Memory Loss

On 17 January, a lift took audience members to the stage at Theater Rotterdam. Ann Van den Broek’s company Ward/wARD offered the option to choose between sitting on stage or in the usual auditorium seats. Memory Loss promised to be a 360-degrees experience.

On each side of the stage, black metallic structures form different stations. One has digital music equipment, another a table with a big transparent bowl and water jugs, others have cameras and microphones. All stations are connected by white tape, forming a pattern on the black floor. Two microphones hang from the ceiling, quite close to the ground. In the center, a table and a camera facing a chair. All the way above everyone’s heads: a screen.

Slowly, the performers begin to arrive, each dressed in formal wear. The clean lines, and sleek cuts that usually characterize the company’s aesthetic are here today. The stage alternates between total darkness and flashing light, freezing images of these bodies moving with exact togetherness. At the centre of the scene: Ann Van den Broek herself, seated at the table, reading what could be a script.

While patients with neurological illnesses such as memory loss are sophisticated cases, and despite the urgency of the subject matter being sourced in personal experience (at the very end, the screen shows a dedication to Van der Broek’s mother), the piece resorts to a pretty obvious approach to the topic. Each time someone sits in the chair facing her, their face is filmed and projected on the screen above. We hear questions such as “Do you remember what I just said?” or consoling statements, “I know this is hard”. Someone who appears to be some sort of expert talks about the brain and how it can start to lose memories. We soon understand we are in some sort of hospice or research center.

The hanging microphones swing across the stage, like a pendulum clock. Are we seeing patients?

Photo: Rio Staelens

At times, characters sing or speak, going from confusion to joy, despair to apathy. The faces are projected live on the screen in the center of the stage. The amount of dancers on stage keeps subtly changing, leaving you to wonder if you are starting to forget people, too. Choreographed in detail, the bodies move graciously, walking rhythmically, setting a pace for this tragic atmosphere. Perhaps some of the efforts put into the precise physicality and excellent scenographic choices could have also been applied to the way the topic of memory loss is treated.

A series of overly dramatized scenes and reaffirmations of the topic stretches the piece and dilutes the impact of the work’s emotional potential. A woman gets her hair rinsed in a transparent bowl. She seems apathetic, numb to whatever is happening to her. The scene is later repeated, but this time with visible resistance coming from the woman. This portrayal of a person affected by memory-related issues comes close to a caricature.

The ending is marked by a communal dance involving all the patients in couples. They move mechanically in a circle while the choreographer herself steps out and watches over the scene from aside. Disturbingly, she then regains her central position behind the table. Van den Broek’s recurring choice of being at the center of a piece throughout the show leaves me with considerable doubts. Is her gaze a caring or a manipulative one? Applied to this specific topic, sticking to her pattern of being present on stage adds quite a controversial layer. Is this controlling tendency a representation of her/our fears of loosing control?

All in all, Memory Loss feels long. Despite the cast being interestingly varied and every technical detail being crafted carefully, the way the creators treat their topic exhausts itself too quickly to keep me involved.

Seen: January 17, 2020, Theater Rotterdam.  Tour Memory Loss

Concept, direction & choreography: Ann Van den Broek | original cast: Ann Van den Broek, Frauke Mariën, Louis Combeaud, Nik Rajšek, Marion Bosetti, Jean-Gabriel Maury, Carla Guerra, Kamil Pilarski, An Hackselmans, Anthony van Gog, Aryeh Weiner, Iuri Costa, Isaiah Selleslaghs, Gabrielle Aidulis, Maxime Abbenhues, Samina de Wulf and Karlijn Roest |musical composition: Nicolas Rombouts, Gregory Frateur,  Ann Van den Broek |lyrics: Gregory Frateur | video and lighting design: Bernie van Velzen | set design: Niek Kortekaas | styling costumes: Marielle Vos, Ann Van den Broek