Moved by Memories

by Dance

Julia Havard '11 reflects on the creative process behind her dance/theater work, "Home," which premieres this weekend at the Harvard-Radcliffe Modern Dance Company's spring show, "In Transit." It will also be performed at the Queen's Head Pub on Saturday, May 1, as part of the Arts First performance festival.

The concept for the piece began with peaches: their shape, color, the feel of them like skin, the process of consuming them, arriving at a core, their fuzz, juice, pulp, and the mess they make. I wanted to explode the intimate act of eating and place it on bodies, make the internal physiology visible, translated to gesture and formation. I wanted to explore the act of eating with others. We sit at dinner eating the same food, talking, feeling comfort, discomfort, but as we consume the same material, particles of it become a part of each of us. When we eat with someone we make a direct bodily connection; a tiny bit of each of us is the same. I wanted to delve into this deep body place where language has no meaning, and the only thing that exists is sense.

As these thoughts were stirring around in my mind, I read through the Overture of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, and was struck by the idea of bodies creating "room memories." I wanted to explore how we physically create a sense of place with our senses-- how we can create an environment when we dance, using our bodies.

My dance has many props: a table, chairs, window, and hanging black curtains serve to create a broken-up dance space, the illusion of rooms. But it’s not really the props that create the warped domestic environment in which the piece is set. The piece has been an extraordinarily imaginative undertaking on the part of the dancers. They finally saw the window and curtains for the first time during tech week, but throughout the rehearsal process they had been adding in the pieces with their minds, which I think really helped to develop a sense of the props’ heaviness and meaning.

As I began to work with the dancers, I realized the piece wasn’t about things and bodies as I initially imagined. It had to be about relationships. The dancers began to develop strong characters throughout the rehearsal process, so as the piece became theirs, it had to become more about their characters' relationships. I wanted to play with planes of time, how memories can be incited by the physical sensation of a particular taste or the feel of a familiar wall or dinner table that causes people to be connected cross-temporally. Eating a dish once shared with someone close can make her exist again in a separate reality. In this way no one is ever lost but continues to touch others through memory and synesthesia: the touch of someone’s cheek becomes the feeling of a peach against the back of a hand, the bright colors of a freshly prepared meal bring about the scent of the chef as she settles next to you. The dancers in this piece engage in the sense of longing to bring memory to reality, and then to express the need to wake up and be present despite the craving for something that no longer exists.

The collaborations in this piece have been the most exciting part of the process. The stunning dancers and their passionate commitment to the movement and feeling of the piece made it a living creature. The composer, Ben Englert (Northeastern ’12), worked with me for months to create a fantastic score—a rendering of a Dvorak piece underneath layers of dinner conversation, recorded at a dinner party where the dancers’ and other collaborators’ voices were captured and then electronically warped, and the sounds of eating: clinking, chewing, digesting, a haunting, visceral soundscape that makes the listener feel what it must be like to be digested, to claw into a body and be left with the mess. Jennifer Lim ’12 created a video montage that is projected onto the dancers’ bodies throughout the piece. It was wonderful to share a vision with such a receptive and deeply engaged videographer who was able to capture aspects of eating and expression that would have been impossible to convey from a distance.

I’ve been working on different aspects of the piece through two classes: a Dramatic Arts course for the choreography, and a VES class, during which I worked on video, projection, and the overall process of fitting pieces together. The feedback I received from these two courses clarified the piece immensely. I was so struck by a message I found hidden on display at an exhibit created by Andrew Witkin, the visiting professor for VES 38: "remembering is movement." These words became the feeling of the piece.

Memories drive action, inaction; they compose movement. And the movement of dance is strongly sensory. I hope this piece feels like home made inexplicably foreign, the drive to awaken out of comfort into what is real, and sometimes the inability to do nothing but watch things break apart.