Dance Source Houston: July 2005

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Desperate Voices: The Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble performs at Barnevelder

Review by Linda Phenix, commissioned by Dance Source Houston

The Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble presented a concert o­n July 14 and 15 at Barnevelder Movement Arts Center, Houston’s fun and relatively new hot spot for performance events. First o­n the bill was “Voices in My Head.” This piece, a blending of sounds and images from the Belizean Rain Forest, is a collaboration between composer Arthur Gottschalk and free-lance filmmaker Yunuen Perez Verti. “Voices in My Head” is an elegant pairing of music with visual art.

Arthur Gottschalk’s score integrates bird songs, the twittering of insects, and other sounds unique to the rain forest with pleasing melodies and rhythms suggesting the steady beat of life cycles. Of special interest is the variety of pitches from the natural world, which Gottschalk blends with his music to create an imaginative composition. The music is textured, and colorful. It is a fine weaving that speaks to the mysteries and complexities of ecosystems. Percussionist Alec Warren was on hand to play singing bowls and other instruments, adding a rich layer to Gottschalk’s recorded piece.

The accompanying video by Yunuen Perez Verti connects images of humans with animal and plant life in a visual treat that begins as if the viewer is looking through a telescope to focus onone image at a time. In fact, Verti uses a number of techniques that are fascinating such as o­ne similar to wiping soot off a window to reveal a scene from the natural world. As the video unfolds, transformation techniques emerge. A photo of a human foot transforms into the image of a forest, and the forest dissolves into an image of a frog, and so o­n and so o­n. Several times a torso of a man is superimposed with images of trees and other patterns. Images blend into other images, and as the piece builds, there is a disturbing aspect as pictures are flashing and changes are happening to quickly for the eye to fully comprehend.

As the video and music draw to a close, the images and sounds take o­n an ominous and distorted quality, and Alec Warren crosses the stage leaving behind the singing bowl and other instruments associated with sounds more peaceful in nature. He takes his seat at a set of drums and plays them with full force as if to issue a warning.

Just as the video begins with an isolated image, it ends this way too with a photograph of a turtle. I was reminded of the myopic versus long range planning tug-of-war that humans engage in with regards to the environment. I was left with a feeling of unease and an appreciation for artists who use their talents to draw attention to the magnificence of nature.

“Desesperados,” with choreography by Michele Brangwen, drew its life from the choreographer’s interest in tango music and dance. Tango conjures up sensuous images, most notably a romantic dance for or rather between a man and woman. I was curious to see what kind of piece Brangwen would dream up for the three women in her ensemble.

Tango music and dance have often been associated with the glamour and elegance of high society, but the emergence of these art forms is really grounded in the story of the immigrants from Europe, Africa, and other locales who streamed into Buenos Aires beginning in the 1880’s to escape desperate poverty. The loneliness of men in an unfamiliar culture comes through in melancholy songs. But, tango songs can also be bold and frisky, capturing the passion and frustration of romantic love. Whatever its evolution, the tango has always been dramatic.

In Brangwen’s “Desesperados,” themes of mystery and waiting are in full force. Dancers toss their hair, take sips of drinks, pass a set of keys around, and make much to do about the placement of high heel shoes on the stage. At one point, they stand in front of an electric fan, shifting their weight from one foot to the other as their hair and dresses respond to the breeze. The choreography contains silky movements for the arms, and a stylized modern dance walk is the dominant traveling motif.

The appeal of “Desesperados” is the understated way that things happen. The performers do not emote. Instead the intensity of the tango songs, performed with expertise and passion by Vladimir Kotsiouruba on violin, Greg Harbar on accordion, and Thomas Helton on string bass, provide the dramatic foundation for the action. Dancers Deanna Green, Arneita McKinney, and Michele Brangwen give polished performances with appropriate commitment to the dramatic intention. Actress Sandra Tapia is mysterious and interesting in her role as observer and narrator of poetry written by Brangwen. Kris Phelps’ moody lighting enhances the piece greatly, and Summer Dawn Collins’ costumes of elegant evening attire hit the right mark.

I found “Desesperados” to be pleasant, but missing something. While it has many interesting moments, the movement palette is minimal. But, perhaps this was a deliberate choice in keeping with ideas about waiting and longing for change to happen. The beat may go on, but we don’t always get what we desire.

Top Image: Michele Brangwen and Thomas Helton in "Ghost Tango" from "Desesperados."

Middle Image: Deanna Green, Vladimir Kotsiouruba, Arneita McKinney, and Greg Harbar in "Desesperados." Photos by Graf Imhoof. www.houstondance.com