10 Years and 20 Gongs: Michele Brangwen on Sanctuary Moon

Michele Brangwen has been crafting dance in Houston and elsewhere for a decade. Her company, the Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble (MBDE), performs new and recent work at Barnevelder this weekend, and as always, the show contains live music. Thus far, MBDE has commissioned sixteen new music works for dance, presented the works of two Houston choreographers, and seventeen living American and European composers ranging from classical to jazz to avant-garde jazz. Brangwen discusses her work with DSH below.

Dance Source Houston: 20 Gongs for your tenth, that’s 2 per year and quite a ratio. Talk about why you chose the new work mode vs. retrospective path.

Michele Brangwen: We decided to take some of the concepts that we have been exploring and developing over the years and see just how far we could push them. It seems an exciting way to mark one’s anniversary: by looking forward to what may be possible in the future.

DSH: Can you give us a flavor of the artistic climate that motivated your newest work, Sanctuary Moon?

MB: This work is very intimate despite the dynamics of the finale where three large gongs are played continuously. I wanted the work to illustrate both complexities of how we feel when we let go and open up — maybe show the parts of ourselves that we are uncomfortable with — as well as the tranquility we feel when we let these sounds take us to a purifying place.

DSH: You have been working with the composer Seth Paynter for some time now. Talk about the collaborative process and don’t forget to fill us in on the 20 gongs.

MB: Seth is a musician who has a channel open to some other realm when he plays. KUHF Announcer Eric Ladau recently compared him to Pharoah Sanders, who was the second sax player in Coltrane’s last ensemble (which also included Alice Coltrane, Rasheid Ali, and Jimmy Garrison – check out ‘Live at the Village Vanguard Again”). They were catapulting music forward, but doing it with an intensity of feeling that was sublime. I think Ledau’s comparison of Seth Paynter’s music making is a good one; he is looking for the next level but doing so with an integrity of intention.

There is also Brian Nelson’s A Note From Guantanamo on the program. Nelson is a gifted composer, coming from a classical background but working in electronic music. I feel honored to be able to continue to collaborate with musicians of such a high caliber. They push me forward to new places creatively.

DSH: If live music is your first love, is film your second? What does Yunuen Perez Vertti’s video work add to the piece?

MB: Dance and music are equal loves of mine. If you look at the history of modern dance in America, the two were inseparable. Martha Graham received more commissions from symphony orchestras than anywhere else. She worked with almost every known composer for her time. Molissa Fenley just opened at the Joyce with the Phillip Glass Ensemble. And the boundaries of presentation have been crumbling for decades along with the separation of art forms. Classification exists merely for people who need it; it has no bearing on art or its impact. It’s just words and art is meaning.

Yunuen Perez Vertti has an amazing eye and she is courageous. I come to her with my crazy ideas and she says cool, and frames them beautifully. She also has a magnificent eye for editing dance.

DSH: Sanctuary Moon involves some improvisation from both the dancers and the musicians. Can you describe the rehearsal process that built that level of trust?

MB: We work with each other all year round on developing our improvisational skills. Many of our musicians have dedicated themselves to jazz and avant-garde music that requires them to be master improvisers. They have been thinking about the process of learning to do it well for their entire careers. They have been a tremendous help in rehearsals. And the dancers too are great with feedback. We come together and work and then talk and evaluate what we have done.

DSH: You are also reprising A Note From Guantanamo which was inspired from a photograph. How did a photograph make its way to be a dance?

MB: NOTE FROM GUANTÁNAMO is inspired by a photograph from the FOTOFEST exhibition: GUANTÁNAMO. PICTURES FROM HOME. QUESTIONS OF JUSTICE curated by Margo Herster. The image depicts a hand written note and a pair of earrings sent by proxy from a detainee at Guantánamo to his family in Yemen. Although the image is specific, the work’s broader theme is the idea that a gift, like an object, can carry a current of human emotion across impossible boundaries.


DSH: After ten years of dancing in Houston do you have any words of wisdom for someone thinking of starting a dance company?

MB: I think the hardest thing to accept is that it takes so much longer than you think to get to where you want to go, but the journey is a happening one. And if it is meant to be your journey in life, then you should not let people take you away from it. Like Martha Graham said, it is your job to keep your channel open because if you silence your voice, then the world will not have it. People talk about how hard this profession is, but all professions it seems to me have their difficulties. People struggle with bosses and jobs and all kinds of life situations that create stress.

DSH: I understand Sweden and more film is in your future.

MB: Yes, after these upcoming performances we will be begin a two-part collaboration with the Norrtbotten Big Band, an avant-garde jazz orchestra in Sweden. We will travel to Sweden this December to work on a film project with them, and then return again in December 2009 for live performances that will incorporate the film.

The Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble presents the premiere of Michele Brangwen’s SANCTUARY MOON on July 26th at 8pm and July 27 at 7pm at Barnevelder and August 9th at 8pm at the Performing Arts Center at HCC NW. Advance tickets available on line at www.brangwendance.org.

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