Review: Daniel Burkholder and Danceworks Performance Company presents Stories From a Life
by Raquel Lake
Memories shape how we view our world. They shape how we relate to our past, our present, and our future. Memories often come to define who we are because we frame our perceptions of ourselves through the lens of memory. When you set out to tell the story of a life, the stories, the recollections, and the memories reveal how that story will unfold. Memories are the narrative. The memories of Sophia Saren, the grandmother of Daniel Burkholder, were brought to life for two audiences this past Sunday at Dance Place by the Daniel Burkholder and Danceworks Performance Company. The piece, Story From a Life, presented audiences with delicately fluid, precisely detailed, and well thought out work which explored one woman’s memories. The piece explored what memories mean to us all, living in a social media and technology driven world. It was an elegant and thoughtful performance, a story of a life through memories relayed by dancers arms, hands, legs, and feet.
Before the show, the audience was broken up into two groups. The pink ticket group watched the performance live first in the Cafritz Theater, while the blue ticket group watched a live feed from another space at Dance Place. The feed of the live performance was shown on a split screen alongside interview footage of Sophia Saren. For the second repetition of the performance, the audience groups were switched. To say that there was a lot going on during this piece is truly an understatement but the message never faltered. More importantly the dance never suffered.
To start the performance, a barefoot dancer dressed in a floral 1950’s-esque dress entered the stage. She was so close to me that I almost felt like I was a part of the dance. There was an intriguing and profound intimacy created because I was sitting on the stage floor. It made me feel personally invested in the performance. I later came to learn that the dancer on stage was there to represent Sophia. She was immediately joined by another dancer, Daniel Burkholder, the artistic director and one of the night’s choreographers. He was dressed in 1950’s styled clothing as well. The most interesting aspect to Burkholder’s arrival on stage was his prop. He was holding a cellphone and filming the dancer on stage. His video became the live feed for the second audience group. We saw her every bend and spin. We saw the width of her arms spread to reach the sky as she revealed memories. She used the full space and dimension to show us how time passes.
The two dancers on stage were joined by a third dancer who took over the responsibility of filming the performance. She, too, was an observer like the audience but with the power to choose what the other audience was able to see. It made me think about perception, about how what we perceive and ultimately remember is influenced by what we see and how much of it we get to see. In a sense, she personified technology and exposed the co-dependent relationship that we all have with it. She exposed the way it influences what we see and perceive. I cannot imagine the amount of detail that went into this piece, in addition to the complex two-audience set up, the dancer’s movements were also steeped in hard work and meticulous detail.
The scenes of dancers guiding each other with close attention were touching and riveting. Manipulating the heads or bodies of their fellow dancers just so, once the pose or position was correct, the dancer would move unencumbered. This guide-and-release was very reminiscent of how a teacher guides a student or a parent guides a child; later in the second viewing space, the ability to see Sophia’s interviews alongside these moments made me see that were representative of important events in her life.
Other times there were movements that seemed to convey working. Distinct percussive hand and arm movements gave way to fluid forms that melted into bends. The bends produced a depth which morphed into long balletic legs and triumphant spins. There were sections during which the music would stop and dancers would perform an eight count. Each number represented a different movement. At first I was reminded of the repetition in a dance class. As this section of the performance continued, the counting revealed something else: the counting represented time. One could have spent all night just taking in the dance and ignoring the other elements without missing the point. Life is all about what we experience: something that is personal and subjective.
The last scene featured all seven dancers coming together for a huge final memory. They ran on and off stage, bringing clear bowls with white strips of paper. As dancers ran back and forth, one could feel the frenzy and choreographed chaos. Once all of the bowls were in place, the dancers took turns throwing themselves down on the floor. They writhed on the floor like snow angels as bowls went spinning and pieces of paper went flying. This continued for a while then stopped. The chaos ceased, and composed dancers came to the stage again to grace us with careful one-legged bends. Bodies floated downward while the dancers looked over their shoulders. I wondered which past memory they were keeping an eye on now.
After the brief intermission, I entered the DP2 to watch the rest of the performance. This section featured a film of Sophia Saren being interviewed about her life. She retold stories of her life growing up, of her parents, of her marriage, and of other interesting memories from her life. Once I entered this theater, it was revealed just how hard the dancers worked throughout the evening. During their breaks from performing for the audience in main theater, when I had assumed they were resting or stretching, the dancers would run into the second location and recite monologues about memories, time, or social media. As this occurred, footage of Sophia speaking about her life continued to play. The film split the screen with with the live feed. The live feed was enhanced by a program called Isadora which gave the feed footage a look reminiscent of filters commonly found on social media. My favorite part of this section featured Sophia stating that “whoever does the job best [in a family or a marriage], that’s who should be doing it.” This was my favorite section because it evoked “yesses” and “amens” of agreement from the audience. Sophia’s memories were poignant and relatable. I am glad that I got to know her through her memories.
The entirety of the stage performance featured touches from the past mixed with the reality of the present. All of the female dancers wore different 1950’s dresses, hairstyles, and makeup, while the cellphone served as our constant reminder of the now. Technology was not the only nod to the present: the dancers’ vocabulary was current as well. They moved with fluidity, grace, and styled ease. As I watched dancers come and go, the movement that they articulated was always aesthetically pleasing. Stories From a Life had touches of modern, lyrical, and balletic dance styles. It even seemed to have touches of hip hop; the fluidity of the arms reminded me of popping and locking. The interplay between all of the dancers was effectively thought out. They were connected like a family. Much of what I saw on stage made more sense once I relived the performance experience watching the live feed in the second location.
Stories From a Life was a story beautifully told through dance. It was a story of one woman’s life, a story which investigated, according to the program, “…how memories contextualize and bring meaning to one’s life.” It was compelling to see how dance and technology were able to bring these memories to life and tell an amazing story.