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).