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'The Brown Bomber, A Dance Suite in Three Scenes'

Sheron Wray: Using Improvisation to Explore the Past and Inspire the Present

by Thea Nerissa Barnes

July 15, 2012 -- Southbank, London, UK

It's the Olympics in London and practitioners in dance are doing their part to spur on and invigorate the interest and excitement that accompanies this event. Inspiration permeates the air as athletes strive to do their best while supporters cheer them on. As a spectator, we watch the competitions, assessing performance, noting the trails, ease and tenacity it takes to make a champion. It is undeniable the enormous amount of attention competition in sports draws from most members of the international community. It's an added benefit when dance can share in the fervour that animates the environment in which the Games occur.

This fervour stirs the memory and recollection of past sporting triumphs that remind us the accolades of most sportsmen are not without sacrifice and the extent of that sacrifice not entirely acknowledged. The beauty of dance is it can stir the mind in contemplation of permutations of success in sports, as in dance, are not without juxtaposition, disparity, and contradictions.

The Brown Bomber, a Dance Suite in Three Scenes, was presented 15 July 2012 at the Southbank in London, United Kingdom. It was choreographed by Sheron Wray with music by Julian Joseph. This production, commissioned by Hackney Music Development Trust (HMDT) as a jazz and boxing project for secondary school students was conceived by Adam Eisenberg, Director of HMDT and Creative Director, Tertia Sefton-Green. This dance work received support from several funders being one of twenty pieces chosen for the Olympiad season at the South Bank by PRS (Performing Right Society) for Music along with Arts council and Jerwood Charitable Foundation among others.

The Brown Bomber, a Dance Suite in Three Scenes found its inspiration in the 1936 match and then 1938 rematch between former world heavy weight boxing champion, German Max Schmeling and African American contender Joe Louis - known as the Brown Bomber. This match took place against the backdrop of impending world war with its fighters metaphorically pitching the US against Hitler's Germany. The boxing match seemingly made cultural/social equality within a democratic society and Nazi Aryan supremacy contenders in a global ring. Toe to toe Louis and Schmeling faced and represented these adverse political and cultural perspectives in the public's view but within the lived experience of both fighters other permutations were taking a toll while simultaneously creating binding relationships that would last for the rest of their lives.

Julian Joseph and his Sextet, Sheron Wray as choreographer, James Cook, MBE as boxing coach, students from Bride Academy, Hackney Haggerston School, Hackney Graverney School, Wandsworth I Can Sing! Performing Arts School and other artistic and production teams were brought together to make this second in a trilogy of music led productions "focusing on the lives of black sports heroes and their historical, cultural and sporting legacy" (program note). HMDT intended the project to not only inspire coordinated work in the arts: music, dance, stage and film design, but become a conduit to other areas of school curriculum. The added benefit of this production were creative activities stimulating and supporting interest in sports.

The challenge for Wray was the exposure of young performers to forms of music and ways of making dance not familiar to them. To choreograph the relationship between Louis and Schmeling inclusive of the impact their match made on each fighter's personal life and the world Wray choose to make connections between what it takes to be a sportsman with what it takes to train and perform in dance. Similarities between training to be a boxer or a dancer are many. Cultural politics of 1938 and today's lived experiences in Britain were also not that dissimilar.

As the cast would be a mix of British young people and professional dancers, Wray encouraged the cast to relate the current global impact of London's 2012 Olympic Games to the impact of the Louis-Schmeling fight. The Louis-Schmeling fight had an impending political threat that challenged each fighter’s sense of integrity, strong work ethic, dedication to training, and sportsmanship. The narrative of history would focus and form the creative foundation upon which the dance work would be built.

Wray drew from several sources to select and build characters for her dancers to portray; even with some of the young women portraying men. For Jason Pollard who portrayed Joe Louis and Blazej "Bless" Klepczarek who portrayed Max Schmeling, character notes were given and collected to develop through improvisation and given movement by Wray the movement vocabulary for solos and interactions between characters. This process of building a movement vocabulary for each character in the work was complemented with boxer stance and training drills by boxing coach, James Cook, MBE. Wray states:

“The obvious gestures of punching were restated as ‘punctuations’ in the rhythmic patterning of the feet and dynamic shifts in direction and changing of weight. Jason Poullard, standing six feet four is unusually swift and his height does not conflict with his ability to move at speed without resistance, somewhat like Olympian, Usain Bolt.”

With improvisation and Wray's astute observation the creative process enabled the dancers to find the humanity in their characters along with its implicit athleticism.

"Max Schmeling’s coaching team, portrayed by two girls centred on creating individual personas that fulfilled the mindset of Schmeling’s trainers, focusing his precision to a finer gradient. In this process of working towards extremes the girls also found irony and playfulness that created a flow in the story telling and their commitment to portraying male characters."

Ensemble movement was devised and phrases for single characters that supported the lead characters were worked on individually or in groups.

The set designed by Neil Irish comprised of two three quarter boxing rings arranged to allow movement of all characters around, between, and into with Louis stage left and Schmeling stage right. This stage setting provided an appealing landscape for the characters to negotiate. The episodic progression of the work allowed Wray to spotlight moments of tension and contemplation for Pollard as Louis and Klepczarek as Schmeling in the run up to the fight. Supporting cast portrayed promoters, trainers, supporters and agitators of both sides.

Julian Joseph's jazz music composition supported the dance work providing ambiance for each scene by modulating tempo and texture to support the action. Wray explained the Lewis vocabulary in the dressing room scene emphasised Poullard’s quickness in moving while being counterpoint to the loping languid blues led by the horns. Wray also transposed the quickness in Pollard’s right hand punch to complement quickness in his change of direction.

"In the ring section, the music was at its fastest pace and I created a crowd scene for the young people which enabled their characters to intensify with the excitement in anticipation of fight. I played a lot with syncopated foot work which was performed in unison and then for the boxers I also slightly fractured this to allow for the reflex moments as punches were thrown. The boxers danced a full 360 degree rotation around each other as they built into the climax of the final punch."

Broken into three sections with distinct themes for each boxer the primary scenes were training, dressing rooms and arena. Within each scene sequences of movement revealed the state of mind of each protagonist; his relentless pursuit for excellence through training; relationships with other characters, promoters, spectators, newspaper reporters and photographers.

Other objects of importance were included with the ring as a site for confrontation as well as contemplation. A touching solo was performed by Klepczarek eloquently portraying Schmeling's relationship with his wife.

"My objective here was to present the inner world of Schmeling to which his wife was the central chord. At the same time the movement was propelling Schmeling forwards to the fight which would have strong uses of his torso and full bodied jumps. Schmeling’s inner world would be portrayed with subtle movements and at times an undulating spine suggesting the sensual side of his life. At times both boxers dance, shadow boxing one another at one moment and suggesting their spirituality in another."

As in history Louis' character transcended the racialized boundaries lived by African Americans in 1938 making him the embodiment of liberty and democracy. Schmeling's character would also expose the inner landscape of a man whose personal politics did not align with Hitler's ideals and world vision. In history Louis' initial loss to Schmeling in 1936 surprised boxing fans worldwide. The rematch in 1938 succeeded in a friendship between both men that would assist Louis in his financially troubled twilight years.

Sports events are global and the effect on populations strikes nationalistic pride as well as athlete and supporter camaraderie. This fervour heeds no borders. Indeed, the Olympic Flag with its interlocking circles is a symbolic representation of international sporting friendship with the torch acknowledging each athlete's work for perfection. Wray’s dance work also provided spectators, the production staff and certainly the young artists involved an opportunity to consider how in Louis and Schmeling’s day and these day’s sportsmanship as well as commitment to profession are important and valuable ingredients for life.

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