Arts & Events

Produced by Arianne MacBean and The Big Show Company

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Thursday July 05, 2018 - 01:09:00 PM

[Disclaimer: Arianne MacBean is my daughter. However, I have tried to write an objective review of this complex dance-event, though, as you will see at the end of this review, I have not shied away from acknowledging my personal involvement as Arianne’s father.]

On Thursday-Friday, June 28-9, Arianne MacBean and The Big Show Company in Los Angeles offered the world premiere of The Collective Memory Project at Ford Theatre in Hollywood. This was a bold, provocative work utilizing dance, text, music, video, and drawing to examine the rich contours of memory. Some of the memories evoked in this show were those of veterans who experienced combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. However, many of the memories evoked here were those of cast members or Arianne MacBean herself. The very nature of memory was brilliantly investigated here, including its possible distortions, its fragmentation, its dispersal, and its tenuous reconnections to ongoing life.  

As a work of modern dance, The Collective Memory Project involved its cast in extremely physical movement, often mirroring harrowing experiences living on as harrowing memories. But there were also tender memories, whimsical memories, and deeply personal memories of this or that member of the cast. The dancers of The Big Show Company for this show were, in alphabetical order, Heraclio Aguilar, Edem Atsu-Swanzy, Angelina Attwell, Armen Babasoloukisn, Genevieve Carson, Brad Culver, Max Eugene, and Priscilla Songsanand.  

The Collective Memory Project opens with words projected on a screen. The words are those of a veteran who recalls his time as a Communications officer working in Sadaam’s palace in Baghdad after the US invaded Iraq. As the text unfolds onscreen, the veteran, Heraclio Aguilar, films his own face with a video camera, and the images of his face appear onscreen along with his text, as he recalls going against the rules and allowing soldiers to phone home. For those soldiers who never came back, he notes, this was the last time they ever spoke to their loved ones. It is a powerful beginning to this exploration of memory. 

Following this opening, the paper screen was pulled down, cut, and rolled out onto the dance floor. New paper replaced the old as a screen. Dancers interacted attempting to make their own memory traces on the paper floor, using magic marker pens to trace their memories of interactions with each other, often seeming to compete with one another to leave traces of their memories. They also discussed what memory consists of, how it is subjective, and how it possibly distorts what actually happened. Memory is here explored as involving past, present, and even future. On opening night the cast tended to talk over one another, creating cacophony and confusion; but by the second night this problem was cleared up and the spoken text was clearly communicated.  

Among the many highlights in this show, several stand out. Genevieve Carson, perhaps the most technically skilled of this cast, performed a strenuous, almost agonizing dance, then found herself completely covered over with paper by the other cast members. Alone onstage, she moved under the paper covering her as if she were an egg, rolling this way and that, finally emerging as if a newborn. It was a powerful image of rebirth and renewal through memory. Another highlight came when the story of cast member Max Eugene was told. Interestingly, Max did not tell this story himself. Rather, he danced it while it was told by cast member Angelina Attwell, who spoke of Max’s birth and early years in Haiti, where due to his parents’ emigration to the USA he was raised by his aunt. Then, at age 13, he was able to visit his parents in New York for two glorious weeks. However, when he was taken to the airport to make his return flight to Haiti, he found that all flights were canceled due to a US-backed military coup in Haiti. Thus, Max stayed on in the USA. As this tale was told, Max danced in anguished movements conveying the stress and mixed feelings he had in his memories of this convoluted past.  

Before the show even started audience members were asked to write brief notes indicating their memories of surviving some important moment in their lives. At various intervals in the show, many of these audience memories were read out, making this event a truly collective memory project. Moreover, various memories of combat veterans keep intruding, throwing us off balance with their harrowing tales. Particularly effective were the memories of dancer Armen Babasoloukian of being surrounded and under fire. Perhaps the most important memory evoked in this show was that of Arianne MacBean herself, who recalled being taken as a young girl by her mother to yearly performances of the San Francisco Ballet. Each year, she recalled, her mother would comment on the way dance made her feel she had lived her life all wrong. Arianne MacBean stated that even then, as a young girl, she had the desire to make dances that would make her Mom feel that same way about real life.  

Arianne’s mother, who could not be present at these performances due to illness, would surely be proud of her daughter’s accomplishments in this profoundly moving exploration of memory. I, too, as Arianne’s father, am extremely proud of my daughter’s richly evocative investigation of the workings of memory.