Dancers and musicians wrestle with The Moment of Forgetting
Dance and music are art forms that often express abstract ideas, giving physical shape to things that are ephemeral or beyond words. But even by that standard, composer James Maxwell and choreographer Claire French are taking on an ambitious topic.
For the debut of their interdisciplinary Restless Productions, the long-time collaborators are bringing the notion of forgetting to the stage. Two years in the making, The Moment of Forgetting tries to capture that instant when our knowledge abandons us, when we stop in our tracks or try to re-embroider what we can’t recall. In fact, forgetting is something that performing artists like dancers and musicians try to avoid at all costs.
“Dancewise, we’re playing with this idea because, of course, it’s a nightmare for dancers to be asked to perform something that looks like they’ve forgotten it—because we work so hard to cover that up,” French says with a laugh, sitting in the lounge of the Dance Centre with Maxwell, who’s her partner in life as well as in art. “But there’s something in that that’s amazing to see: it’s so absolutely in-the-moment.”
To create those moments, on-stage, she says, she’s had to set up scenes where it looks like someone’s forgotten something but then remembers and gets pulled back into the action. “It has been really fun, like a big game to try to work that out,” she says. “We’re also keeping some improvisation in that, because we don’t want it to feel so contrived that they’re having to pretend to forget.”
The work brings five contemporary dancers and four classical musicians onto a stage created by artist-designers Hadley+Maxwell.
Though highly collaborative, it all started with French, alone in the studio, wrestling with concepts. “It was that idea of abandoning, moving on from something quickly, instead of just trying to repeat something over and over,” she explains of the initial impulse.
She took that concept and three dancers to the Toronto’s Choreographic Marathon in 2010, for 27 hours of creation—and, not surprisingly, was advised during feedback sessions that it couldn’t be done. “I was told that it was too ambitious and that it wasn’t possible, but I was told that with a smile,” she relates.
French proved them wrong, and came home inspired. She and Maxwell set up the company the next spring, in 2011, and began working with the idea from scratch again. From Maxwell’s end, “forgetting” found equal translation through music: “There were certain composers I was interested in where time really dissipates, so I already had this element in my language where time kind of escapes a little bit.”
For her part, French started chopping up the dance sequences. “We said, ‘What if we break our phrasing in an unpredictable manner? It will jar a little bit, and if we do that, that’s already speaking to that idea of memory and forgetting,’ ” says French, who did a lot of research into how the brain forgets and remembers.
That approach pushes not only the dancers, but also the classical musicians, who will move through the space, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing. The players occasionally can’t see the dancers, and will have to rely on memory to recall where they are. “We’re also doing a lot to play with the score and how musicians can access it or not access it at certain times,” Maxwell says.
Just as Maxwell has been composing a score from the beginning of the process, so has Hadley+Maxwell been designing. Their vision extends to the lighting, executed by James Proudfoot, in which special tricoloured lights throw fragmented shadows.
“They were interested in how a single entity becomes sort of broken up into multiple, somewhat independent shadows,” Maxwell says. “They liked that with the idea of forgetting, because oftentimes we don’t remember things accurately; we tend to re-create what we recall.”
What the team has ended up designing is a white space, where the dancers—also all dressed in white—throw these prismlike shadows. But that square of stage is set into a black space, a sort of visible backstage, that the musicians (Mark Ferris, Mark Haney, Mark McGregor, and Marcus Takizawa) inhabit. “We liked the idea of a conscious-subconscious, with the stage as the conscious space and the sidelines as the unconscious,” Maxwell says.
With its sets, music, and dance intertwined around a strong, single theme, Restless is creating a new way of working on the scene here. “With this show, hopefully people will realize Restless does this dance and music thing, but the idea is the carrot,” French says. In other words, they want to make work that stands out, and won’t be forgotten soon.
Restless Productions presents The Moment of Forgetting at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from Thursday to Saturday (October 4 to 6), in partnership with Redshift Music and the Dance Centre.