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  • Michele Brangwen

"What Will You Do When You Feel Their Absence?"

Updated: Aug 2, 2018





"What Will You Do When You Feel Their Absence?" is a performance work with choreography, text & costumes by Michele Brangwen; music by Thomas Helton; and additional text by Peter Josyph; lighting design by Kris Phelps and set design by Sandra Tapia Luna. The work premiered at the Midtown Arts & Theater Center Houston (MATCH) in August 2017 and it received its New York City at the Mark Morris Dance Center in May 2018. Upcoming performances of the work include excerpts at the MATCH on August 18, 2018 and The Jazz Loft on November 9, 2018.


It was drummer Joe Hertenstein who told me about a flyer that he had seen spread out over a bar in Brooklyn in February of 2017. It contained advice for undocumented immigrants and their families from the Legal Aid Society of New York. He found the words chilling because the situations it discussed conjured events in his own country of Germany's history. I asked if he had a copy of it and he produced a picture of the flyer. I knew immediately upon reading it that this had to become part of a performance work, and that parts of this text conveyed in the right way could reveal something very telling about the current US policies. The playwright Arthur Miller was once asked, in reference to his play The Crucible about the Salem witch trials, why did he think people starting denouncing and demonizing their neighbors. He said they experienced a "breaking of charity" with each other.


My concept for "What Will You Do When You Feel Their Absence?" was to create a narrative arc that would take the audience on a journey that was universal and relatable to everyone, and at the same time specific to current issues involving US immigration policy. I wanted people to come and feel and see and be together. If I could convey all that this journey would communicate with an essay, there would of course be no need to create the work, so I have been very hesitant to write an introduction. I really do think that the abstract forms of dance and music can illuminate certain ideas with an emotional clarity that words cannot always achieve. Issues and rhetoric can be cluttered and complex, but our collective humanity, not so much. Art can enable us to relate to each other in meaningful ways, and can bring us into our own best selves.


At the time of creating "What Will You Do When You Feel Their Absence?" in the Spring of 2017, when I thought about how my life and my work were so vitally intertwined with people who were not born in this country, the injustice of our immigration policies was overwhelming to me. This was long before we would hear news of children being separated from their parents at the border. I also saw in the reasoning put forth to justify theses policies, the very same arguments and scapegoating used to bolster the rise of fascism in Europe in beginning of the last century.


Many people are not aware that the treatment of undocumented immigrants coming into the United States has changed dramatically over the years. It has devolved, with people being prosecuted like criminals for what is really a civil or administrative offense; we see people seeking legal asylum under US law being sent to detention centers for long periods of time; there are people who have committed no criminal act who are placed in shackles and an orange jumpsuit as if they are violent felons and sometimes incarcerated with violent felons; the US has been allowing companies like Libre by Nexus to function as loan sharks, extorting the rental of expensive GSP monitors for hundreds of dollars every month from people who can barely manage money for food; and there has been a closing of many legal pathways used by people of previous generations. The mindset of dehumanization and profiteering with regard to treatment of people from other countries has been brewing for some time, and the recent crackdown in many ways has served to shed light on what has been developing for years.


I wanted to be sensitive with regard to the perspective of the performance work we were creating, and by that I mean that the truth that I can tell is only one from my own perspective. I am not in danger of being deported. I am not in danger of being racially profiled. I did not want to frame the work as if I could speak from a perspective that was not mine. As a citizen of the world however, I experience outrage and I am very much harmed when the fabric of our society is torn apart by a systemic dehumanization of people. This indeed is the point of "What Will You Do When You Feel Their Absence?": we are all connected, sometimes in ways in which we may not be aware. This is why the work begins and ends with a reference to Hemingway's "For Whom The Bell Tolls." One of the most important novels of the 20th century, the story is set among the resistance to fascism during the Spanish Civil War. I also researched and spoke to may people, adding text that came from actual stories. The texts are very short and provide just enough to be a window into the dance and music that follows.


Composer Thomas Helton and I worked slowly and in sections. Taking small pieces of text and movement and developing them. As in all of our works, there is choreography and written music, as well as sections where improvisation plays an important role in contributing to the energy and the emotional peaks in the work. Both Thomas and I knew that we wanted the addition of voice to the orchestration but we wanted to use it in a less literal way than having vocalist Danielle Reich Seale sing the text. The various short texts were recorded as spoken word by different performers, and Danielle's voice soared over the musical sections without specific words, as if an embodiment of our collective human consciousness.


In exploring the current climate, I felt we also had to explore the ideal and what it has meant historically. Stories are best told with the range of emotion that can permeate all human interaction. The "Great Lady" text came from author and filmmaker Peter Josyph. It is filled with sweetness and humor and the narration is with a voice that could be any and all accents, reminiscent of the mysterious character created by Jeffrey Wright in the film "Broken Flowers." I remember as a child the awe and delight I experienced being taken to see the Statue of Liberty. I had a small statue from the gift shop that I used to hold and examine every night before bed. I loved her undefinable color. For the costumes I worked with a palette of colors that reminded me of that statue, and also the varying shades of blue-green that change as the natural light shifts over actual statue in her home in New York harbor.


Visiting the Statue of Liberty as an adult, I read the letters that people had written to the museum at the base during a restoration project. Her significance to so many people is profound. It isn't casual sentiment; she is engrained in our collective psyche with her beacon of welcome and shelter. To make a travesty and mock that idea is a powerful affront. Ironically, while I was working on "What will You Do When You Feel Their Absence?" I was on a train in New York and a very small girl was overcome with excitement at the prospect of seeing the Statue. She was from California and her aunt told me that she wanted to come to New York and see the statue. I explained to them that I felt that way a child as well. Just recently, Therese Okoumou climbed up the statue as a protest against family separation. Poetically, she took refuge from her climb under the Lady's sandal, the sole of her foot touching the sole of Lady Liberty.


After premiering "What Will You Do When You Feel Their Absence? I attended an immigration forum at New York Live Arts in February of 2018. Two women, who were immigration escorts, began crying when talking about the correlation between what they were witnessing trying to help detainees and stories their grandparents had told them about fleeing the Nazis. Ravi Ragbir of the New Sanctuary Coalition, who had been arrested the month before and only recently released, spoke about the recent targeting of immigration activists with detention. He also brought up the idea that this mentality of arbitrarily criminalizing behavior and detaining people was one that would escalate.


The abstractness of "What Will You Do When You Feel Their Absence?" allows it to be interpreted on multiple levels. Our performance work is ultimately an exploration of how we are profoundly connected to each other. The work seeks to illustrate the energy, solidarity and defiance we can create when we honor that connectedness. Each time we come together to perform the work, we become a conduit into the human mind and heart in search of better understanding.