Review: memory 4

June 20, 2016

by Jennifer N. Myers

On June 9, 2016, the Pittsburgh-based performance duo slowdanger (Taylor Knight and Anna Thompson) debuted their longest, and most ambitious, staged work yet: memory 4.  For those who missed it, I am sorry.  It was an absolute stunner: breathtaking in its progression; daring in its range; and fully captivating visually, sonically, and artistically.  It holds court as their best production, and marks the beginning of a new direction for these uncompromising artists who continue to excel, expand, and produce on a nearly daily basis.  (For example, just three days before this work premiered they dropped an album and are now touring the East Coast with it.  The album is called Feed Your Demon, released by La Squadra, and can be found online.)  memory 4 premiered at the New Hazlett Theater, in Pittsburgh, as the final work for Community Supported Art – Season 3, a program that supports local artists in developing an hour-long piece during a nine-month residency at the theater.  

With memory 4, we see artists fully exploring their limits – where they can go, what they can be, what happens next.  As the next iteration from ‘the memory series’, begun in 2012, it was the first time Thompson and Knight invited two performers into this series and they chose wisely.  The choreographer, dancer, and performer Jasmine Hearn brought her unforgettable, original language of movement and voice to the performance, as well as her relationship to slowdanger over the past seven years. The Pittsburgh-based percussionist PJ Roduta, who has worked closely with dance since 2005, brought his own sensibilities as an artist who uses music and movement with natural fluidity.  These two are perfectly cast and act as comrades, witnesses, and characters –  able to hold their own and provide texture, warmth, and complexity to the project.

The performance began as dramatic, natural and elemental as night: in total darkness.  For nearly ten minutes the opening scene gently mediated between theater and dream, suspended in liminal space.  It was the slow promise for an evening of total inspiration, and impossible not to feel mesmerized under a certain trance.  I watched as four cartoonishly large eggs, cradled in equally exaggerated nests, became illuminated in a diagonal line across the stage.  These mystical objects sparkled and flickered, the effect of their materials – which includes cassette and VHS tapes – that caught the light and bounced it.  These sculptural works are made by the artist Celeste Neuhaus with a multitude of materials and found objects, many that are designed to record and collect memory.  They are perfectly paired for this production, and shine as the most minimal of stage design and prop.  

The entire production adheres to this minimal aesthetic with effective, limited choices: the paper boat transforms into a paper t-shirt, and an icosahedron (again crafted by Neuhaus) is the centerpiece for the final scene.  The lighting design by Antonio Colaruotolo is expertly produced, and stands out as the best lighting design I have seen in Pittsburgh at any theater.  Hailing from Italy, Colaruotolo’s signature look is described in his bio as clean, yet creative, and I could not agree more.  With video projections by Mario Ashkar and Mike Cooper, both of which are projected directly onto the stage itself, the production is complete. Ashkar’s work holds the entire final passage of memory 4 in ecstatic static: the video repeats and seems to slowly disintegrate to wash, bathe, and illuminate the entire stage and performers in a final ritualistic exclamation.  Cooper’s work is a projection of slowdanger dancing naked together, projected at their feet and filling its own surrealistic space with them as they dance with their own illuminated shadows.  With sound design by slowdanger, in collaboration with Roduta and Hearn, the sonic experience is multilayered, performed live as song, sounds, words, whispers, and shouts through microphones, looping pedals, and electronics.  Their additional use of pre-recorded field recordings, voiceovers, and beats paired well and set each scene apart.  There were a few sections I felt the sound design could have been improved through the use of more layering or additional live percussive elements from Roduta.  At points the sound design stalled, with one looping sentence for what felt like ten minutes. While this was an intentional decision, it felt overdone and a place where more variety, texture, and sounds could have been introduced.   Overall, the production proved to me that all of these artists are early masters of their mediums and have much to build upon with this new work.

At nearly 70-minutes, memory 4 is presented to the audience the way memory is experienced: fragmented and surreal, driven by certain narrative, and familiar yet foreign.  As it passed with intention from one scene to the next, it reminded me that all memory is a translation from one realm to another, whether that be cellular, physical, psychic, personal, collective, cosmic.  I interpreted the narrative as four characters on a journey, travelling together for support but with certain tasks they must face alone.  Through quartet, duet, and solo, the audience bears witness as each character develops, progresses, gets destroyed, and returns to the whole.  The sense that this was actually one body, made up of four bodies, crossed my mind often while watching memory 4.  It illuminated for me the idea that slowdanger is a non-binary entity, neither female nor male, but made up of radical energy that I consider queer.  Inside of this new body there is a new name, and a new understanding of energy, synergy, action, gender, time and storytelling.  Working with four bodies instead of their familiar two brought this concept into heightened focus during the opening sequence.

During this opener, the four bodies illuminated suddenly after the slow reveal of the eggs, each with a single spotlight to the head.  Seeing them lying on their backs, motionless, I felt unexpected shock to see them, and scrawled into my notebook: do our bodies remember death? Do we have a memory of death in our bodies? For a long time there was no motion, gender was indistinguishable, and identity was masked by a thin gauzy cloth covering each face.  Eight hands, eight feet, forty fingers, forty toes, eight eyes: closed or open. Four hearts: beating.  One body, or four?  Slowly, only the most basic movement, a stirring of a finger or leg.  Writing this only a few days after the mass shooting in Orlando, I am shaken to see the parallels.

Jasmine Hearn took the stage next with a solo performance astonishing in its simplicity and power: standing before a microphone that hung from a fifty-foot cord (perfectly designed), she sang an original song, “My Poor Woman,” behind the same gauzy cloth that formerly seemed like a death shroud.  Transformed, it now rendered her entire torso to shadow.  “My Poor Woman, By The Sea. . .” mourns Hearn, her heart torn in two but full of grace and vision.  Her presence and power on stage literally wakens, and summons, the other performers to pull themselves up to begin.  memory 4 has been activated, and it is clear we are on a journey.

As I was wondering how traditional narrative structures might be introduced, if at all, the next scene provided a voiceover that told the story of a character, named West, who was lost at sea.  This is portrayed by PJ Roduta, who rocks back and forth across the stage as a puppet in a children’s story.  The light, previously a wash of purple and pink, is suddenly blue and stormy, and we are on rough seas.  Roduta moves across the stage while holding a simple paper boat, and as the story progresses and becomes more dramatic, Hearn moves with her back to the audience, narrating the story with sweeping gestures.  At a certain point the boat becomes struck by lightning, and the front and back are torn off and tossed to the floor.  In a moment of pure genius, the boat is unfolded and turns into a t-shirt.  This was both humorous and intensely beautiful, a transformation that I would see repeated in different ways again and again.

One of the more unforgettable scenes follows soon after the shipwreck, with Hearn and Roduta switching from narrators to witnesses, while slowdanger takes control of the stage in an extended, deeply moving, duet.  This enlightens the audience into the philosophy of slowdanger’s work.  Their main ethos, and prerogative, has always been about stillness.  About taking the time, as much time as is required, to truly see one another.  This is a form of epiphany, defined by the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas who wrote: ‘epiphany or a manifestation of the divine is seen in another’s face’. We watch them study each other’s faces as if they are newly discovered planets: with great awe, reverence, and attention.  Between stillness and movement, touch and distance, a duet is formed with the simplest ingredients.  It had the tension of a suspension bridge. Their heads connect at the crown, then separate, then turn their heads to the audience and see us.  A fantastic artistic decision was to project the video by Cooper onto the floor during this scene, so that slowdanger is dancing with slowdanger, a naked, projected version of themselves.  As they physically move the video follows, so that they are literally in step.  The four feet become eight, and the concept of body, space, and time is altered.  I read this as dancing with their shadows, but the shadows are illuminated projections.  It is future and past, technology and analog, bringing together compelling visual narratives and conceptual frameworks in ways I had not seen done before.  

The following scene finds Thompson more alone than ever.  With her deep and resonant voice, she stands at the hanging microphone and narrates a story about a tree that once grew tall, but is no longer there.  We are thrown into childhood.  She is visibly shaken and operates between sadness, rage, and controlled chaos, her voice alternating between spoken word, song, and shout.  Even with the support of the witnesses (Hearn and Roduta) who narrate phrases into a looping microphone, and Knight who remains pinned to the stage, his body pressed to it, his mouth blowing paper around, she seems desperately alone.  It was as if she was trying to grasp a memory that cannot be remembered, but is just on the tips of her fingers and tongue.  These scraps of paper that once were the boat, then the shirt, now find themselves inside of her mouth as she picks them off the stage and eats them.  They are in her mouth as she continues to sing, shout, and cry out the narrative.  This scene is visibly upsetting, confrontational, and even accusatory as she attempts to express the significance, and sadness, of this part of the story.

The work concluded on a heightened, ecstatic mood that resembled a desert rave.  The four are circled around the icosahedron structure that is both open and closed, a futuristic reference from the first section.  They chant phrases like ‘we are free, to be what we want to be’ and one can believe the troupe somehow made it through the storms, the deaths, the births, and the naysayers to come to this place of total freedom.  That is what we do as artists, we continue to push past boundaries and make our own rules.  This final scene was washed in Mario Ashkar’s static video projection, which enabled a looping, rhythmic, digital experience that summoned the present moment of our digital culture and daily interfacing.  The scene referenced the intentionality we must create to bear witness, to act in joy, collaboration, and personal freedom in the face of great sorrow, despair, hate, and violence.  I write this review less than one week after our nation’s most recent mass shooting that ripped members of our queer community away from us at the height of their own ecstasies—while dancing, joyfully, in the night.

If memory 4 began in the elemental stillness of night, it ends in sunrise: the daily miracle that guarantees us just one more day to dance together.