"Theater for bodies and voices" is how dancer-choreographer Beverly Brown describes the work of her troupe, the Beverly Brown Dancensemble, which performs at the Marvin Theater Sunday evening.
She and her dancers don't simply move to music -- they also "sing," that is, they chant wordless syllables, giving the choreography thereby a vocal as well as a physical dimension.
Brown was a leading soloist with the Erick Hawkins Dance Company, and was still with that troupe when she came upon the body-voice idea. "In a way," she says, "it was an extension of what those of us who taught Hawkins classes had been doing for years. There were no accompanists, and the teacher had to 'sing' the class."
Hawkins, she explained, was opposed to musical accompaniment for his classes because he felt students tended to lean mindlessly on the musician, instead of committing themselves deeply to creating rhythm with their bodies. "Hawkins sometimes just counted the rhythms, but he also used syllables from American Indian chants. As the momentum got going, it was a short step from his sing-song with the numbers or syllables to actual singing. I got so much energy myself from having to use my voice in teaching these classes, I thought, well, if the teacher gets so much out of it, why not the students?"
So she started experimenting with singing during her own warm-ups, and found particular sound combinations that worked immensely well as an aid to stretches, bounces and balances. She didn't think of applying it to stage work, though, until her encounter with composer Eleanor Hovda.
"Eleanor was composing a score for a solo of mine, and asked whether I could make vocal sounds during my dancing. Until then it never occurred to me to open my mouth on stage. It gave me a wonderful sense of release, and it opened up for me a new way of getting in touch with emotion in my own choreography."
Hovda also did the music for Brown's solo, "Whelk Woman," on Sunday's program. It's not a bodyvoice piece, but Brown considers it her "signature work." "A whelk is a sea snail -- I was fascinated by them on a trip to the Carolina coast. And they seemed to me to embody a natural dance metaphor. The snail has to come down the spiral of its shell in order to move -- it's a parallel to the dancer's heel action in rising on the toes, and to the arm spirals we use."
Another work on the program, "Balada," a duet for Brown and Roger Tolle, had a different sort of origin. "I saw the movie, 'The Turning Point,' and really enjoyed it. I said to myself, Beverly, you've been avoiding choreographing a love dance, because it's so hard to make a fresh statement on such a common subject. But every choreographer should make at least one love dance -- 'Balada' was the result. Part of it was inspired by an experience I had at a party for dancers -- I started doing a duet with a man I never saw before, or since. We just kept spinning and sweeping around the room; we never even spoke a word to each other."