Heather Bryce: I started thinking about this theme of memory and memory loss and what does it feel like to not be heard or to not have your story be understood or appreciated.


HB: The science behind the way the brain functions in cases of Alzheimer’s and dementia was definitely of interest to me. And there’s still so much that’s not known about it. Something I was more interested in was individual’s experience because I think that in our society as a whole, we often push people who we consider sick or who may have Alzheimer’s or dementia to the side. Not always, but I think that that can be a reaction because we don’t necessarily want to see it or deal with it.

Stephanie Wolf: Heather Bryce runs Brooklyn-based Bryce Dance Company. Her work “Moving Memory” examines relationships and identity all through the lens of memory — more specifically unreliable memory, so memory that’s lost, modified or fractured. 

HB: We don’t necessarily want to face the fact that we could eventually have that or face our own mortality. So I think bringing those stories forward in a way that was digestible was of high interest to me.

SW: Bryce breaks down how “Moving Memory” came together on today’s episode of UnSequenced — a podcast about the choreographic process. 


SW: I’m Stephanie Wolf, host of UnSequenced. 

Contributor Kathryn Boland spoke with choreographer Heather Bryce about her work “Moving Memory” shortly after the work premiered at Gibney Dance Center in June 2018. 

Here’s Kathryn.

Kathryn Boland: Bryce says the piece is about a woman who is losing her memory.

HB: And what does that look like and what’s her experience?

KB: And the work originated from a personal place. 

HB: A friend of mine was ill and he had had a brain tumor that really affected his ability to speak. When people actually listened and took the time, cause it took more time, his words didn’t come out very clearly, but when they took the time to listen, it was clear that he actually had a real thing to say or a joke to tell that was really funny. But it took that extra time. So that kind of spurred my interest in, okay, you know, how do we hear those stories and then share them on a wider range with a wide range of people. So at that point I got really interested and I was also in grad school at the time and thinking about, you know, how do I want to make work now? I started thinking about oral history. So I went into a number of different assisted living centers in Vermont, when I was living in Vermont, and took people’s oral histories. So there were about ten different women that I interviewed. 

Interviewee: And I know that you probably heard this before, but you can’t remember what you ate yesterday or sometimes what you did yesterday. But some of those memories from way long ago, they’re so nice to think about. 

HB: And it was pretty broad. It was like, tell me about your life, you know. And then we kind of got more specific around what is memory, right. What challenges do you have with memory? And then I kind of juxtaposed a couple of those women’s voices in the work and I knew I wanted that to stay. 

Interviewee: Some of the things that you don’t want to think about, it’s good that you push them aside. Thank God I don’t have many of those to think about. I have much more pleasant things to think about than bad. 

HB: With that there was a little bit of an open structure and still is around how each individual dancer uses some gesture that I gave them in order to tell this story.

KB: Bryce says her dancers always play a huge role in the creation of every work. She gives them prompts to help them tap into personal experiences, which help shape the dance.

HB: In the development of ‘Moving Memory,’ the prompt was around, think about a time that you’ve been a caretaker for someone who may have had memory challenges or other challenges in their life. That was one of the prompts we used. Also think about your own ability to remember and what that feels like if you’re grasping at something and not quite there. And then I’m also motivated by my own experience. But we work a whole lot with prompt work. So having dancers write about their experience for a couple minutes and then distilling that down into a couple of words or phrases that they can actually work from and create movement from. And then we shape that further. So I almost want to call it story fragments or image fragments that are embedded in the work as a whole.


HB: We think a lot about the way that water moves and how you would move through it and what the pressure of water on the body would look like and feel like. So that’s one way to get them there. Also thinking about how we can change a movement that might be pedestrian into something else and insert a quality into it. So it may be a simple gesture that then becomes sharper or bigger or done in another part of the body, in order to expand on the work that we’re doing.


HB: Story fragments play a huge role in all of the work that I do. I think especially when you’re thinking about memory, it’s not linear. And that’s something that I wanted to demonstrate in this work where different people remember the same event very differently, right? Or you might have two different ideas about what happened in a certain event in your childhood or even yesterday, depending on, you know, where your memory is in that moment. And I think, you know, as we walk through the day or we’re thinking about something different, things pop up and they don’t always stay in a straight line. And I think that making work that way for me is really interesting, where you’re exploring different threads of experience and how do we juxtapose those in a way that’s clear and that tells a real story and that’s honest.


HB: Especially in the development of this work, we kind of dove into personal stories, right, and relationships to memory, relationships to people who had dementia or people who had Alzheimer’s. One of my dancers is a dance movement therapist and she works with seniors. So she was bringing that experience with her. Some others had personal family or friend relationships with people who had Alzheimer’s and dementia. And yet others had their own challenges around remembering. So we kind of called that information and we shared those stories, which I think built a common understanding in our company, our community, around what material we wanted to deepen into and explore further. And then I give them a lot of license to just kind of play with those ideas, either in solos or in pairings.


KB: The score for the work is by New York-based composer Spencer Snyder. He’s composed music for dance and opera, as well as orchestral and chamber works.


KB: In one section of the work, dancers stand in a line, enveloping and layering on top of each other. They then spread out into the space. The movement is technical, but has a soft quality to it.

HB: So putting that together was a little bit of me looking at video and determining what videos to show the dancers about brain function and about the way that the brain fires and how it functions in cases of Alzheimer’s or dementia.


HB: So I shared those videos with the dancers. We were actually at a residency at Mount Tremper Arts in the Catskills. When we did this, we had the luxury of a week of being there, to really dive into this work and develop it. So we would look at videos during our lunch or just before lunch and then come back and play with the material. So that was really a collaborative process. I had some ideas in mind and I was like, okay, here’s where I want this thing that might feel amoeba-y and how do we put that together? But I certainly relied heavily on their input. It’s been interesting because we’ve had new dancers come in and older dancers who helped to develop the work leave. So translating that to new bodies has absolutely changed the structure and the choreography within the work.


KB: Your process is very collaborative and you rely a lot on the dancers for what they’re bringing, what’s organic to them. So I would imagine bringing new dancers in changes the work itself, going forward.

HB: Bringing new dancers in always changes the work. That can both be a point of frustration because it’s like, we’ve developed this thing and I love it. I’m so happy with it and it’s set and here it is. And bringing someone new in both is a challenge to the company of how do we now reshape the section so that their body fits or how do we reshape this duet so that it’s honoring them in their experience and their way of moving. But it also puts a new freshness in the work.


HB: So I feel like from where we started specifically with “Moving Memory” to where we’ve gone now, it’s a much shorter version. It started as about a 45-minute piece and has developed down to about 18 minutes. But the new energy of people coming in and the ability to relook at the whole and think about, you know, rather than people feeling really attached to it, how do we now change it so that it, it works and it provides the meaning in a new way. And really gets at, you know, here’s the imagery that I had in my head when I wanted to do this. Here’s the story fragment that leads it. And then it’s helped me to further define who are these characters along with the company members, they’ve had a lot of input in that. But who are these characters that you’re playing? Is it a person? Is it, you know, a ghost? Is it a part of the brain?


HB: We’ve been talking in the company over the past couple of years, about ways to bring this work to audiences who may be caregivers for people who have Alzheimer’s or dementia. I think it’s a little sensitive because the work definitely can stir emotion, especially with people who are dealing with that in our lives. But how can we use parts of it potentially as an education tool around caregiving and around brain development.


HB: I hope that my work can be seen as a force for raising social consciousness. What I see it more as is a way to bring community together within a work. Community engagement is super important to me. And so actually some of the movements that were in the work that we developed, came from seniors who were in workshops, right. And so they can see themselves in the work in a different way, I think we can’t ignore social issues and that art is an amazing way to explore those. I think we need all of our voices to do that.


SW: You’ve been listening to UnSequenced. A podcast about the choreographic process.

UnSequenced is produced and mixed by me, Stephanie Wolf. 

Contributor Kathryn Boland reported today’s episode, a conversation with Brooklyn-based choreographer Heather Bryce. She spoke about her work “Moving Memory.”

Our theme music is composed by Joe Kye. 

Also thanks to our sponsor MSeam Apparel. And thanks our Patreon members, who make all of this audio storytelling possible. You can join them in supporting this podcast and making sure we can produce more and more conversations with choreographers from around the world!

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