Branch Dances in the Bronx still resonates with me as a shared magical break in the midst of everyday reality. The project, organized by Aviva Davidson and Dancing in the Streets, in collaboration with BAAD Bronx, and with funding from PennPAT and the NYC Dept. of Cultural Affairs, brought branch dancing to a new community of artists. The participants ranged from nineteen-year old novice Niko Rodriguez, to master artist, Arthur Aviles. Integrated with the Bronx group were seasoned branch dancers, Jumatatu Poe, Marion Ramírez, and Beau Hancock.
Branch Dances in the Bronx’s main objective was to teach the branch dance practice to a group of Bronx-based choreographers over the course of three weekends. The place, BAAD Bronx, was ideal; we were able to warm up and train on the cozy dance floor at BAAD and then practice with branches outdoors on the grounds of St Peter’s Church, where BAAD’s new home is located. The time of year was ideal as well, not too cold, not too hot.
We were inspired by the beauty of the spring skies; their immensity resonates in the body, simultaneously lifting and grounding the spirit. Clouds stream by, brilliant white against intense sky blue. The wind becomes a partner in the dance of balancing the branches. If one is quiet and soft, one can feel it resonate through the body. Magic.
Branch dancing is a meditative improvisational performance practice where the principal actions are to pay attention, connect, and respond. Moving slowly we work on seamless weight shift, no jagged edges. It’s a demanding practice; it’s a challenge to slow down, stay present, shift seamlessly, wait.
Maintaining stillness over time takes tenacity and will power. Attempting to meet these challenges feels good. Connecting body/mind/focus and moving into balance and alignment feels good; it has a healing effect on the body/mind. We are reminded of the great wonder of the body which heals itself. In attending to reality moment by moment, to nature, and the nature of the body, we experience greater power, efficacy, and agency to create what we want.
There is no difference between practice and performance. We train by practicing all sorts of sensory and bodily awareness exercises, with and without the branches. On weekend two of Branch Dances in the Bronx, we practiced performing during a 50-minute demonstration in a green space by Westchester Square, in the midst of the annual Fair in the Square sponsored by Westchester BID. The workshop culminated in a final “formal” performance, on the grounds of St. Peter’s Church, with costumes by Christine Darch and music by Harold Smith.
The performance scores were simple time and action structures to engage in the practice together. The circle became a powerful place to launch the practice. We began the performances with 10 minutes of standing in stillness in a circle. We ended with dancers finding stillness at 55 minutes. The in-between actions included giving into gravity, leaning into and away from each other, moving in relationship to each other, balancing branches on the horizontal.
At the fair we performed in a contained green space, in the shade of several trees. Audiences were serendipitous, people attending the fair, passing by. The practice was so new for the group, and there was so much going on, that participants bypassed the idea of performing and simply concentrated on completing the score, waiting in stillness whenever they found themselves out of the practice. Participants’ commitment to stay present and connected, aided by the contained space, the circle and the wind supported a place of connection, newness, and energetic transformation. Magic.
The final performance had a different sort of magic, supported by Christine Darch’s beautiful costumes, and Harold Smith’s sensitive music. More practice is needed, particularly in letting go of “performance energy”; it has a way of taking over, pulling us into fantasy and distracting us from the task of staying present. And yet we had many moments of connection. There was a shared commitment, pride, and spirit of generosity which carried us through.
The several dozen audiences who attended Sunday’s performance were patient and attentive. It was heart warming to see familiar faces I haven’t seen for a while and to see children mirror our actions.
Branch Dances in the Bronx:
Directed by Merián Soto
Performed by Arthur Aviles, Marsi Burns, Dorrell Clark, Kharis Collins, Beau Hancock, Nadine Martinez, Stephanie Peña, Jumatatu Poe, Marion Ramírez, Niko Rodríguez, Merián Soto, DaShawn White, Ni’Ja Whitson Adebanjo.
Music: Harold E. Smith
Costumes: Christine Darch
Special thanks: Katie Jasmin and Jimena Alviar
Photos: Jimena Alviar