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Remembering the Stories Someone Told Us

Daniel Burkholder and Danceworks’ ‘Stories from a Life’

Mar. 7, 2017
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Photo Credit: Paul Ruffalo Photography

Those powerful childhood experiences that shaped our lives—are they actual memories or stories someone told us? To what memories or stories do we cling and why and what becomes of us if we forget them?

Such questions arise during Stories from a Life, an unusually conceptual performance created by choreographer/dancer Daniel Burkholder in collaboration with six superb performers from the Danceworks Performance Company. Try to see it this weekend. The event consists of two distinct performances presented simultaneously in separate studios of the Danceworks building on Water Street. The audience is divided on arrival; half are sent to one room, half to the other. At intermission, everyone switches rooms and the event is repeated. The viewing order surely colors the experience—produces a different memory, if you will—but each room makes sense of the other. 

The seed is a series of conversations Burkholder videotaped with his 97-year-old grandmother, Sophia Saren. We see brief clips from these tapes in one room. Saren, in close up, children’s portraits on the wall behind, is sharp, funny and independent minded in her reminiscing. Between or beside this footage, we see a live feed of the dancing in the other room, impossible to interpret if you start in this room. But individual dancers intermittently slip into the room to execute signature phrases from that unknown (or remembered) dance, and/or to speak of such matters as the relationship of memory and social media today—or that since it takes time to register and recognize experience, all consciousness is memory. Against this, we hear recordings of some great American pop tunes from the mid-20th century, the music of my childhood and Saren’s coming of age.

Everybody has a front row seat along three sides of the other room. At our feet are clear bowls with strips of paper on which, at the start of the night, we’d written our own childhood memories. Toward the end of the dance in this room, the bowls are frantically organized as if to keep them intact, then scattered, our cherished memories turned to refuse. Dancers use a cellphone to record and send video to the other room. They also watch each other. We watch them watch and our memories are tested, too. This is a dance about memorizing. The dancers count aloud as they execute vigorous phrases, each differently. They master complex patterns. Until they forget.

Stories from a Life will be repeated March 10-12 at Danceworks, 1661 N. Water St. For more information visit danceworksmke.org.

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