We all carry, even those most thoroughly self-convinced otherwise, an internal palette that colors every moment, past and future. The present is impossible to discern, inaccuracies rife, yet it is all we have. As the crimson blends with orange or umber or sky-blue: a muddied rust. It’s that rust that bleeds through everything, a patinated through-line, which may tarnish or make more desirable dependent on one’s perspective, regarded as either corrosion or a ripening.
This rust, this weathering, this blending, is our memories and that’s only a portion the Owen/Cox Dance Group explores in their new work, “Memory Palace.”
When I first heard the title, I didn’t realize it was a real thing, a mnemonic technique dating to 50B.C. To me, the words evoked an ornate construction of ephemeral structure. In a way it is: disparate elements, strands of neurons, are placed in such a way as to access them accurately. The issue with memories lay in evaluating what is accurate, what is true. The second issue this production faces, of course, is then representing these instances corporeally, whether true or not, in a way that is accurate and discernible.
I wrote a preview for their June 28th world premiere performance for The Kansas City Star’s Sunday A&E section. You can read the story here, for a brief time.
Of course, there’s always more than makes print, just as our interiorities have icebergian depths. I interviewed cellist/chanteuse Helen Gillet and artist Peregrine Honig, received email statements from musician/sculptor Mark Southerland and composer/pianist Brad Cox, and observed a rehearsal with the dancers and choreographer Jennifer Owen. That’s a lot to distill from an already intangible topic.
The concept of their project is fascinating, even more so as you explore it yourself. For each interview, we sat outside YJ’s Snackbar on 18th Street. As the artists discussed their catalytic memories, I was hyper-aware of my own memories forming, adding to the layers I’ve absorbed sitting outside YJ’s or exploring the Crossroads over the years.
Gillet spoke with me around dusk, at the end of a long day of rehearsals, and a slight breeze foretold the storms that would drown KC for the next few days.
But that night was perfect. There is nothing more enjoyable than listening to someone speak enthusiastically about their work, watching them examine their words as they pore out, tangenting across all the synapses that connect the feelings, the sounds, the images that are stored haphazardly in their brains.
Besides Gillet’s delicate-as-crystal words, the droplets of unpretentious French accent into an English context, the careful, protective pace of her stories, I remember the slanted table, realizing that condensation was dampening my notes about mid-way through. The sounds of the avant-garde jazz combo from inside mingled with the calls of night birds as they roosted on the building tops, though some still flocked from wire to wire. I peripherally glimpsed a formation swooping, their reflection caught in the store window, briefly juxtaposed against the display of polished antlers.
She talked not only about her music, but her family, her life in New Orleans, her development as a musician, how she acquired the looping station that serves as her compositional and performance tool. Her solo performances (and most all other performances, including the upcoming “Memory Palace”) all involve the looper, affording her the ability to use all the sounds of the cello “working together to create an orchestra.” Her fluency with the machine is intuitive and she likened it to a painter’s palette. Watching her in rehearsal, I was struck by how like choreography her movements seemed, and she confirmed these thoughts. “It’s part of my footwork, it’s part of my dance. I’m comfortable with it under my feet.”
Driving home, while excited and daunted by all the information, a half-moon led the way.
A few days later, in a respite from the rain, Honig sat across the table, decked out in a seasonally-muddled ensemble of wooly hat, patterned tights, a sheer Hadley Johnson tunic and bulky knit sweater. She described her work with sound-bite energy, clearly familiar to the interviewing process, though rambled through other descriptions as she delved into qualities of inspiration and pondering how to take inspiration into fruition with fabric.
It was her comparisons of costuming dancers, of the making of dance out of memories, that simultaneously intrigued and befuddled me. No way could I condense such a wide topic to a single article. It was a chapter of concept all to itself.
She compared these future works, and the problems she was trying to solve for them, with the current Missouri Bank Crossroads “Artboards.” “Seeing my work up on a billboard is kind of like seeing dance, like in a theatrical space. Taking anything that is small … with dance you just have to amplify it so much in order for it to be readable and seeable.”
It began to drizzle. We finished talking and on my way home, again overwhelmed, I stopped to contemplate these Argentinian “deaf twin saints,” watching the wind distort the fabric as low gray clouds rolled beneath a whiter, though somehow denser, layer.
Unfortunately, the brevity of print space didn’t allow for more than a peek into the project’s intricate intensions. Gillet is bilingual and performs many of her songs in French and English. Performing in French, when most of the audience doesn’t understand the lyrics, has helped her overcome the vulnerability of the context of these works, works that so often deal with tragedies and loss. “The French songs feel good because they bring me back into the spaces of my early childhood, a lot of joyous moments and a lot of painful moments.”
For this performance, however, she’s translated the lyrics, allowing the audience more access, deeper engagement. In fact, the entire program will be dually translated, serving as a memento of this one-night-only event.
Along with programming her original works (with contributions from Southerland and Cox), she also includes a piece from Belgian poet/farmer Julos Beaucarne. Beaucarne is a long-time friend of her father (who also earned extensive treatment in the painterly/seascape imagery of Gillet’s “Lithium”), aiding him during bouts of depression. Gillet recalled that it was a song of Beaucarne’s that she first learned to sing and play, performing it for her father’s birthday.
Beaucarne’s poem “De memoire de rose” was written after the murder of his wife, yet instead of grief or anger incorporates the sensation of waiting, of isolation, of healing, of maintaining one’s interiority.
Keep inside of you / deep inside of you / an emptiness, a space /
behind the parties / where you can rest your head /
in the night’s wind / rock your old dreams / when it’s dark
While stunning in English, it’s far more beautiful in French, sung by Gillet.
The development of “Memory Palace” has taken over a year and a half and is the collection of many people’s emotional and physical contributions. It’s an ambitious and labyrinthine and mesmerizing project.
More than just the original five artists have contributed, drawing in skills and talents from accessory artists. There are complicated props, couture wear garments, sensory elements beyond sight and sound, and a breadth of inspiration and personal stories. The scale and complication is daunting, especially when you consider everything else these artists are juggling: Southland and Honig are co-producers of the West 18th Street Fashion Show, two weekends ago, Owen and Cox heavily contributed to the success of the 2nd annual Kansas City Dance Festival this past weekend, and Gillet has been touring relentless between rehearsal stops in Kansas City.
Even re-examining what I’ve been told about the production I don’t know what to expect and I’m thrilled. As a Proust-enthusiast, delving into memory’s minutia is a stimulating prospect, a treasure hunt of sorts.
“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.”
Being allowed to delve into someone else’s memory? That sounds like a night worth sharing.