Art and science of the unraveling mind: A My Name Is… STEFANIE NELSON and DAVID SHENK with Ivan Talijancic
Stefanie Nelson’s choreography has been presented extensively within New York’s contemporary dance circuits, including such venues as Dance Theater Workshop, 92nd Street Y, Joyce SoHo, Dance New Amsterdam, and Triskelion Arts. In recent years, Nelson has taken greater focus on international work, having founded Dance Italia, a widely popular dance training program taking place each summer in the Italian cities of Agropoli and Lucca. This month, Nelson’s choreography makes a New York homecoming with the premiere of a brand-new production, A My Name Is....
Ivan Talijancic spoke with Nelson over Skype in early November about her ambitious new work, joined in the conversation by David Shenk, the author of the national bestseller The Forgetting: Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic, and a special advisor on this project.
Ivan Talijancic (Rail): You are in the final stretch of rehearsals for A My Name Is... Can you share some insight into the origins of this project? What prompted you to embark on this journey?
Stefanie Nelson: When you suddenly have an idea for a piece, you never know when it's going to strike. The summer before last, I had received four Happy Birthday messages from a close family member who was suffering from memory loss. Each message was slightly different so I knew she wasn't just re-sending me the same email again. I first thought it may have been because she didn't know if I had received them, but I quickly realized she didn't remember sending the first three. I felt this was symptomatic of what she'd been going through and it was very poignant and heartbreaking. It got me thinking and suddenly I thought I could deal with this by physicalizing the concept of forgetting in some way. Especially, as the whole notion seems completely absurd to me.
Rail: How did you come up with the title for the piece?
Nelson: The title refers to a childhood game I played where you have to bounce a ball and swing your leg over the bouncing ball. You have to keep the rhythm, and as you do this, you have to go through the alphabet and sing, starting with "a"—say, "My name is Alice, and my husband's name is Albert, we live in Alaska and we sell apples—" It just got me thinking about the building blocks and furthest memories, and the idea of losing identity. The alphabet is about building blocks, and dementia is about memory, so it seemed to fit really nicely with what I was working on with the edges of the piece.
Rail: It sounds like you're approaching it very intuitively.
Nelson: Absolutely. We're not dealing with the science of memory loss, we are working with the idea of losing one's memory and how to physicalize that. A theme that became prominent for me was the idea of gravity—you get older and gravity has its pull, so that's the main physical idea. We are using apples on stage—the falling apple being a gravity signifier. And also, I thought a clear way to sort of contextualize the idea of aging is to have a stop-motion video of an apple decaying—I think that pretty much says everything. So the thrust of the piece is about learning, repeating, remembering and, ultimately, forgetting and how to navigate within that.
Rail: David, you have covered a wide range of subjects as an author, and then you wrote The Forgetting. What was your impetus to embark on this subject matter?
David Shenk: I started researching my book almost twenty years ago. As was the case with Stefanie, there was a precipitating event. I was eating at my favorite taco place in Park Slope, where I live, and there were some workmen sitting right next to me. They were talking about their co-worker who couldn't be there that day. I was just picking up small details, and I could tell these guys were not talking about a ninety-year-old man, but about a middle-aged guy, still very much in his prime. They said that the reason he wasn't there was because his wife had Alzheimer's, so that just grabbed me right away—at the time, I thought it had been an "old people's disease." The other thing that really caught my attention was their saying that his wife did not recognize him anymore. I was thirty, just starting my own family and up until that moment, I had done everything I could think of not to think of Alzheimer's—but that moment felt like being hit in the head with a sledgehammer. Is there anything worse than living that dream of finding your soulmate, spending decades with this person—you are at that point in your life where you've raised your kids, and should be celebrating life, doing things together, traveling—and instead your wife literally doesn't even know who you are anymore? What is existentially worse than that? So, that moment transformed my life because I went from a place of not wanting to think about Alzheimer's at all to having to think about it, and that set me off on an odyssey of wanting to know more about the disease. It is essentially my profession to have curiosities and try to ask and answer questions about them. Sometimes that turns into a five-minute reverie, sometimes it is an article in a magazine, and sometimes it becomes a book.
Rail: What was your journey of discovery with this subject matter that ultimately led you to write the book?
Shenk: I just wanted to know everything at once. How is it that we can send a man to the moon and invent a wireless communication network but we can't stop this disease? I wanted to know where we were in the science of it, so I started asking a lot of elemental questions. The reason why it really stuck with me as a subject is that Alzheimer's is just an absolutely breathtaking window into what makes us human in the first place—when you are learning about the unraveling of the brain, it also forces you to learn about the initial raveling. You also have to confront some of the deepest questions about what makes you you. What are you made of? You have a hundred billion neurons, and if they are disappearing one at a time, at what point do you stop being you? It's commonly known as a five to ten-year odyssey, but Alzheimer's is really a thirty to forty-year odyssey before you experience any symptoms. If I'm going to be diagnosed at the age of eighty, I probably already have plaques in my brain that are beginning to accumulate too fast. It's an insidious disease, so slow and imperceptible, like the metaphorical frog in the pot of water that's being brought to a slow boil. It is also probably the health issue of our times, because of the demographics. It's an economic issue, a political issue. What I didn't realize at a time was that not only was this book going to be challenging and gratifying—and it was well received—but really it was just the beginning. It's been twenty years now and I am more enmeshed in Alzheimer's than I ever was; I've done talks, films, I've been raising awareness and funds for a research foundation and I get to work with amazing artists. My mission now is really an offshoot of what it was when I first started, to ask and answer questions about the disease and connect with the public that really does not want to connect with it. I try to help artists and other intellectuals and communicators to try to find ways to bring the public into a discussion that they really do not want to have. So the initial discomfort is enormous, but once you are in the conversation, it actually becomes a very thought-provoking, rewarding, loving place to be.
Rail: I've spent some time talking to Stefanie about this work, but this is the first time I'm speaking with you, and what I find fascinating is that both of you, in your own separate universes, are talking about this image of the raveling and unraveling of the mind. You are both tackling that process in different ways, either as a written subject or, for Stefanie, as a choreographic notion. How did you find each other and how are you collaborating on A My Name Is…?
Shenk: We are practically family. Stefanie's brother-in-law is one of my closest, dearest friends from college, so the families have been in each other's lives for many years, and I have seen a great deal of Stefanie's work.
Nelson: I approached David when I decided that I wanted to work on this in a deeper way, asking if he could facilitate the community connections, moderate the talkback and so on. We've known each other for eighteen, nineteen years, but I reached out to him for this one.
Shenk: It's really perfect for me. When you write a book, you hope that it is going to stay with you and become a part of your life – sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. In case of the Alzheimer's book, it has really become such a huge part of my life. As I said, it's a part of my life's mission to introduce as many artists as I can into this world, it is through artistic expression that many people finally allow themselves to confront complicated issues. It is part of what I do professionally, so this is a very satisfying connection to me.
Rail: Stefanie, I was wondering if you could share some of those observations about how you have been translating these notions we are discussing into choreography and visuals on the stage.
Nelson: Yes. It goes back to your question about the title of the piece – I don't know if I fully answered it. It made me think about what's elemental. As your identity is slipping away and you are disappearing, what remains are your oldest memories. This made me think of how earliest memories translate to language. At some point, you just can't communicate anymore—you might say sentences with proper grammar, but the comprehension is lost. There was something interesting to me, as I was doing research, how language is acquired in childhood. You start with sounds, then you learn the letter that's associated with that sound, you put the letters together to form words, words coalesce into sentences, which then can be sung. It just seemed so absurd to me, that it could suddenly all be gone. How to visualize this was an interesting challenge. Basically, I started with the idea of building gestures, you see them being put together on stage—the dancer is repeating them in a Fibonacci sequence (1, 1-2, 1-2-3, up until 8,) that is how she goes through the phrases, and at some point these phrases are going to be improvised. Within all of that there's some absurd repetition, you don't know if it's meant to be linear, whether it's moving on, or if you seeing the same scene over again with slight alterations. I actually don't want to make that transparent because I just like to present it and let people see what they see. I am working very hard on achieving the right metaphor for gravity. You know, the essence of the situation is dire—it's so depressing and dark, so I like the idea of absurdity; it lightens it up a bit.
A My Name Is…, by Stefanie Nelson Dancegroup, runs December 7 – 10 at TheaterLab. For tickets and further information, visit http://www.theaterlabnyc.com.
IVAN TALIJANCIC is a founder and artistic co-director of WaxFactory, a New York-based interdisciplinary art group. He is currently completing his first feature film, 416 MINUTES, and regularly writes on the arts for BOMB, London-based Bachtrack, and the Brooklyn Rail.