Dan Higgins captured the human condition in its rawest form in his new evening-length work, “In. Memory. Of.” There were moments of intense vulnerability paired with stark confrontation that allowed the dancers to unveil deep human feelings often hidden from the public eye. The 70-minute work was a part of Repertory Dance Theatre’s Link Series and was followed by a panel with Drs. Shannon Simonelli, James Asbrand, and Jinna Lee that unpacked the piece’s voice on the effect of mental illness.
As the audience entered the Leona Wagner Black Box Theatre, the show had already begun. Higgins sat in a chair at a wooden table facing away from the audience. A dark green scarf that later emerged as a motif lay in front of him. The soft rattle of audience voices painted the landscape - the dance had started with simple human connection.
As the five other dancers (Natalie Border, Micah Burkhardt, Jalen Williams, Bethany Shae Claunch, and Lyndi Coles) entered the stage, their bodies created a sculptural landscape. With simple walking patterns and standing sequences, we watched them move with keen alertness. At one moment, they stood at the edge of the wings while Higgins walked past. The shadow of his hand glided gently across each of their faces. A deep humanness was unveiled in intentaional movements such as these.
The piece developed into a series of duets, a string of conversations. All the while, Higgins remained on stage, observing the connections and interactions; he was an outsider who witnessed and watched, much like the audience. Williams and Burkhardt’s duet had a virtuosic nature that alternated between playful and aggressive. The two men began by running past each other with quick changes of direction and near misses. They chased each other, launched their bodies toward one another, and supported each other in lofty, suspended lifts. Williams and Burkardt captured both the strength and gentleness of the human body, moving like young wolf pups or brothers.
“In. Memory. Of” wove together a diverse sound score that featured several layers, from a continuing drone that intensified into abrasive, pounding sounds, to moments of silence characterized by the breaths and brushing of body parts, to Higgins’ deep voice that relayed a complex and vulnerable narrative. Each of these layers was developed in small pieces, so that the narrative was presented in increments. The story created then seemed to span a very long time, an unveiling that required space and patience.
The text, written by Cooper Smith and Mary Higgins, shared a story of feeling deeply alone yet finding a sense of belonging in surprising places. It was a story of experiencing extreme awareness of and alertness to the world yet confusing the edge of reality. It was a story that carried an emotional journey and exposed memories of trauma. The narrative was shocking at times, but also allowed me to connect to the words so that my own experiences resonated alongside the narrative.
After a section of story, Higgins and Border moved through a stunning duet. Their movement held powerful parallels to the narrative. I could not help but wonder if Border was a representation of the female in the story or if, in fact, Border was a manifestation of Higgins’ inner mind, an internal conversation physicalized. Their partnering was strong and facilitated both fierce and tender moments. The amber shadows of lighting, designed by Pilar Davis, bounced the reflection of body parts off the floor’s surface. The focused brightness captured the quality of light usually found in the middle of the night when the moon hangs high in the sky.
The scarf on the table at the beginning became another moving component and motif in the dance. It emerged as a safety net, an object of comfort that crawled across dancers’ skin and seemed to offer a calming familiarity. Yet, at other moments, it was a force of tension, something that pulled, tangled, and restricted the dancers. This simple object captured, and physicalized, the complexity of mental illness.
Higgins’ words, “The wolves always come to watch,” still resound in my mind. This phrase was followed by group movement - the first time all six dancers moved together on stage since the beginning. Were the five representative of the wolves mentioned in the story? Are we, the audience, the wolves, here so faithfully, only to watch from the outside? Or, are our minds the wolves, creating outsiders within ourselves? “In. Memory. Of.” offered few solutions to these ponderings and instead gave voice to the complexity of the human mind. The movement and narrative created a space to look at mental illness and the response of the body and mind to trauma. “In. Memory. Of.” uncovered the struggles that many may face but may keep private, laying bare painful, yet ultimately human, experiences.
Rachel Luebbert is a senior at the University of Utah, nearing completion of a double major in modern dance and Spanish. Rachel has also contributed writing to the College of Fine Arts’ blog, The Finer Points.