A dancer’s steady, isolated tread is interrupted, her elbow drawn back by an unseen energy.
With Icarian force, a man leaps around her. The woody timbre of the cello, underscored by a repetitious drum beat and layered back-up vocals, accompanies a mournful voice.
This is the first music and dance rehearsal for “Memory Palace,” the Owen/Cox Dance Group’s world premiere on Saturday at the Spencer Theatre featuring New Orleans-based Belgian-American cellist/chanteuse Helen Gillet (see D1).
The ambitious, intimate production is a collaboration with some of Kansas City’s busiest creative forces: choreographer Jennifer Owen and composer Brad Cox, artist Peregrine Honig and musician/sculptor Mark Southerland.
“Memory Palace” examines the fragility of one’s lucidity, the phenomenon of recall and the dual nature of memory as truth-teller and dissimulator, as moments are absorbed, refined, re-imagined and disassembled.
All the artists have worked together in various combinations, with the exception of Gillet and Owen, but even at their first physical rehearsal the level of communication was intuitive.
“It’s been the perfect level of uncomfortable between all of our approaches, the push and pull,” Gillet said, “but you trust everybody.”
Owen uses movement language to depict these vague, internal struggles. The dancers she’s assembled bring energy and vitality to the ephemeral. Rocking, spirally movements mimic water eddies in “Atchafalaya,” there is disconnect and isolation in “Julien” and the rendition of Julos Beaucarne’s “De Memoire De Rose” incorporates a protective quality, the dancers moving each other with gentle hands.
“I could just feel that Jen has internalized these stories and it’s beautiful,” Gillet said.
Honig, along with creating visual elements, shares stories of her father becoming “abstracted and compromised” when he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Honig said Owen tells two of the stories through choreography.
“It’s like watching someone dance like your father, but they’re somebody else completely, they’re mirroring someone you don’t know,” said Honig.
Challenged by the unfamiliar territory of movement-based garments, Honig’s costume design intends to change and distort.
“Anytime an artist gets her hands on anything it’s an extreme abstraction of what it was before,” Honig said. “How do you make a garment about life lost?”
The catalyst for the project was Gillet’s eponymous 2012 album, which was recorded in Kansas City. For “Memory Palace,” Gillet arranged some of her songs to include Southerland’s saxophone and Cox on piano and technology.
Southerland also has taken a lead in the concept and set design. With craftsman Matthew Tady, they constructed a table that serves practical and symbolic functions: to be danced on, around, and dismantled. The table, often a gathering place for multiple generations, serves as a place to create and transfer memories.
Additionally, they’ll perform Southerland’s song “Take A Sip,” written for Gillet and inspired by her post-Katrina recollections.
Sautrday will be Gillet’s first performance of the song, imbuing it with “the memory of the event.… It starts as a beautiful song and becomes much more blues-y, more drunken.”
Honig was excited about the costuming for “Sip.” Because it’s the last piece of the performance “it’s an opportunity for immediate erosion and deconstruction.”
She aims to create something that will disintegrate during the performance: “How can I achieve something as quiet as silt?”
Cox, too, contributes a piece. Using fragmented cello and piano samples, he’s manipulated the tracks, stretching, layering, abstracting the acoustic quality as an aural representation of memory decay, and also serving as a vehicle for improvisation.
“We construct memories not purely from a specific experience remembered, but also from an extensive network of prior experiences,” Cox said. “(It’s) intended as a musical metaphor for the slight, or sometimes extreme, variations between actual experience and memory.”
Just as memories shift and elongate, Gillet’s music has evolved since the album’s release. She’s performed too long as an improviser to feel comfortable ritually re-creating. Rehearsing “Julien,” she demonstrated changing one segment to a funkier double-time feel. Kansas City Ballet dancer Michael Davis instantly reacted, leaping wider, enthusiastic about the energy.
When Gillet returned to New Orleans after Katrina, the streets were covered with cracked mud and the militarized city seemed foreign, bizarre. Seeking something familiar, she ventured to her regular Thursday night gig and was greeted with bottles of wine and candlelight, singing that night for those with no place to lay their heads.
“The piece itself is a memory palace in the dictionary sense,” she said. “We’re walking through these songs and expressing them in a concrete way.”
Owen/Cox Dance Group performs “Memory Palace” at 8 p.m. Saturday at Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St. Tickets are $17.50-$22.50 through OwenCoxDance.org.