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A Program of Contrasting Solo Dances
by Sarah Brumgart
Act 1: Plant Life

In Plant Life, a slow and steady dance meditation to Japanese Zen flute music, Brumgart demonstrates the fascination of minimal, organic movement when deep and unwavering concentration is applied to each unfolding gesture. At first simple and amorphous, the dance increases in complexity as shapes become more crystalline and balances more daring. Similar to watching a plant grow in time-lapsed photography, it has a dynamic and climactic evolution of its own in spite of the constant, even tempo of the movement. Equally engrossing is the Eastern music: though sparse and arrhythmic in ways unfamiliar to most Westerners, its tension pulls one irresistibly into the mysterious source from which all nature emerges and returns.

Act 2: City Life

In sharp contrast is City Life, a quick and rhythmic entertaining dance to some of Motown's greatest hits, first popular in the sixties when Brumgart was in high school on the South Side of Chicago. While dancing to it with her black classmates, she was delighted when one teenager told her, "Hey girl, you dance we like we do!" Actually, Brumgart's movement to this type of music always came naturally, and still does, but now it's imbued with her unique contemporary style. As an elderly black woman in a nursing home recently said of her, "I been in this world a long time, and seen lots of dancing, but I never saw anyone do it like her. She's got all the stuff. That child done her thing today."

This demonstration showcases Sarah Brumgart's yoga style which she has developed since 1974. Skillfully choreographed like a dance, it involves a series of yoga poses ranging from beginner to advanced that flow seamlessly and organically in an efficient, logical order. Sometimes presented alone, this sequence is typically included within a program featuring one of her dances. For although her performance of yoga can be appreciated as an art form unto itself, her main intention is to show how this ancient discipline and her unique style of contemporary dance are interrelated and influence each other.

Yoga is now widely accepted as an excellent form of physical fitness. However, its original purpose was to prepare a person to sit comfortably and steadily in a meditation pose. Sitting cross-legged on the floor looks simple, but it requires considerable strength and flexibility, especially if endured for a long period of time, as in meditation. A complete yoga workout will tone the muscles and align the skeleton, resulting in good posture. This enables the body to sit with ease, undistracted by annoying tightness and/or limpness. These same benefits can transfer to daily life, as well. For example, yoga is an excellent warm-up for any physical activity, particularly dance. It conditions all the joints of the body and makes the muscles resilient so they can respond quickly and deftly. Yoga also involves moving vertically up and down through different levels in space, from lying on the floor, to sitting, kneeling, squatting, stooping, and standing. This type of mobility develops additional agility and grace, as well as improving balance and coordination.

Practicing yoga postures before meditating also helps in subtler, less obvious ways. It slows and regulates the breathing, calms the nerves, quiets the mind, and directs attention inward to the quiet still point deep within one's being. For these reasons, it can be an excellent preparation for a task of any kind and helps "get the job done"' in an economic and effective way. For a highly intuitive performer like Sarah, whose dances originate from a source deep within herself, this type of spiritual centering is also crucial to her artistic process. It further assists by enabling her to remain focused and steady whether performing movement that is slow, delicate, and introverted, or fast, bold, and extraverted.

Therefore, while meditation is usually considered to be a practice of stillness and transcendence, it can also be a technique for finding one's innermost center, then moving out into the world from there. In this way, Sarah Brumgart integrates yoga, meditation, and dance into an art form that is simultaneously both a spiritual and earthly experience. The yoga demonstration not only prepares her for the dances that follow, but it also "sets the stage" for the audience by cultivating an atmosphere in which they, too, can settle and go deep within themselves.

Included in one of her dance concerts in New York City as early as 1981 (when yoga was still relatively unknown and unrecognizable), her yoga sequence was described by Dancemagazine as "a lucid warmup" and the now-defunct Other Stages publication as a "sensually unfolding gymnastic warmup...the most riveting part of Brumgart's program. This dancer moves the way we'd all like to move. It's no sweat for her to turn herself inside out, but she doesn't make us grasp with awestruck horror at her contortions. Nothing looked forced or unnatural. She never seemed to be stretching herself beyond her limits, and each languorous warmup movement flowed mercurially into another." This review ended with "She's in masterful control of every inch of her body, down to the nail on her little finger." When referring to the entire program, Dancemagazine also stated, "A slight woman who looks even younger than she is, Brumgart commanded our attention for most of an hour because she had such perfect control."

A Movement Meditation
Set to Mantra Music

This work, choreographed by Sarah Brumgart, originated as an a cappella dance in three sections. Each section focuses on one of the three major areas of the body in the following order: spine, lower limbs, upper limbs. The intention of the dance is to systematically articulate every joint in each area until the entire body is moving in a synchronous and conjunctive way. The creative challenge is to deeply explore and unlock the rich potential that lies latent in every inch of the body. The result is an intricate mosaic of colorful and filigree movement designs that evolve and dissolve like kaleidoscopic patterns.

The first section of the dance begins with simple and subtle motions of the head and neck, followed by undulating and snake-like movements that ripple down the length of the backbone. The second section highlights moving the lower limbs: first with straight, pointed legs piercing space like spears, then bending knees that fold and open the lower legs like pocketknives, followed by flexed ankles squaring the feet to perpendicular angles, and ending with curling, claw-like toes. The third section emphasizes the upper limbs that mirror the lower limbs: it begins with stiff, arrow-like arms, then hinged elbows with forearms slicing space like machetes, followed by compressed, creased wrists with flattened hands, and ending with spiraling, curvy fingers.

The first two sections are slow and solemn, as might be expected from a movement meditation, and include many yoga-like poses. But the third section is quick and lively, comprised mostly of dance steps and gestures. The piece ends with the entire body gyrating in an unbridled, bacchanalian movement revelry. While this type of finale does not seem fitting for a movement meditation, it is a much needed release from all the controlled and precise movement that precedes and constitutes most of the dance. Perhaps the ending is better described as an explosive outburst of spiritual energy.

The entire dance follows the dynamic development of the music, a recording from India which was found by chance on the Internet after the dance had been choreographed. Like the movement, the music was also composed in three sections, beginning minimally with a single voice, graduating to a two-part harmony, and ending with a rhythmic, vibrant drumming section. The only lyric in the entire song, which is repeated fifty-one times in each section, is the Sanskrit word "AUM" (also spelled "OM"), the all-encompassing syllable denoting the Supreme Essence of the universe. The West is not familiar with this type of mantra chanting. But it is very common in the East where it is used in meditation, singing, and dancing as an aid for achieving enlightenment, or union with the Divine. Since this state, the goal of all Eastern spiritualities, is often described as blissful and rapturous, the dance naturally concludes in an ecstasy of delirious splendor and surrender. From this viewpoint, then, the finale is indeed an appropriate one: exhilarating, exhaustive, consummated, and inspiring.

In a previous work similar to OM Dance, Dancemagazine stated that Sarah "...resembled a temple dancer, moving head, shoulders, and wrists, with unerring rhythm and feminine seductiveness." Then, "As the movement and music accelerated, she erupted into leaps and turns, dancing full out for the first time. The effect was riveting. Brumgart in full flight danced with her whole being, a symphony orchestra encased in a small, lithe body -- isolating arms, spine, and feet like so many solo instruments. Watching Brumgart perform is like watching a religious ritual. Onstage she enters a trance-like state, completely absorbed in her concentration."

An Abstract Movement Dance
Performed A Cappella

Infinity is a solo improvisational dance by Sarah Brumgart. It is performed a cappella, meaning without musical accompaniment, so that she is not influenced and constrained by a specific style of music. This enables her to "hear" and "feel" the intrinsic rhythms and melodies of the movement and allow the dance to have its own course of development rather than it follow the score created by another artist, i.e., the composer. She wants the dance to be experienced as "visual music," to stand on its own without the enhancement and support of audible music.

As The Boston Herald has written about a previous a cappella work of hers, "Despite the lack of a musical score, Brumgart clearly possesses an inner rhythm. Influenced by yoga, as well as by dance and gymnastics, Brumgart looks like a sculpture in motion. Her work is a private but accessible exploration of movement and imagery. There were no stops or rests in this piece. The movement was organic, flowing from one shape to the other as if drawn by some powerful, internal source. Brumgart has tremendous body control and endurance. Throughout the short, fascinating dance, she displayed an amazing ability to move competing parts of her body at the same time."

Although the overall effect is highly complex and intricate, the dance is based on moving within four simple arm and leg positions. Each position, or shape, is performed alone or in combination with another. The dance begins with one of the positions, evolves to the next one in a logical order with a seamless transition, continues in this manner throughout all of the positions, until finally returning to the original position. This pattern repeats itself several more times, but each time with a different emphasis, such as changes in tempo and spatial orientation. This continual recycling gives the impression that the dance could go on forever, as a constant recurring theme with countless variations, and explains the title of the piece. The title is also derived from the way that Brumgart notated the piece, by positioning each of the shapes on a circle then drawing lines from one to the other, resulting in the figure eight symbolizing infinity.

The title further describes Brumgart's never-ending search for movement possibilities. Thinking of each part of the body as a single instrument that has its own "voice," like the many different musical instruments of an orchestra, she challenges herself to move these parts separately or simultaneously in a counterpoint fashion. The Washington Post once described this technique of hers as follows: Brumgart "...appears in an embryonic crouch, an image meditatively sustained in dim light before a slow, gradual expansion of the body and extending of limbs. Then the movement unwinds in a seamlessly fluent continuum, passing through an amazing variety of shapes. Though parts of her figure at times move in isolation and in asynchronous rhythms, the body as a whole always seems composed into a symphonic unit--the consciousness is integrated even when the muscles go their own way." Headlined as "Brumgart's Body Symphonic," this review substantiates Brumgart's pursuit to successfully create "musical movement," to elevate dance to an independent art form that can stand on its own without music or additional theatrical effects. It is within this "minimal" setting that her "maximal" dancing is highlighted and recognized as a complete and viable expression unto itself.

A Theatrical Dance Drama
Set to Classical Spanish Guitar Music
"In the Spanish Style" by Christopher Parkening
(Courtesy of EMI Classics and Christopher Parkening

Passion is a solo improvisational dance by Sarah Brumgart which originated as an abstract work in a minimalist setting without musical accompaniment. Eventually, however, it was choreographed to classical Spanish guitar music and became an increasingly realistic and narrative "theatrical dance drama," ranging in movement from delicate love dances to vicious dagger fights to ethereal ascensions. While some of it is performed with a stone-face seriousness, other parts are portrayed with a snickering humor or sarcastic wit.

In each of the seventeen guitar songs, a different character emerges, each one expressing a specific set of emotions. A single prop or costume, such as a hat, shawl, dagger, or rose, is employed to further suggest or enhance the individual personality. Without altering the original order of the musical pieces on the recorded CD, a story line also seems to unfold and progress. Whether or not this was intended by the musician is unknown. But for the dancer, this quasi-plot became increasingly apparent throughout her many months of practice, developing naturally as the dance evolved in its entirety.

Brumgart always strives to find and express the intrinsic emotion that she feels is in any type of movement or pose. But this particular style of music especially helped to provoke a full range of deep and passionate intensities within her. Hence, the title of the work. She chose the icon of a blood-dripping heart to represent this broad spectrum of feelings, and while pondering the meaning of the image, she recalls:

Although I grew up on the notorious South Side of Chicago, my family lived in a peaceful, upper-middle class neighborhood. Raised as a Baptist Christian, I was taught that 'having heart' meant being kind and compassionate towards others. Grade school valentine cards with hearts were simply an expression of friendship, or at most, a hint of affection in the form of a crush. It wasn't until I moved to New York City and lived in the old Irish working-class neighborhood of Brooklyn that I learned that 'heart' could have such a different meaning. A flaming-red-haired boyfriend I met there, who had numerous scars, missing teeth, a botched eye and broken nose, all earned from innumerable street and boxing fights, would refer to 'having heart' as someone who had great courage and verve in any form of combat. And then, of course, as I experienced the bittersweetness of doomed romances or failed ambitions throughout life, 'having heart' also meant having a broken one, too.

For Brumgart, then, both passion and heart can manifest in any experience or endeavor in life, from the most earthy to the transcendental, as is exemplified in this piece. It is from within this context that she dances passionately from her heart, from all that she has seen, done, and contemplated intensely in her own life and loves.

As The New York Times has written about her depiction of an array of characters in another work: "Her quick slipping from character to character in a deftly mimed part of the latter solo suggested a developed sense of rhythm and dynamic phrasing. That section was an astonishing tour de force, presented by a fearless performer."

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