When Heidi Latsky was 11 years old, her mother suffered a meningioma, a brain tumor that led to her slow and ultimately fatal physical decline. For the next 35 years, the odyssey that Latsky, her family and her mother experienced until her death in 2004 elicited a maze of thoughts, memories and emotions. From May 11 to May 14 at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church, in New York City’s East Village, Latsky will pay tribute to her mother’s spirit with “Disjointed,” a full-length choreographed work inspired by her courageous path.
“This piece is really for my mother, my family and me,” Latsky said. A physical and emotional dynamo of a dancer, she was with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company from 1987 to 1993 before she branched out as an independent choreographer. “I wanted to make it universal, but I wanted to use her music, honor her life and even wear her clothes.” “Disjointed,” as the title implies, assembles remnants of remembrances and revelations — serious and humorous — that explore in a theatrical dance format the feelings that affect both the victims of a disease and those who are close to them.
Over three decades, Latsky’s mother, Sandra Latsky, underwent three surgeries, radiation, nervous system failure, Alzheimer’s-like symptoms and finally a stroke. The length and intensity of the illness provoked some denial in Latsky as a child in her native Montreal. “I was so young when she got sick, and I had never really dealt with it. The first time she came home from the hospital, she was very weak and she’d cry all the time. I got very tough.” During Thanksgiving weekend 2004, Sandra was placed on a morphine drip. Latsky spent the last five days of her mother’s life by her side. “As I was watching her, I wanted someone to be a witness to this,” Latsky said. By creating “Disjointed,” Latsky bears witness to the event and searches for meanings in a mother-daughter relationship.
Because her mother seldom talked about what she had endured, Latsky conducted focus groups with other types of survivors so that she could research their experiences and the ways in which they coped. Among those populations were recovering addicts, AIDS patients and ex-convicts. The members of the last group she sought out — cancer survivors from Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital (where her mother was treated) — blew her away with their stories of resistance.
Lest anyone think that the project is a downer, Latsky recalls her mother as a very flashy, vital woman, even during periods of intense illness. (Choreographer Arnie Zane, who died in 1988 of AIDS-related complications, called her “Disco Mom.”) She collected a bevy of colorful hats to hide her hair loss, which had resulted from radiation and chemotherapy. (After her mother’s death, Latsky discovered Hidden Under Our Hats, a group that displays the hats of those who have died of cancer and raises money for medical research.) “She listened to Jackie Mason before every surgery and told jokes all the way into the operating room,” Latsky said.
“Disjointed” begins with “Grace,” a separate solo that Latsky originally choreographed in memory of Zane. Latsky also danced “Grace” at her mother’s funeral. A corps of 30 dancers, dressed in white, performs passages from the solo and then retreats to show three characters dressed in black. The trio loosely represents the essence of Latsky, her mother and her father, who acted as primary caretaker (respectively danced by the choreographer, Jeffrey Freeze and Nathan Trice).
Latsky and Freeze engage in adagio movement to a faint recording of “I Will Wait for You” from “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (Sandra Latsky’s favorite song, which played by her bedside until her death). The chorus, led by Trice, returns, wearing Sandra’s eye-catching hat collection and parading to a musical medley. This is followed by an exuberant solo for Freeze that is danced to the song “Extraordinary” from the musical “Pippin,” the first show Latsky saw as a child with her mother. A static MRI sound denotes chaos and deterioration and segues into a disjointed solo danced by Latsky, ending with an image of her seven months pregnant with her own daughter. “With that, there is a sense of completion of the cycle of the process,” Latsky said.
Latsky feels that the work’s creative flow has been auspicious, involving the generosity of family and friends — including some additional dance passages contributed by choreographer Sean Curran. “It’s been a loving process, a godsend,” Latsky said. During the last five days of her mother’s life, the family rabbi provided a buffer of comfort. When Latsky asked the rabbi if she could dance “Grace” at her mother’s funeral service, he nodded and replied, “A eulogy in motion.”
“A poem in motion” is how Latsky describes her vision of “Disjointed.” “I think the piece is intense, but I don’t think it’s heavy. I’m trying to make it both virtuosic and beautiful,” she said. “I want it very visual, very cinematic and seamless — one thing moving into the next.”
Joseph Carman, a contributing editor at Dance Magazine, is the author of “Round About the Ballet” (Limelight Editions, 2004).