Originally published by ARTSHOUSTON Magazine September 2008

By John DeMers

Sanctuary Moon

Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble

At its best, modern dance is lively and liberated. At its worst, it is ponderous and full of itself, or full of something worse. One of the reasons Michele Brangwen has given Houston 10 years of work tending toward the former and sidestepping the latter is her love affair with a music that shares the same alpha and the same omega, jazz. Her latest work, performed at the Barnevelder Arts Center, featured several extraordinary jazz musicians, playing instruments familiar to them and otherwise, with some striking choreography to match.

Unlike some of her earlier pieces, Sanctuary Moon lacked a political, social or ecological underpinning, being therefore almost free-form. It didn’t leave us with an “action step” – a thing to do, a person to help, a way to vote. It was above all else, about the sounds. While jazz great Tim Hagans played his trumpet, MBDE regular Thomas Helton played his bass and Seth Paynter played his saxophone, for the most part of the piece they actually didn’t. What they did was knock, bing, bang and brush on a collection of large and small gongs. Still, if you thought something vaguely Tibetan was going on, neither the sounds themselves nor the dancing built around them gave any sign. The music was a primer, a deconstructed tale told by jazz musicians, full of notes and rhythms signifying—well, whatever you wanted them to.

The middle movement of Sanctuary Moon, while similar in style to the live music and dance onstage, happened to be a lovely short film by Yunuen Perez Vertti, with incredibly warm lighting by Jeremy Choate. The dancers – Brangwen herself, the ever-welcome Lindsey McGill, Brooke Barnes and Scarlett Barnes – floated and flowed through the musicians just as they’d been doing onstage and would do again. It was a lyrical video postcard of what MBDE does best, breaking down what Brangwen must consider an artificial division between the sound instruments make and what dancers chose to do in their thrall. The film was followed by a memorable live pas de deux between McGill and Brooke Barnes, sensuous and poetic, and then a finale that set to the ever-rising volume of three large gongs. Any finale that pastes together the sound cascades of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the chaos of the Beatles’ A Day in the Life and the cannons that close the 1812 Overture must be a finale and a half.