What makes you, you? How can you know another person? How do we relate to ourselves and one another? These are just a few questions Rebecca Lemme’s (of Acts of Matter) I/D so eloquently answers.
The split bill show was called Tethering and was a beautiful showcase of how dance can discuss both broad, political and societal subjects as well as personal, intimate stories. This Land opened the show with a small cast of performers fighting over squares of AstroTurf scattered across the stage. The themes of This Land ranged from displacement, homelessness, and class issues, to climate change.
Then there was a short intermission where community members mingled with other performance goers. The afternoon performance brought in a mix of children, mid-day beer drinkers, seasoned dance aficionados, and a diverse crowd of theater lovers. Acts of Matter’s I/D comprised the second act of the evening.
When we re-entered the theater, chairs had been placed around the perimeter of the stage while choreographer and performer, Rebecca Lemme, pranced around the stage, greeting guests, in socks and neutral-colored dancewear. Audience members began finding their seats and Lemme introduced the work, inviting audience members to sit on the stage for a more intimate experience of I/D’s premiere.
We made our choices to sit on the stage or in our original seats. Then, as we settled down, the other two cast members (Katie Istvan and Jobel Navarrete-Medina) entered the stage and introduced themselves. The lights dimmed and Lemme’s voice came in over the speakers.
Casual. Authentic. Human.
The dancers begin to flow as Lemme recounts the conservative, Christian town she grew up in and how learning of her upbringing tends to spark assumptions about her – that she is Christian and conservative. But she lets us know, that she’s actually very liberal and non-religious.
The story is somewhat mundane, and the dance disconnected, yet it drew me in with its honesty. There is intrigue in this type of non-performative performance: the dancers in what is essentially rehearsal attire; voice-over about the small town where Lemme grew up in; and fluid movement that evokes workshopping something in-studio. All these elements communicated that this would be a different kind of performance. An anti-performance of sorts.
Dancer Katie Istvan’s story starts next. This time, accompanied by Laurie Anderson’s organ music and smooth, contemplative movement from the dancers. Their liquid quality disguises their obvious strength as they seamlessly move from floorwork to standing – from technical work to gestural phrases – from seeing each other to seeing the space. Istvan talks about growing up in Hawaii and the struggle in both connecting with Hawaiian culture and a sense that Hawaiian culture is not for her to identify with.
Finally, Jobel Navarrete-Medina begins his story.
He talks about moving to the United States from the Philippines at age fourteen. He conveyed overwhelm in the drastic lifestyle change. In the Philippines, his life was survival-focused, in America, he found a luxurious lifestyle in what many of us would consider dull occurrences. This experience was exemplified in an anecdote about his astonishment at first seeing an electric garage door open. Throughout, he performs a solo with movement that personified the words we were hearing. This solo created the first direct connection between the movement and audio.
Navarrete-Medina’s solo became a duet between him and Istvan as Lemme walked the perimeter of the stage, scanning the audience. Beautiful, graceful movement punctuated by the performers fully seeing each other in a way we often crave in everyday life, in our smart-phone addled era.
This intentional acknowledgment cemented the theme of the piece. Agency and individualism create our collective experience with relationships at the crux of our existence.
All three performers lie on the floor and gaze at the ceiling before rolling around and over each other to beautiful violin music. This contemplative moment allowed me to ponder the connection between the movement and voice over. It wasn’t always tightly connected, but each element somehow humanized the other and allowed for audience members to insert their own stories in the spaces between the audio and the dance.
In the first unison section, the dancers showcased their true mastery of movement as they danced perfectly together with the same intentions and qualities while upholding their individuality. This unison section broke into a weight sharing duet between Navarrete-Medina and Lemme. There was a clear sense of trust between the dancers in these seamless partnering sections. They are responsive to one another. Nothing appears choreographed but rather an organic chain of reaction.
The following section brought us down a layer of depth in each dancer’s story as they dove more thoroughly into the preconceived notions each has faced due to their backgrounds. Navarrete-Medina coming against stereotypes of savagery; Istvan getting backlash for wanting to include Hawaiian culture in her public identity. The voice-overs of Jobel and Katie interchange as the dancers support one another, tumble over each other, then stand side by side to walk toward the audience – the strings providing the atmosphere to their confrontation.
Each dancer has a distinct voice in the movement. It’s clear that Lemme gave her performers agency in the creation process. Conversely, the vast amount of trust and respect radiating between all three dancers exhibited a close working connection.
Suddenly there is discord amongst the group. The performers avoid each other, anxiously chase one another, and escape one other, yet still rely upon each other to support their weight.
The voice-over continues to waver between Navarrete-Medina and Istvan’s stories. Both feel caught between two worlds. Unstable in their identities. They share two different yet common experiences of an inability to reconcile the identities they feel are true with the perceptions others force upon them.
I, as an audience member, am wracked with empathetic fear. Here’s a note, verbatim, from my notebook that I scribbled in the dark theater, “It must be scary to be this naked to an audience, hearing your own voice discuss these vulnerabilities as you perform live.” Their vulnerability is contagious.
Jobel’s narration finishes the section as he discusses how much more diverse the Philippines were before being colonized by Spain. That over one-hundred languages were spoken in the region. Food culture was diverse. And a sense, today, that they were harmonious to some extent that way. That there was respect given to cultural differences not afforded today – either in the Philippines nor the United States.
“Look at me.” The dancers repeat, one-by-one. “Look at me.” Rebecca Lemme sings, “Who am I supposed to be?” as Katie Istvan dances. She continues to sing as the three performers dance together.
Lemme comes back over the speakers to discuss preconceived notions of dancers. That those in the profession are treated as a monolith. That she often feels the need to defend the importance of the medium. That her personal choices to focus her career around dance and choreography are often questioned. And some people just assume she’s a stripper.
Dichotomy. Complexity. Nuance.
The dancers become visibly exhausted. It’s planned but authentic. This truly is a marathon piece. They display the affects of the physical challenges of the piece which is compounded by the taxing vulnerability of the voice-over interviews.
Navarrete-Medina’s voice overcomes back briefly to describe his experience in reconciling his various identities as “heavy.” Then Lemme’s voice returns to bookend the piece to relay a defining moment in her life – the passing of her father. A brilliant choice as most of us have buried or will burry our parents in our lifetimes. It’s a lonely feeling, but one we all experience in time.
Cello accompanied the story, adding weight to the moment. Lemme talks about the grief she felt at that time and the things people said to her in an attempt to help but that ultimately added to her sense of isolation. Her emotive solo reflected the array of emotions relayed in the voice over, all the while beautifully harmonizing with the devastating cello music.
Lemme and Istvan perform a lovely duet, holding each other on the floor as Lemme’s final voiceover contemplates what makes us who we are and what brings meaning to our lives. Her conclusion? Our actions and our impact are both what matters and what makes us who we are. Who we decide to surround ourselves with affects the person we become. What matters most is, “how they treat other people, how they find connection…”
I/D lives this thesis. It’s an artistic representation of the bold stake-in-the-ground Rebecca Lemme is placing with this piece. It’s an announcement of the person she is and wants to be.
Final Thoughts on I/D
I haven’t had a similar emotional response to a dance piece as I had to I/D since I first saw Kid Pivot’s Betroffenheit. Even I, someone who’s been dancing since the age of five, studied dance in college, and currently teaches dance, can’t often connect emotionally to works of dance. Viscerally, yes – very easily I can feel what the dancers feel – empathize physically. But it’s rare that a dance piece is so raw, and simple – in the most beautiful and elegant manner.
After all was said and done, and I dried my eyes from the unexpected emotional response I had experienced, what stuck out to me most was how mature I/D was. It was mature in a number of ways.
First, the work itself was mature in that it has been in development for two years (quoting Lemme’s account) and it showed. The dancers were so comfortable with each other and the movement, it all seemed second nature to them and gave even the unison sections a sense of authenticity and improvisation. They seemed to naturally respond to each other and the space as if dance were their instinctual form of communication.
Second, it’s dedication to a theme while fearlessly exploring the nuances of that theme exhibited a sense of intellectual maturity. The voice-over was edited in such a way that I would expect an expert documentarian storyteller to edit these sorts of interviews together. I really felt that I knew these performers on a very deep level. In a way that I cannot fully communicate in this blog post. In a way that I am getting choked up writing about it now.
Lastly, the stripped-down vulnerability and anti-performative sensibilities speak to a creator that truly knows themselves and what they value in art and the medium of dance. The strong choices that were made were not forced upon the audience for recognition but rather allowed to build on their own merits. There was plenty of quietness, granting the audience the space to absorb, interpret, and inform what we were witnessing with our own experiences.
I/D was emotionally invigorating and intellectually complex yet in the simplest possible package. I left the theatre that day inspired to reach out to loved ones, spark new, honest connections, and open myself to my own vulnerabilities and the vulnerabilities of others with compassion before judgment and curiosity before criticism.
I/D was truly a work of art. Thoughtful. Beautifully executed. Emotionally complex.
Follow Acts of Matter
I urge you to seize your next opportunity to see Rebecca Lemme’s Acts of Matter in action. They will be performing Atlanta, GA in March with local, Los Angeles performances to be added to the calendar shortly. Acts of Matter also provides weekly classes by Rebecca Lemme and curated master teachers currently held on Wednesdays from 12 pm-1:30 pm at Live Arts. You can also follow Acts of Matter on Instagram @actsofmatter.
Thanks for reading this blog. Please share it with friends! I wanted to make a quick, public announcement here as well. I’ll be putting more information out about it soon but wanted my small group of dedicated readers to know about it first. I’m so proud of this blog and the response I’ve gotten so far despite my inconsistency with it. Well, this spring I’m taking it to the next level and I’ll be getting it its own dedicated domain as well as committing to publishing WEEKLY.
Please stay tuned, you can follow me on Instagram @curiouskgm to stay up-to-date on changes as they come. AND, if you’re a creator interested in collaborating, my first series will be all about “artistic risk-taking” and you can reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org for interviews and guest posting opportunities.
Thank you for reading!