Fragmented Memories

Dance

By Joseph Carman

Published December 09, 2005, issue of December 09, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Throughout her childhood, Deborah Damast heard bits and pieces of stories about her father’s escape from Krakow, Poland, before the Nazi invasion. As a choreographer, she felt that there was an important statement in dance to be gleaned from that material, but she didn’t want to exploit anyone else’s experience. The brutal assault of 9/11 changed her perspective. The distillation of the stories of her father’s escape and the 9/11 attacks became “City Life,” which will be performed December 11 in New York City at Buttenweiser Hall at the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center (and in New York City again May 12-14, 2006, at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater).

“I’d always thought about incorporating all these stories I’d heard from my childhood into a piece of art,” said Damast, whose mother also escaped political upheaval in the Ukraine during World War II. “I didn’t want it to be a piece that speaks of someone else’s pain. I think that’s a tricky place. What happened after 9/11, however, allowed me to embody in a different way some of the similar essences of those emotions and feelings that my parents had gone through.”

Damast began by devising phrases of movement without music. She then discovered Steve Reich’s “City Life,” a score that she felt exactly mirrored her nonliteral concept. Four movement phrases — “stop,” “prayer,” “come close” and “fall apart” — represented pedestrian actions on the street that Damast knew could be timeless. Three gestures — “closing the blinds,” “locking the door” and “hiding the valuables” — came directly from her parents’ traumatic war memories. “The different sections of ‘City Life’ represent different points of history,” said Damast, who is the artistic adviser to the dance education program at New York University. “It’s a nonlinear narrative, not the story of a particular people or situation. I allow the audience to tap into their own personal narrative.”

With a cast of 15 dancers, “City Life” evokes the dissolution of urban normalcy, the accompanying anxiety and the fragmentation of life that occurs in the aftermath. Trained as a formalist, Damast begins the piece with groupings of dancers that suggest the geometric patterns of foot traffic tinged with human interaction. As the walking, kneeling and halting become more stealthy and wary, the dancers retreat into clusters that indicate separate apartments with locked doors and closed blinds. Hints of stories emerge. People peer out of windows, a town crier sprints through space and four “guards” enter, rounding citizens into pens. Friends turn into informants, while others collapse from exhaustion. The end, using many of the same patterns as the beginning section, shows couples supporting and catching each other as they try to piece together their shattered lives.

Reich’s ingenious score provides a suitable reflection of Damast’s intentions. A virtuosic musical soundscape of the city, the piece premiered in 1995. “City Life” utilizes sampling techniques that the composer has often favored. As with many composers of the 20th century, Reich liked the idea that any sound is fair game to be used as part of a piece of music. “City Life” includes samples not only of speech but also of car horns, door slams, air brakes, subway chimes, pile drivers, car alarms, heartbeats, boat horns, buoys and police sirens. The orchestration utilizes flutes, oboes, clarinets, pianos, percussion instruments and a string quartet. The score follows an A-B-C-B-A format, with the first and last movements played briskly. Interestingly, many of the speech samples used came from actual field communications by the New York City Fire Department on February 26, 1993, the day the World Trade Center was bombed. Frantic messages, like, “Heavy smoke,” “Urgent,” “Stand by, stand by,” and “Wha’ were ya doin’?” intermingle with the instrumentals.

The memories of World War II that originally inspired the piece, of course, were all too real. Maurice Damast, the choreographer’s father, grew up in Krakow at a time when Jews constituted a quarter of the city’s population. As a student at a non-Jewish school, he was singled out regularly for his religious differences. (Teachers skewed math problems to portray Jews as greedy profiteers.) When word came that the Germans had invaded Poland, he fled with his immediate family toward Russia, figuring that was the lesser of two evils. When Russians stole gas from the family’s truck, the refugees fueled it with vodka from a distillery. In one of those startling stories of survival, the senior Damast toiled at a labor camp in Siberia. He then made his way to Tajikistan, Europe and eventually New York. He met his wife, Lillian, in 1954 while ice-skating at Wollman Rink in Central Park; they married the following year. Despite his horrible memories, he and his wife visited his boyhood neighborhood in Krakow several years ago.

“I hate to use the cliché word ‘closure,’ but I think it was so important for my father to allow himself a positive experience there,” the choreographer said. With “City Life,” Maurice Damast’s daughter has transfigured some collective urban nightmares through her artistic eyes.

Joseph Carman is the author of “Round About the Ballet” (Limelight Editions, 2004).






Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.