Choices Informed By Everything Up To That Moment

MicheleRoberta

QUANTUM BASS, PART 2 is the second of two ARTCAST episodes created from performances by the Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble at the Quantum Bass Center in Houston. The Quantum Bass Center is a place where acoustic basses are sold and repaired, and master classes are offered. You can read more about the Quantum Bass Center and our choice of this unique and intimate space as a performance venue in a previous blog post: Still Dancers Displaying Their Exquisite Shapes

All the dance and music in this episode are created spontaneously in the moment by the performers. The contexts for each improvisation were provided by different members of the Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble, and they range from the very simple idea of an open duet melding two voices of the performers’ choice, to a dynamic cross-fade of movement and music in Lindsey McGill’s Squeaky Dream.

In my work, I create and rehearse choreography. I find a myriad of benefits in the dance that is carefully created over time – following one’s vision for the work –and rehearsed. I also, however, work with improvisation in performance, which is a complete relinquishing of the aforementioned process. The first is crafted in advance and tightly controlled and the latter is a releasing of control. I am perhaps unusual in that I embrace both ways of working equally. I often meld the two by creating hybrid works that have set choreography and also a section of improvisation. I also try to have the company perform at least one show a year that is completely improvised. This requires a unique kind of preparation.

The Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble holds two kinds of rehearsals with our dancers and musicians: ones dedicated to working on choreographed material set to written or improvised music; and ones which we refer to as “improv” rehearsals. People often ask me, “how can you rehearse improvisation?” In other words, if it truly is created spontaneously in performance and different every time, how can you rehearse that? In an “improv” rehearsal, we are not creating or rehearsing movement and music that will be performed at a later time, we are actually practicing performing in the moment. We are also honing the tools a performer would use in improvisation; the dancers work on truly listening and the musicians work on truly watching, and we all work on being able to communicate with each other. The choices in improvisation are individual, but the result is good when it brings forth to the audience a collective statement.

For me, improvisation is the most exciting when it is just that…in other words if we use it in performance, it should be new and different every time. The idea is not to create something spontaneously in rehearsal and then reproduce it again later. The idea is to create it fresh and in the moment, working off your ideas and each other. It’s the not knowing that pushes one to a heightened connection to the performance moment. We become very connected to each other, the audience, and the space. As Tim Hagans so often says when teaching workshops on improvisation, the choices are informed by everything else he has experienced in his life up to that moment.

Quantum Bass, Part Two, begins with a duet performed by myself and Tim Hagans. This is followed by Squeaky Dream, which is based on a concept by Lindsey McGill, who was featured in Quantum Bass, Part 1. Squeaky Dream flows seamlessly into a duet for Roberta Cortes and Seth Paynter.

ARTCAST Season 2, Episode 6: Quantum Bass, Part 2 will premiere on Sunday December 14 at 8 p.m. ET on youtube.com/brangwendance. Episodes are available for viewing any time after broadcast on Youtube.com/brangwendance or brangwendance.org

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FILM AT THE TOP, THE FEMINIST TAKE

Film At The Top, part 3 of Peter Josyph’s serial film, No Standing In St. Petersburg, presents us with some extremely complex issues dealing with the ramifications of being an artist, and in particular the difficulties that women artists experience.

This serial film began in ARTCAST Season 1 with part 1, St. Petersburg, a film within a film. Now in part 3, the actress Elena, who played the young woman in part 1, is being interviewed about her work on this independent film and her experiences with the director, played by Kevin Larkin. The journalist, played by Jon Baer, is also going to photograph her for his article.

Actresses who play leading characters in films are often stunningly beautiful. Producers and directors are looking for incredible faces that the camera will love. Who doesn’t enjoy watching Penelope Cruz, for example, her beautiful face, her tall graceful figure, her voice. And yet Penelope Cruz is also an accomplished actress. The muse of Pedro Almodovar, she wanted to be in his films because of their incredible impact as artistic statements. So is the actress an artist first and then a beautiful woman. Or is the beauty more the focus and the craft and the essence of the woman secondary.

In Film At The Top we have an actress who is serious about acting, serious about theatre. She also displays a wisdom about the potential fleeting status of the actress as the director’s muse. She understands it can be partly based on a fantasy, on an idealized vision of what she represents, and since fantasies are hard to sustain over time, she is realistic about this. Again throughout her interview, she returns us to her main focus: the work, the art, the craft of what she is doing.

In this film we see the 3 male characters represented exhibit a different degree of perhaps — and I say perhaps because as in life, nothing is completely clear – marginalizing her identity as an artist. The journalist recognizes her talent, but that is conflated with his attraction to her. The director is discussed as an eccentric who is also taken with her, but its unclear the degree to which this is personal or professional, or if his unusual behavior stems from his own journey as an artist and his own questions of self-worth. Her boyfriend is quite clearly the most extreme in his perception of her role as an artist. Her exchange with him near the end is for me the most poignant and emotional part of the film as it cuts right to the core of how people’s perceptions can compromise one’s self-worth.

At the very end, we see and hear from the mysterious director Peter, who is really only alluded thus far. This sequence is cut between and over the outgoing credits. It is also another emotional peak in the film for me. I watch Film At The Top with a feminist take, being a woman and an artist myself. I feel for Elena trying to hold onto her center as she deals with how these three men perceive her. But then I ponder at the end that one person’s seemingly objectification could also indeed be their salvation. Like Cassavetes explained so aptly, why should film be clear when life isn’t.

Watch ARTCAST Season 2, Episode 5: FIM AT THE TOP on Sunday December 7 at 8 p.m. ET on youtube.com/brangwendance

Epsiodes are available for view after broadcast on youtube.com/brangwendance or brangwendance.org

Hemingway & Rain Girl

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The premiere of RAIN GIRL, with choreography and text by Michele Brangwen and music by Tim Hagans, was presented at the Village Zendo in New York City by the FONT Festival and Village Zendo Arts. RAIN GIRL was filmed for ARTCAST Season 2 in the Duffy Performance Space at the Mark Morris Dance Center and on location in New York.

RAIN GIRL is inspired by Hemingway’s short story Big Two-Hearted River. This story, first published in 1925, seems on the surface to be about a young man who goes fishing alone. It’s very subtly written, but we come to understand that the character is recovering from something traumatic. He is trying to heal himself. We are never told from what, but we can surmise he was in World War I, based on when the story was written. Its abstractness, however, could place it in any time and could conjure almost any situation from which one would need to recover.

When I reread the story recently, the last line made me cry. I think because it gave a poetry and a dignity to the universal need we all have to rejuvenate.

RAIN GIRL was also designed as a feature for dancer Robin Gilbert. Robin loves the rain and so the rain in RAIN GIRL is intended as a positive image and sound. The dance and music, like the Hemingway story, recount a journey back to feeling whole that has already begun.

For me personally, in the both Hemingway’s story and in the dance work, the river is the symbol for the life force. The river is always there, running through you, but sometimes you can’t feel it. What reading Hemingway has so often done for me, throughout my life, is reconnected me with the sheer force and beauty of being alive. I step into something so stunningly powerful and good.

ARTCAST Season 2, Episode 4: RAIN GIRL will premiere on Sunday November 30 at 8 p.m. ET on YouTube.com/brangwendance. You can watch ARTCAST episodes anytime after broadcast on youtube.com/brangwendance, or on brangwendance.org/

Still Dancers Displaying Their Exquisite Shapes

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The Quantum Bass Center is a unique space that sells and repairs acoustic basses, and offers masterclasses in bass performance. Bassist Elizabeth Steves, who serves as its director, founded the center as a resource for the highest quality equipment and education for bassists. Located in the historic Midtown Art Center building in Houston, the Quantum Bass Center has two showrooms filled with basses from many different time periods, two smaller salon rooms used for private lessons, and a repair workshop down the hall. In August 2014, the Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble presented live performances in this space. The dance and music were created spontaneously in the moment by all the performers, based on concepts designed in turn by different ensemble members. These improvisations were inspired by space, and fueled by our connection to each other and the audience.

Three elements come together in performance: the performers, the audience and the space. When a performer walks out onto the stage, they can feel the audience and the audience can feel them. If the channels are open on both sides of the curtain so to speak, no matter the size of the concert venue, it’s an intimate moment. The mysterious bond between performer and audience that occurs in live performance is difficult to accurately describe; it’s a group experience and yet also intensely personal, and it is that dichotomy that gives it an other-worldly quality.

I find that the third element of space, however, is even more intangible. Although its not often discussed, every stage or performance space has its own vibe that it communicates to performer and audience alike. It’s inexplicable but some spaces lend them themselves to performance and what constitutes this is much more than architectural. As a performing organization we are looking for places where we can connect with our audience. We are looking for spaces that will speak to us.

Maybe it was because the rooms were filled with basses from many different time periods; or the fact that the center was started out of Elizabeth Steves’ passion for her art form; or the poetry of knowing that just down the hall, that which is broken is carefully restored by hand, but we knew immediately that the Quantum Bass Center was an ideal place to perform. It embraced us and the audience in its two lovely main rooms. Tall upright basses lined two of the walls, like audience members in standing room only, or still dancers displaying their exquisite shapes – you decide.

The first of two episodes of ARTCAST created at the Quantum Bass Center airs this Sunday at 8 p.m. E.T. on YouTube.com/brangwendance. It features Lindsey McGill, dancer; Thomas Helton, bass; and Seth Paynter, saxophone.

Please remember that following each broadcast, episodes are available for viewing any time on YouTube.com/brangwendance or brangwendance.org

The Russians Are Back!

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NO STANDING IN ST. PETERSBURG: PETERSBURG, part 1 of award-winning filmmaker Peter Josyph’s serial film, premiered as part of ARTCAST Season 1. We are pleased to present the premieres of the film’s next two parts in ARTCAST Season 2.

ASTORIA premieres on Sunday November 16 at 8 p.m. and FILM AT THE TOP premieres on December 7 at 8 p.m.

The charming Chekovian characters of Elena and Ilya that we experience in part 1 return, now as Elena and Raymond, two New York City actors who have played the roles on screen that we see in part 1. Yes, part 1 is actually a film within a film, but it also sets the stage for the adventures of three actors, a journalist, and a filmmaker, in the parts to come.

ASTORIA takes us into an early-morning conversation between the actor Raymond (played by Raymond Todd) and his wife Olya (played by Anna Istomina) about his ability to do an authentic-sounding Russian accent for his part. His wife, a native of Russia, tries to calmly explain that his accent is not in any way believable.

Those familiar with Peter Josyph’s work in the landmark documentary LIBERTY STREET: ALIVE AT GROUND ZERO, and the lesser known but still outstanding ACTING McCARTHY (featuring interviews with Billy Bob Thornton and Matt Damon), may be surprised by the lightness and humor in ASTORIA and FILM AT THE TOP. These films are funny in the truest and best sense because the human behaviors that are laughable are filmed through the lens of Josyph’s profound compassion for his characters.

As I mentioned in my previous essay “The Lelias,” the feeling of being in the room with characters in a story is for me the ultimate experience when watching a film. This feeling of being privy to a private moment pervades ASTORIA. John Cassavetes believed that a close-up of a face in a film is successful if it makes you want to touch the skin. ASTORIA is filled with close-ups to which Cassavetes would no doubt give his approval. The sound of Raymond and Olya’s voices, the murmuring and singing of Olya, the sound as she flips the pages of the George Simenon book she is holding in her hands, jump out with a kind of soft crispness that makes you feel you are sitting next to them. And maybe you are, because art can indeed take you to another place.

While each short film stands alone, I encourage everyone to watch part 1 before watching ASTORIA. Here is part 1:

Part 2 airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on youtube.com/brangwendance. You can also watch it any time after the broadcast.