Caili Quan’s facial expressions are speaking volumes at Thursday’s rehearsal at the University of the Arts’ dance school space: worry, despair, fear and frustration. What she’s channeling is Toni Hamilton’s emotions as she slipped deeper away from mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and into Alzheimer’s, losing memories and capacity for full control of her thoughts and words before passing away last year. A friend to BalletX for years and fan of co-founder and choreographer Matthew Neenan’s more adventurous and daring artistic choices, she is the subject of Neenan’s world premiere for their Summer Series.
Neenan and Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s world premiere, inspired by Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte, both involve an artistic collaboration with virtual artists Klip Collective. Neenan says Ochoa’s work will be more theatrical and playful — his is a bit more atmospheric and haunting.
“She understood the risks you have to take,” Neenan says of Hamilton, a friend he’s met with many times, even though she’d sometimes have to ask him to remind her of his name or what they were talking about. “Solitude was important to her writing,” he says, noting that even as she waded into Alzheimer’s, she needed to know what she was about to experience. “She did her research. She needed to know the facts. She spent time at [Penn’s] memory center working with experts, monitoring her disappearing memories.”
A few years ago, Neenan boldly worked with a Pierre Boulez musical selection — half the company’s base hated it, Hamilton loved it. She enthusiastically applauded its premiere. Melodic music and music that can speak to wider audiences is what Neenan typically works with. For this, Klip Collective has cooked up the music and it’s electronic, it weaves in beats and samples, and it’s sound designed with bits of Hamilton’s writings included.
“I consider her a writer even if she doesn’t consider herself one,” Neenan said. She was humble, but the Smith art history graduate and University of Michigan library scientist loved solitary time with her thoughts, pen and paper. She attended writing residencies and retreats, famously living in a treehouse for a month on the occasion of her 40th birthday on Ossabaw Island near Savannah, Georgia.
“Space between waves … between words … between limbs … between incidents,” echoes through the track played while Neenan observed, looking for things to fix and perfect, phrases culled from nearly 50 years of manuscripts the choreographer was entrusted with for consideration in this piece. The series release says it “wrestles with the notion that memory fades, and sometimes reappears in unexpected ways.”
The visuals should be fascinating for Ochoa’s piece, the Columbian-Belgian choreographer has worked with BalletX for years, previously debuting “Still@Life” in 2008 and “Bare” and “Castrati” in 2011. There’ll be “skyscapes” and, you know it, bowler hats, apples and windows. The music will be more eclectic with different composers and even a light circus vibe. The program seems smart — two longer pieces, about 40 minutes in length, with Ochoa’s whimsy preceding profound and emotionally wrought dance concerning the encroaching fear of living with Alzheimer’s.
“Alright, dancers!” cries Neenan as his co-founder and artistic director wipes tears from her eyes and gets a hug from Quan — her mother died of Alzheimer’s before Hamilton passed last year. Then he asks of each dancer a few very specific requests: Can you get more into the weight of that turn? Can you maybe wait a hair longer before you come in? Or maybe lower that leg? Choreographing to electronic music is easier, he concedes, than melodic music — you don’t have to time everything to a song.
For Neenan, and for Hamilton, the phrase that she found comfort in may apply to dance in the way that it applied to her fears of surrender to loss — “Don’t run uphill to meet the rain,” Hamilton had said. “And that's a very good thing for me to remember.”