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Daniel Burkholder’s “Stories from a Life” tenderly explores the nature of memory and autobiography.

“It’s been pretty much a normal life.”

That’s the self-assessment of Sophia Saren, speaking in a video interview with her grandson, Daniel Burkholder. And in many ways, it’s true. She was born, grew up, fell in love, got married. She followed some of the conventions of her day, and avoided others (she handled the families finances, for example). But the fact that she was born in 1919—a year that also marked the passage of Prohibition, Women’s suffrage, and the births of Merce Cunningham, Liberace, and Pete Seeger—suggests that there’s quite a bit of life there. So while Saren’s life might be “normal,” it’s also quite remarkable.

Stories from a Life in MilwaukeeThis life is the inspiration for Burkholder’s also remarkable dance-theatre piece, Stories from a Life, which premiered this weekend at the Danceworks Studio Theatre. Burkholder is an extraordinary dancer and choreographer, but he doesn’t like to work in conventional spaces. His “Scenic Route” series is a quarterly two-hour hike/performance through a different outdoor route. And “Real Time,” produced monthly with his wife Andrea, takes place in a variety of venues, both indoor and outdoor.

Stories takes place in two spaces simultaneously—the audience is split into two separate rooms. One space (where I was for the first part of the performance Sunday night) primarily features video: the interview with Saren, still photographs of her early life, and clips from Hollywood movies (His Girl Friday, Modern Times—all released around the time Saren would have been in her early 20s). There is music from the same era, and occasionally, dancers will come in from the other space and deliver a short monologue, or dance a solo or duet.

After an intermission, the audience switches rooms. The second space is an open dance floor with a single row of chairs around the perimeter. It’s scattered with dozens of small bowls and slips of paper bearing “memories” that audience members were asked to write before the show started.

The movement mirrors the trajectory of a life. Christal Wagner’s solo work is earthy and sensual, slowly gyrating hips and open arms that embrace the living world. A series of duets with Burkholder and Kim Johnson suggest the partnership of a long marriage—one guides the other in a series of small gestures that suggest the minutia of the everyday.

Later, a group of dancers explores the idea of memory—a major theme in Stories—enacting a game of dance “telephone.” A leader executes a phrase while counting to eight. The rest of the ensemble tries to imitate it, to mixed success.

Burkholder also uses video to explore ideas about memory. At different times, someone uses an iPhone to record the dance, and the image is projected alongside the video of Saren’s interview. As the dance progresses, Burkholder uses video echo and time-delay effects to create ghostly images of live events. The images play with the idea, announced early in the piece, that our brains take up to a second to process what our senses experience.

While it explores these “big-picture” ideas, Stories renders them in human terms that are both delicate and beautiful. Toward the end of the dance, the dancers frantically rearrange the bowls and “slips” of memory into different patterns on the floor—the frustrating late-in-life process of shaping a past into a coherent story or identity. And eventually, the “telephone” memory game becomes thwarted. Wagner continues to lead the group, but can only count to four, than two. Then silence.

And this “normal” life, filtered through the memory of the person who lived it, and the grandson who knew her, and the dancers who explored it with him, becomes a poignant addition to our own ever-shifting life stories.

Stories from a Life continues this weekend at Danceworks Studio Theatre.

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