicians: TIM HAGANS, DANIELLE REICH, THOMAS HELTON, ANDERS MOGENSEN.