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REVIEW: BLACK RAIN, Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble at Barnevelder

by Linda Phenix, houstondance.com, Feb 2005.

( Linda Phenix is a choreographer and director, and the Executive Artistic Director of Chrysalis Dance Company)

The spacious dance area at Barnevelder was dimly lit and sprinkled with musical instruments. Four musicians and four dancers entered in a blue silhouette. One dancer took her place away from the remaining performers who moved upstage to form an irregular line among the instruments. The lights faded to black and from the darkness came a rhythmical sound similar to the striking together of pieces of wood. This signaled the opening of Black Rain, a new work by choreographer Michele Brangwen and composer Thomas Helton.

Black Rain comprised the second act of an afternoon devoted to the theme of water. This review deals largely with the choreography and other production aspects that fall under this category as the writer, a choreographer, has limited qualifications for critiquing music and photography for publication. But, it is important to note that FotoFest and The Carol Morgan Trio contributed greatly to the afternoon. FotoFest presented a lobby installation of selected works from its 2004 International Biennial on Water: Celebrating Water, Looking at Global Crisis. In addition to walls filled with interesting photographs, Andrej Zdravic’s film Riverglass was shown on a lap tap in the lobby. Other contributions in the sound department included a sound environment by Brian James that played as the audience took their seats. Peaceful in mood, the soundscape and dim lighting created a dramatic pre-show effect. The Carol Morgan Trio, with Ms. Morgan on trumpet, Kevin Patton on hyper-guitar, and Corey Dozier on string bass, delivered Wet Set, a rich array of jazz songs. I was drawn to the masterful playing of the group and especially the renditions of such classics as How Deep Is the Ocean and Down by the Riverside. Kudos to all of the participating organizations for creating a cohesive event. Cross-pollination is a good thing, both artistically and for building audience support.

After an enjoyable first Act, the audience settled down to view Black Rain. It was memorable for how all the participating artists worked together to create a polished and at times powerful production. Brangwen and Helton blended their visions artfully, and they delivered a piece that was rich with dynamic changes and fascinating imagery. Kris Phelps’ lighting design was sheer perfection. Both sophisticated and gorgeous, Phelps’ lighting enhanced the changes in mood that occurred throughout the performance. Ruth Dentel’s handsome costumes of sheer blue Kimono style coats over black gauzy pants served the dance well. Dancers Deanna Green, Arneita McKinney, Aynsley Stephenson, and Michele Brangwen danced with clarity, intensity, and the right degree of emotion. Musicians Seth Paynter (saxophone), John Edward Ross (guitar), Thomas Helton (string bass), and Richard Cholakian (percussion) understood that they were an important element to the visual setting. It was a joy to watch them play as much as it was to hear them play. This speaks well of the artistic direction of Brangwen and Helton.

Prior to the performance of Black Rain, the audience was told that the theme of the afternoon was water, but that Ms. Brangwen purposely omitted a program note so the audience would be free to interpret the piece without any preconceived notions as to artistic intention. However, I did have prior knowledge of Black Rain from an on-line interview between Michele Brangwen and writer Nancy Galeota-Wozny, posted on the blog DanceHunter. According to Brangwen, black rain is a term to describe rain that carried radioactive fallout after the dropping of the A-Bomb in Hiroshima. Black rain also covered Manhattan on 9/11, raining down toxic compounds from the debris of the Twin Towers.

I found myself interpreting Black Rain through two thematic lenses: water and devastation (natural and otherwise). I blended my preconceptions about black rain with Brangwen’s invitation to interpret at will.

Black Rain contained three sections. The opening section was intriguing and drew me in as the sound built in intensity suggesting the sound of waves in a storm or the crashing of a building as it gives way to gravity. The intensity of Thomas Helton’s opening was matched with choreography that was almost calm in comparison. I thought it was a great artistic choice that Brangwen did not try match the dramatic intensity of the music. This odd juxtaposition created a sense of alienation, which I interpreted as a kind of helplessness and frozen horror that ensues when people experience a disaster. One dancer was isolated in a pool of light, and the remaining three were interspersed upstage with the musicians. The trio of dancers executed gestures that were subtle reaching movements. There was a sense of contrasting a community against a solitary figure. Eventually the trio moved to the center part of the stage, but stayed in a tight arrangement performing movement that had them creating and recreating group shapes much like the changing images of a kaleidoscope.

The second section was lighter, and the music was more melodic in mood. A cooperative community prevailed as all the dancers worked together performing unison dance phrases and duets against duets. The movement was a mixture of gestures and traveling movement phrases, which consisted of some standard steps. Swirling motions, jumps, and leaps were in abundance suggesting waterfalls and whirlpools. While cleanly danced and pleasant, the unison treatment of the movement and some of the movement choices were more usual than the movement palettes in the first and last sections, which I found to be move inventive and intriguing.

A change in mood exemplified by a subtle lighting change and the mesmerizing sound of a singing bowl signaled the last section of Black Rain. The striking of the singing bowl set off an elongated sound that resonated and gradually the other instruments were layered in for what became an intriguing wall of sound images. The dancers made their way to the floor and seemed to be scooping something with their hands. They scooped and unfurled as if to reveal an object before letting it release into the air. Was this imagery about sifting through pebbles in a stream or were they sifting through powered debris of 9/11 in search of a ring or other items, which signified loss of life? The images were powerful, and the movement was performed with total commitment. As the end of the dance evolved, there was a return to the theme of separation, as one dancer was isolated from the remaining dancers and four musicians. The community of musicians and dancers gazed intently on the isolated dancer. This was a visually stunning moment, and to add more artistic fuel to the ending, a fast flash of light hit the group, followed by a quick blackout. It was wonderfully disturbing and thought provoking.

As I reflected on Black Rain, I thought about extremes. Water sustains our bodies, provides livelihood for many, and is a source of recreation and pleasure. But, it can destroy with a fury that is unimaginable. Water also divides us; some say it is quickly become the “new oil.” And so it goes that some of us catch rainwater because we can’t afford running water, and some of us make a daily trip to Starbucks to buy a bottle of water to go with our Latte. Perhaps our relationship with water is a good metaphor for the global tug of war between basic human needs and the promotion of privilege and conspicuous consumption. I think Black Rain was meant to provoke nuanced thinking; after all, global problems are extremely complicated, not to mention interconnected. I left Barnevelder longing for leaders in support of this principal: The rights of individuals cannot overshadow the common good. I also left Barnevelder with a sense of hope because as Studs Terkel reminds us “Hope has never tickled down. It has always sprung up.”