The past two years of the pandemic, the isolation and closures have affected us all. For Rebecca Lemme, Artistic Director of Acts of Matter, this meant a cancelled tour for her company and postponed concerts here in Los Angeles. Lemme is also a full time Associate Professor in the Department of Dance at California State University, Long Beach and, like most teachers, was forced to teach her classes virtually. During her isolation at home, the germ of an idea began to grow in her creative mind resulting in an extraordinarily beautiful yet sparse work Forward Looking Back which premiered at Stomping Ground L.A. on March 11, 2022.
Beginning with the audience seated and standing outside in the parking lot of Stomping Ground L.A. the building’s loading dock door opens to reveal a basically white room with a lone black rocking chair placed between two walls of portable mirrors. Next to the chair sat a projector that soon displayed a 15 minute, multilayered film with nine dancers. They are filmed sitting alone in and outside, with one or two others or all nine cinematographically blended together to appear sitting on stairs leading up to the entrance of a house.
A movement theme eventually evolves to the film running in reverse, giving the appearance of the dancers walking backwards into another room or level of the house – moving forward but looking back. The film continuously reverts to isolation, frustration and separation but it is also rich with images of hope. One wonderful section that spoke to the separation was that of Ryan Ruiz standing in an outdoor shower while Cody Brunelle-Potter is just on the other side of a window washing their head and face in the kitchen sink.
The performers in the film section of Forward Looking Back were Orlando Agawin, Laura Berg, Cody Brunelle-Potter, Joan Fricke, Kearian Giertz, Kayla Johnson, Kaia Makihara, Ryan Ruiz, and Taylor Worden, and the emotionally intense music score was by ISTANBUL. The Cinematography was by Malachi Middleton.
As the film ends, Ryan Ruiz appears in the room, moves slowly outside and walks backwards down the ramp leading the audience inside to the performance area with seating arranged on three sides. The set consisted of a single reddish metal rocking chair, and two small lamps sitting close to each other emitting a soft amber light. Two reel-to-reel tape machines sat nearby and the audio tape of one was threaded in and around the two lamp poles and back to the machine, running in a never ending loop. For me, this intricately designed sound sculpture by Louis Lopez evoked many of the feelings experienced during the seemingly endless days of repeated activities at home during the enforced shutdown.
The stage section of Forward Looking Back included five dancers, each with their unique personalities and ways of moving, but each equipped with a stage presence that demanded one’s full attention. In spite of this, my eye was constantly drawn to Sarah Butler and Laura Berg for different reasons. There is no one else who moves like Butler. She is a unique dancer who simultaneously appears to be incredibly limber yet in total control of every inch of her being at all times. Like Butler, Berg demands your attention while simply sitting or standing still. She is a beautiful dancer and caused me to experience great sadness during her performance in the rocking chair near the beginning of the work.
Lemme has created a work that is sparse, yet vibrant and its stillness at times shouts out the internal Turmoil that the world’s population experienced during the pandemic. The work began with the performers moving separately but connected by memories of working or simply being together. Lemme shows the tension a couple experienced during a time forced to be together 24/7. Movement phrases that were performed together with directions for one of the dancers spoke to how dancers have been forced to rehearse virtually – together but separate. The spoken phrase that repeats “I remember it differently” reminded me of dancers getting back into rehearsal and the process of putting movement phrases back together following a lengthy hiatus.
Lemme subtly brings the dancers together into a group section where they are finally able to touch and the movement expresses the release of tension and joy at this long awaited moment. The tableau of dancers sitting on steps is revisited and everyone unites around the light/sound sculpture to bring the evening to a close.
As a reviewer, I have long waited to see how artists would respond to the going on three years of this pandemic, and Lemme did not disappoint. She expressed her and her cast’s personal experiences, but beautifully expressed how we all shared many of those moments and feelings.
Lemme created a visual world in which we have all lived during the past two plus years. Forward Looking Back is a dance theater piece performed by a cast of amazing dance artists: Laura Berg, Sarah Butler, Colleen Hendricks, Malachi Middleton, and Ryan Ruiz. Bryanna Brock’s lighting truly helped place the cast into separate arenas and then unite them again. For me, the music actually visualized the work’s loneliness, separation and tension without anyone mimicking the other. Hopefully, this dance will experience a long life.
Credits for the Stage section of Forward Looking Back: Sounds: Lauren Elizabeth Baba, Louis Lopez, Andrew Rowan, Gregory Uhlman; Select Arrangements: Lauren Elizabeth Baba, Louis Lopez; Additional Music: Lauren Elizabeth Baba, Michael Wall; Tape Loop Installation: Louis Lopez; Costumes and Set Design: Rebecca Lemme; and Lighting Design: Bryanna Brock.
Written by Jeff Slayton for LA Dance Chronicle.
Featured image: Acts of Matter – Forward Looking Back choreography by Rebecca Lemme – Dancers Kearian Giertz, Kayla Johnson – Photo by Malachi Middleton