Politics, Music, Dance, and Art in Black Rain: A Conversation with Michele Brangwen

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Dancer Deanna Green and Guitarist John Edward Ross.
Photo by Graf Imhoof.
he Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble presents year round performances of original choreography to new live music. Dangerously sharing the stage, the dancers and musicians set a challenging precedent for ensemble interaction. The MB Dance Ensemble has commissioned eleven new music works for dance, and presented the works of two Houston choreographers, and thirteen living American and European composers, including Thomas Helton, Reynaldo Ochoa, Arthur Gottschalk, J. Todd Frazier, Rob Smith, Joe LoCascio, John Thow, and Joan Tower. Brangwen filled me on her upcoming performance of Black Rain at Barnevelder in February.

DH: Barnevelder is a new venue for you. How do you think it will work out for you?

MB: From the first time I stepped on the stage at Barnevelder, I felt like it was a place designed for making art. The floor is ideal for dance, the lighting system is on its way to surpassing other larger venues, the lobby is bright and cheerful, and the vibe is happening.

DH: Your next event has music and art. Is this a new direction for you?

MB: We are really excited to be presenting these performances in association with FotoFest. There will be a lobby installation of photographic images and video from their 2004 Biennial entitled Celebrating Water, Looking at Global Crisis. We hope to be able to do more projects like this.

With regard to music, that is something we have been doing from the start. We have presented many evenings at Stude that were all music for the first half and then a dance set to live music for the second half. With regard to visual art, yes, I would love to include more. We hope to use video imagery on a future project.

DH: Do you constantly experiment with different formats for including music?

MB: On a program we presented at the Performing Arts Center at Houston Community College Northwest last year we started with a jazz trio doing new compositions, followed by the premiere of a dance piece, Talk to Me, set to live music influenced by Latin jazz, and ended with a jazz ensemble doing a free improvisation that was wild and crazy. The dance work was sandwiched by two music works without dance; we didn’t end with a dance work. We did this because we decided to program in order of the intensity of the music; we knew nothing could beat the wild energy of all the jazzers improvising.

DH: The program includes Wet Set, with music by the Carol Morgan Trio. How did you come across Morgan’s work?

MB: I’ve been a fan of Carol Morgan’s work since I heard her perform at Cezanne’s about four years ago. Her trumpet playing has such long flowing and sensuous lines to it; when she does a ballad, it is like you don’t need Astrid Gilberto, the trumpet voices the song even better—only live and in the moment. I am excited we have her trio as part of the program.

DH: Your new piece is called Black Rain. How does water manifest in the movement?

MB: The water imagery appears in different forms throughout the work. “Black Rain” is a term that describes rain that fell after the dropping of the A-Bomb on Hiroshima. It fell in regions quite far from the blast, but it carried radioactive fallout and caused the same illnesses. Fallout rained down again on September 11, 2001, when ash comprised of toxic compounds from the debris of the Twin Towers — some of the most lethal compounds known to man, and some still as yet unidentified — fell like precipitation all over the area, covering the ground like snow, and remaining for months afterwards. However, the water imagery in the dance isn’t all dark. Often when we dream we see both: we see what we most fear and what threatens us, as well as what we long for most.

DH: You mention political subject matter. Is this an abstract treatment?

MB: The work is abstract, and the time periods — Hiroshima and 9/11 — unite as one, although for me personally, as a native New Yorker, the singing bowl that chimes throughout the third section of the work very strongly represents lower Manhattan. It sounds like the church bells that ring there; it is an incredibly beautiful sound. But as both events are in the past, they meld together as one, and that is evident in how the work begins and ends.

DH: What drew you to such serious subject matter?

MB: Now more than ever I think reflection on moral high ground is relevant. The debate about the dropping the A bomb still rages on, and Black Rain, is not trying to sort out that controversy. It just presents, or reminds us, of what is not debatable: 200,000 civilian casualties, classified as collateral damage.

You may ask, “What is the water correlation?” Well, the rain brought death to Hiroshima and to Lower Manhattan — the ultimate reversal of nature — and perhaps that should prompt the deepest digging of who did this and for what reasons. Simple answers just don’t cut it when the stakes are so high.

DH: How did you collaborate with composer Thomas Helton?

MB: Thomas and I watched Shohei Imamura’s masterpiece film Black Rain from 1989, based on the Masuji Ibuse novel of the same name, as inspiration and a place to start from. We had many discussions about the subject matter. We began with some music sketches Thomas created that became the first two sections of the work.

The firemen at Ground Zero didn’t use their protective masks because it was just impossible to spot remains, and dig with that kind of gear on. And many men felt uncomfortable because there were blue collar construction workers who were not given the same high tech protection. They couldn’t wear it when the guy next to them didn’t have one, so the bottom line is no one wore their masks after a day or two and they are all getting very, very ill. We used this premise as a spring board for the third section, which if you have ever walked down the street in Lower Manhattan, the bell sound will bring you there.

DH: What else was on your mind in creating this piece?

MB: I have also been thinking about how there was a lot of xenophobia going on in the 40’s, as there is today. Just the nationality and religion which is feared has changed. So I tried to give the central section a kind of world dance feel, as if someone were dreaming of a harmony that we don’t have, or that perhaps we could have if examined the root of our fears more closely.

DH: Thanks for the update. I wish you the best of luck on your performance.

The Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble premieres Black Rain on Saturday February 12, 2005 at 8:00 p.m. Sunday, February 13, 2005 at 4:00 p.m at Barnevelder Movement Arts Center. Concert Information: (713) 533-9515 or www.brangendance.org. Advance Ticket Sales: 713 529-1819 or www.barnevelder.org


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