Directed and choreographed by Stefanie Nelson
Before the performance even begins, director Stefanie Nelson has already begun to make a statement. One of the tunes playing on the mixed tape as the audience files into the theater is “White Rabbit”, Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic update of Lewis Carroll’s famous journey down the rabbit hole. As with all aspects of Nelson’s meticulously constructed meditation on the ravages of dementia, the song wasn’t chosen by accident. In some ways, the protagonist of A MY NAME IS has a lot in common with the literary Alice. Both are desperately lost in a world that increasingly seems devoid of logic and proportion. Both lack the tools to makes sense of it all.
Through a series of vibrant dance pieces, each with a clear mood and tempo established by composer Jonah Kreitner, we see the protagonist in three distinct periods of her life. Emily Tellier, the mature Alice, moves with confidence and restraint, while the vital young Alice, danced by Julia Discenza, seems keen to the world around her. Christine Bonansea plays in her later years, facing a rapid decrease in cognition and memory. The three Alices reveal their personalities through solo dances. They also observe one another and intermingle, sometimes in consort, often at odds. Cameron McKinney, who comes and goes like a phantom, seems to represent Alice’s relationships: the lovers, colleagues, family members and caretakers whose image is becoming unrecognizable.
Red apples abound on the stage, thudding and rolling across the floor and forming painterly patterns against the pristine white of the set. An apple even appears in a video projection, in which the decomposition process is sped up through time lapse photography. It’s an apt metaphor. All living things, from Alice to apples, are subject to what Robert Frost called the “slow smokeless burning of decay”.
Whereas a straightforward drama would walk us through stages mental deterioration, the abstractness and purity of dance allows for a more fluid, less literal approach. The performers bring to their work a sense of discovery, allowing themselves – and ultimately the audience – to step inside of subject most of us find uncomfortable. We begin to see the world through Alice’s eyes. Memories lose their moorings, pieces drop out of familiar narratives, and independence slips out of reach. Even then, there is something vital and human at the core of her experience. She is still Alice, even if she has lost the ability to say so.
A MY NAME IS… ran at 357 West 36th St, New York, New York from December 7-10, 2017. For more information on upcoming performances, check http://www.sndancegroup.org.