Majorettes chant “B-E A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E” as they breathe heavily and fling their limbs around their bodies.
In Friday and Saturday’s dance performance “TOUCH” at the Glorya Kaufman Dance Theater, two students will present dance pieces created during their three years in UCLA’s graduate dance program.
In the first half, two works by Casey Brown, one of the two graduate students, will be featured, followed by three pieces by Bernard Brown, a graduate student who is of no relation to Casey Brown, in the second half. One of Bernard Brown’s pieces, “Active/Passive,” originally debuted in fall and will be redisplayed along with his other two works in “TOUCH.” In the performance, the students tap into their personal histories to portray dance as a physical documentation of experience, Bernard Brown said.
Casey Brown: Chaotic Familiarity
Casey Brown expresses her journey through the graduate program in works that explore her identity as a white, cisgendered woman.
“Chick in Dance,” features a haunting cheerleader, a detached mascot and two dancers dressed in fringe who progressively dance themselves to exhaustion, Brown said. Brown intentionally used Caucasian, blonde women in her chaotic piece as a commentary to expose the failures of being a white woman in America, she said.
Brown worked with fellow dance graduate student Melissa Melpignano, who shares similar physical characteristics with her, such as height and hair color. Throughout the 26-minute piece, Brown and Melpignano disrupt the synced choreography gradually, repeating a step or changing head movements, until they are dancing separately.
“The multitude of movements shared by nearly identical bodies allows me to play with speed and the quality of the movements as the piece progresses, which results in chaos,” Brown said.
Brown’s friend, Los Angeles artist Andra Gold, plays the haunting cheerleader in the piece. Gold’s favorite part is the work’s unpredictability both in terms of its movement and themes, she said.
“I see something new each time and that speaks levels about the complex and intelligence in (Brown’s) choreographic skills,” Gold said. “One rehearsal she has me doing tai chi moves, the next she has me bursting out into laughter for my role.”
Brown’s roommate, Matt Seely, plays the mysterious chicken who lies in tinsel and clucks offstage in “Chick in Dance.” He was eager to perform when Brown told him he would play a chicken.
“I’ve always played the bizarre characters in Casey’s pieces since her undergraduate days,” Seely said. “I’m happy to help her realize her choreographic potential and I can’t wait to see what she creates outside the academic framework.”
Bernard Brown: Celebration of Identity
Bernard Brown drew on a historical slave narrative and the notion of feminism to create his three works for “TOUCH.”
As a queer, African-American man who grew up and developed his love for dance around strong female figures, Brown wanted to pay homage to women, he said.
Brown based his piece “MotherEarth” off the influential women in his life, like his grandmother and three sisters. He originally created the choreography for jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell’s 85th birthday celebration at Royce Hall in December, he said
“As I spent more time with my ailing grandmother and with the women in the dance department, I recognized the levels of perseverance and the sense of community among women and wanted to celebrate that,” Brown said.
Six female dancers, portraying mothers and daughters, roll on the ground, pirouette and extend their legs in their flesh-toned tops and burgundy skirts.
Jingqiu Guan, a doctoral student who plays a mother, said Brown works to each dancer’s body and emphasizes their individual strengths in his choreography.
Guan said Brown originally set choreography on her stomach, but as Guan neared the final trimester of her pregnancy, Brown revised the movements to accommodate to her. She now lays on her back.
“He adapted the choreography to my changing body – which is creating life itself,” Guan said. “Performing a dance about motherhood while becoming a mother adds another level of sentimentality for me.”
Brown’s solo and final piece, “Box,” is based on a historical figure with whom he happens to share a name. Henry “Box” Brown was an enslaved man who shipped himself in a box from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia to reach liberation in 1849, Brown said.
Fourth-year world arts and cultures student Steven Gordon will perform his original piano composition “Where is My Home?” to accompany Brown’s choreography, Gordon said. The melodies of the composition, with its higher chords and deep notes, mimic Brown’s upward movements and contractions, adapting Henry “Box” Brown’s story into another art form, he said.
Bernard’s ability to implement his identity as an African-American man into his art has ever since served as an inspiration, Gordon said.
“Performing with someone I respect and look up to as an artist and mentor means a lot,” Gordon said. “The dance made me think about my own relationship to racial issues and the oppressive structures in existence.”
Casey Brown and Bernard Brown have helped each other grow as artists and fostered mutual feelings of admiration towards one another, Bernard Brown said.
“I’ve come full circle,” Bernard Brown said. “It’s really special to bring my hopes into fruition with Casey, one of the first people I met at the start of the program three years ago.”