Performance Art: Brazos Dance Collective & The Martha Graham Co.

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The Brazos Dance Collective will present Brazos Contemporary Dance Festival September 14-15 at 7:30pm in the Dance Theatre, Room 263, READ Building on the Texas A&M campus. Photo by Crystal Littrell & PJ Beato III.Performance Art

Stories by Alejandra Quinones 

Brazos Dance Collective

“[Modern dance] is one of the most aesthetically pleasing ways to create; I like the fact that I don’t actually have to speak to communicate,” says Danielle Brestel, operations director of Brazos Dance Collective.

How did Brazos Dance Collective get started?

“Carisa Armstrong and Christine Bergeron, faculty in the Texas A&M dance program, started Armstrong Bergeron Dance Company about seven years ago. That was the only professional dance company in the Brazos Valley. They were in existence for a little over five years until they chose to transition into Brazos Dance Collective.”  

The Brazos Dance Collective is described as an opportunity for creative, skilled and passionate artists to collaborate and share their vision with the community. Though they offer a variety of dance classes, their performances are primarily modern dance. There are six members, and the group will hold auditions for the company in early September.

What is modern dance? How did modern dance begin?

“Modern dance, not to be confused with ‘hip-hop,’ is a form of dance that started as a revolution against ballet. It was originated in the 1930s by a group of Americans that knew there was another way to move and create outside of ballet.”

How is it aesthetically different from ballet?

It’s more free-formed than ballet, which is more rigid and vertical. It utilizes the spine in very flexible ways. In ballet, people tend to defy gravity, where in modern dance, they want to embrace it. For example, the idea of pointe shoes is to make it look like people are floating across the stage. They try to get as far away from the floor as possible to look as though they are almost flying.

The Brazos Dance Collective will present Brazos Contemporary Dance Festival September 14-15 at 7:30pm in the Dance Theatre, Room 263, READ Building on the Texas A&M campus. Photo by Crystal Littrell & PJ Beato III.Performance Art

Stories by Alejandra Quinones 

Brazos Dance Collective

“[Modern dance] is one of the most aesthetically pleasing ways to create; I like the fact that I don’t actually have to speak to communicate,” says Danielle Brestel, operations director of Brazos Dance Collective.

How did Brazos Dance Collective get started?

“Carisa Armstrong and Christine Bergeron, faculty in the Texas A&M dance program, started Armstrong Bergeron Dance Company about seven years ago. That was the only professional dance company in the Brazos Valley. They were in existence for a little over five years until they chose to transition into Brazos Dance Collective.”  

The Brazos Dance Collective is described as an opportunity for creative, skilled and passionate artists to collaborate and share their vision with the community. Though they offer a variety of dance classes, their performances are primarily modern dance. There are six members, and the group will hold auditions for the company in early September.

What is modern dance? How did modern dance begin?

“Modern dance, not to be confused with ‘hip-hop,’ is a form of dance that started as a revolution against ballet. It was originated in the 1930s by a group of Americans that knew there was another way to move and create outside of ballet.”

How is it aesthetically different from ballet?

It’s more free-formed than ballet, which is more rigid and vertical. It utilizes the spine in very flexible ways. In ballet, people tend to defy gravity, where in modern dance, they want to embrace it. For example, the idea of pointe shoes is to make it look like people are floating across the stage. They try to get as far away from the floor as possible to look as though they are almost flying.

In modern dance, the dancers utilize the floor and move upside down and are more literally grounded than ballet.”

I know you said modern dance began as a revolt to ballet, but is there something else about it that stands out to you?

“I love the opportunity to create and communicate through movement. There are so many ways to communicate emotions through movement and so many other arts you can utilize to assist you to do that. Obviously, music helps in such a big way; it complements the movement and makes it so…so that you don’t have to (pause) to say anything…verbally.”

Dance is both an art and a sport. Age is on your side as an artist, but it is the enemy of an athlete: your ability to create through your body is limited, if not finished, by age. How do you think dancers handle that?

“Each of us [in Brazos Dance Collective] is unique, regardless of our age. Modern training is so diverse that each dancer comes from a different background and history, leading us each to have different strengths and weaknesses in our movements.

“It is true that, there will be a moment where you just aren’t as capable as you once were. Whether it’s because you took time off to have a baby or you needed a break or you just simply reach that age, there will be a moment where you are not as capable as you once where. Some people choose to end their art there, but others continue to create by accepting their limitations and working with them or switching to choreography. Regardless, it’s not something I think about before each performance.”

Could you describe one of your favorite dances that you choreographed for Brazos Dance Collective? How does it exemplify what modern dance does for you?

My favorite piece of choreography is always the one I’m currently working on. I love the process of taking a concept and deciding how to make that simple idea clear to the audience.  And rehearsing with the dancers is so enjoyable. We often bounce ideas off each other to create material for the dance. 

The first work I created for BDC was ‘Awaiting Spring.’ I wanted to convey the experience of recovering from a depressive state. I focused on imagery from winter and spring to express this.

“Dance consists of more than just movement. When a choreographer creates a work, he or she uses music, costumes, lighting, title and sometimes set in addition to dance movement to convey a story, message, or simply a mood.  In ‘Awaiting Spring,’ the dancers began trudging across the stage on elevated platforms hidden by large cumbersome skirts illuminated in a pale blue light.  The dance was set to opera music, which varied in intensity. As the dance progressed, the dancers traded their platforms and weighty skirts for light airy skirts that allowed for larger, freer movement. The lighting transitioned from cool blue to warm amber. In the final moments of the dance, the last dancer shed her burdensome skirt and moved effortlessly across the stage.”

Brazos Dance Collective will present Brazos Contemporary Dance Festival performances September 14-15 at 7:30 p.m. in the Dance Theatre, room 263, READ Building, Texas A&M University. The Collective will be holding auditions for the company Wednesday, September 19, at 6 p.m. in the same location.

For more information on Brazos Dance Collective and their upcoming season, visithttp://www.brazosdance.org/events/.

Martha Graham Company

MSC OPAS will present the Martha Graham Company performing their signature ballet “Appalachian Spring” with members of Brazos Valley Symphony providing the music on October 23. Janet Eilber, artistic director of Martha Graham Company, discusses modern dance, their acclaimed ballet, and why the Company is excited to perform in the Brazos Valley.  

Who is Martha Graham? Why is your company named after her?

“Martha Graham was one of the pioneers of modern dance and is recognized as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. Her radical new stlye of dance in the 1930s used socially infused subjects and emotional themes paired with a powerful, risk-taking physicality. She developed contemporary dance as an American art form, which the nation has since shared with the world.”

Martha Graham started her company in 1926 with a group of young women who had been drawn to her creative work. They began teaching this new style, which eventually evolved into the Martha Graham School, now the oldest school of modern dance in the world.

Did Martha Graham create any new techniques of dance?

“Yes, she created a style of movement that is based on natural body language.  It’s very expressive type of dance.  The Graham technique includes Graham’s famous discovery – the contraction and the release, which are the driving movements behind all of Graham’s choreography.”

The contraction is described as the foundation of Graham technique. She is believed to have developed the idea from observing how emotion is revealed in the way we breathe. For example, when we laugh or sob, there is a contraction in the center of the torso as we expel the breath.  Graham took this small, natural contraction and theatricalized it, so the entire torso folds. The contraction begins at the pelvis, traveling up the spine and lengthening the space between each vertebra. It goes all the way up to the neck and head, which remain in line with the spine. 

The release is the converse action to the contraction. It occurs on the inhalation of breath, which begins from the pelvis and travels up the spine. It expands the torso and sends energy out through the arms and legs.

Eilber explains that when Graham first invented her technique, it was very was shocking to the dance community. “It was such a natural and primal movement. Dance at that time wasn’t like that. In the early 1900’s, dance was more about escapism, and they would present people from fantastical lands to make the audience escape reality. Then Martha Graham came along and wanted to create dances that were about us and spoke to our human issues.”

Is there something special about the MSC OPAS performance the audience can look forward to?

We’re looking forward to being down there because we’ll be performing to an orchestra. It is a rare and special occasion when we perform with live music. Generally we tour with a tape. It adds a wonderful spontaneity to be able to collaborate with musicians.”

The live music they will be performing to will be by members of the Brazos Valley Symphony.

Tell us about Appalachian Spring. What is it about? Who created it?

“Martha Graham and composer Aaron Copland created “Appalachian Spring” together. It was during the darkest days of World War II; Graham and Copland wanted to contribute to the war effort by creating a work that displayed the hope and determination of the American character. Our frontier spirit, our beliefs in the future…they wanted to help their country, and this was how.” 

Eilber explains that Graham and Copland were actually on opposite sides of the country when they were creating the ballet. The Martha Graham Company has their original letters written while creating the ballet. Eilber points out that other companies rarely perform the ballet.

“We have worked with a couple of student productions that have performed it, but Martha Graham’s technique is a very specific style of dancing. You really need to be trained in this Martha Graham technique to be able to perform the ballet. 

In 1984, Aaron Copland created a score for Martha Graham entitled “Ballet for Martha.” She, in turn, titled it “Appalachian Spring”. The score is one of Aaron Copland’s most famous works, and he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music for “Appalachian Spring” in 1944.

“Appalachian Spring” is about a young couple on their wedding day as they settle into their new home on the frontier. There are eight main characters in the ballet including the husband, bride, a preacher and his four female followers, and a pioneer woman who represents the American dream.” explains Eilber.

“What better way to talk about hope of the future than a wedding? Everybody can relate to that.”

How has modern dance stayed modern? What are the new changes that have come about?

“That is one of our big focuses right now. Modern dance in the Americas has always been about revolt: throwing out the old and moving into the new. But the art form is now 100 years old so for the first time, we have classic works. Martha Graham Co. wants to make sure the past remains vital and relevant. We do this by creating new work that relates, or is inspired by, our classic work. It’s the same thing any art museum would do. Picasso was an artist that inspired many other modern artists, and no one wants to throw his work out.

“Modern dance isn’t just a decorative art; it has an important message because it’s transmitted through the human body. It is universal. We tour all over the world, and people everywhere understand the Martha Graham Dance vocabulary.  And our dancers are such great athletes, so beautiful and fearless onstage, that they make both our classic dances and our cutting-edge new works stunningly powerful.  They connect with audiences everywhere.” 

Martha Graham Dance Company will perform “Appalachian Spring” with the Brazos Valley Symphony on Tuesday, October 23, at 7:30 p.m. at Rudder Auditorium.