James Henry, KCMetropolis.org
The Owen/Cox Dance Group in collaboration with Helen Gillet, Mark Southerland, and Peregrine Honig, took a nearly-full Spencer Theater on an imaginative, introspective journey in building “Memory Palace.”
The Helen F. Spencer Theatre filled steadily Saturday night to hold a near-capacity audience for the world premiere of Memory Palace, an enigmatic production constructed by some of Kansas City’s most imaginative creators: Owen/Cox Dance Group, Mark Southerland, and Peregrine Honig, with guest cellist, Helen Gillet. With so many creative forces working in tandem, it might have been easy for such a work to become a disjointed experience, forcing focus on one or another compartmentalized aspect of the performance. Instead, Memory Palace was wave after wave of sensory stimulation, each aspect intertwined beautifully to create an intimate, subtle, subjective experience for viewers.
The combination of ballet and modern dance sensibilities matched the music, which alternated between original folk songs and improvisational interludes edging closer to acid jazz. The overall effect was perhaps that of lounging in a smoky nightclub, seeing memories long forgotten, entranced by nursery rhymes you forgot you knew. The stark set, with only a table and seven chairs as set pieces, complemented by appropriate lighting and costume choices, provided just enough structure for the audience’s imaginations to take flight.
The one-hour production opened with all seven of Owen/Cox’s dancers seated around the table in pensive postures—some in calm contemplation, others in more anxious realization or tribulation. The music and choreography built steadily into the first of seven songs that explored the peaks and valleys of the human pathos.
Ranging from Alyssa Gold’s delicate "Veil" to Demetrius McClendon’s athletic, angst-filled "Cake," the dancers were each featured solo (save Michael Davis and Holly DeWitt who shared a dynamic duet) between ensemble numbers. Sara Chun’s "Burn" was an audience favorite, and her movement was agile and fluid. The sense of rhythm was generally solid across the ensemble, and the choreography was very much in touch with the music, even when the latter gave little on which to grasp. The dancers’ breaking into simultaneous solos, duets, and trios lent the scene a little chaos and kept things visually interesting. It also made moments of cohesion among the seven dancers all-the-more impressive. For me, the most artistically interesting ensemble moment of Jennifer Owen’s choreography involved the group standing close together and moving nearly in-sync, always with one dancer leading the motion and one dancer trying desperately to escape the group.
Sung and (mostly) composed by New Orleans-based cellist Helen Gillet, the songs were whimsical and memorable and easy to lose oneself in. Her use of a loop pedal was deft, particularly in fast-paced "Run;" with sung lines and arpeggiated motifs building with meticulous accuracy atop driving percussive effects on the body of the instrument. Mark Southerland’s easy tenor saxophone contributed to the aforementioned lounge atmosphere during some of the songs, and he was featured prominently during more improvisational interludes. If the interludes were actually improvised, the connection between music and choreography is made more impressive—particularly in McClendon’s solo, the dancer’s motions matched the nervous pointillist effects of Southerland’s and pianist Brad Cox’s playing.
Any sense of traditional plot was pushed aside in favor of a format that appealed to each audience member individually. There remained an emotional arc to the performance, with themes sometimes cutting to the core of life in a way that is inarticulable—no surprise coming from the show’s creative director Peregrine Honig. From the nearly-symmetrical program art to the curation of wispy yet tactile garments by Yuli Urano and Maegan Stracey, Honig’s sensibilities and style were present throughout the experience. Memory Palace, it seems, was constructed with distinct intention and, through the creative collaboration and commitment of all those involved, stood atop a thematic foundation that made the Spencer Theatre’s stage more of a window into one’s own self than into some external story.
The execution was nearly pristine; there were a few moments when a leap that wanted to be simultaneous was not, or when a fluid movement was interrupted with slight jerkiness. The piano was out of tune—a choice I hope was deliberate—which ultimately made sense but took a moment of acclimation. In completely eschewing tradition, I felt like the experience climaxed early and would have benefited from a little more variety in musical structure, particularly in transitional moments.
These skilled artists working together gave the audience keys to their own Memory Palace. It was an exploratory, sensory delight that is exemplary of the cutting edge of art: poignant, well-wrought, relatable, and mind-expanding. While it might be difficult to recreate, it was a meaningful examination of subjectivity and commonality in experience, and was a fine display by a team of very talented individuals.