Raised in Pasadena, California, Marjani Fortè-Saunders moved to New York City and went on to perform with Urban Bush Women Dance Co. for 5 years. She is the co-founder with Nia Love, of LOVE|FORTÉ A COLLECTIVE and has returned with her husband/collaborator, Everett Sanders and child to work in Pasadena. Presented onstage at the Ford Amphitheater, Memories of a…Unicorn was created, in part, while Fortè-Saunders was an Artist-In-Residence at the Ford Theatres. The Ford Amphitheater seats 1400, but for this work the audience was seated on stage as part of the Ford Theatres’ new venture of presenting artists whose work is best seen in close proximity with the audience. It was an extraordinary experience on all fronts; the closeness to the performer, the set, the music, and especially Ms. Fortè-Saunders’ performance.

The stylized set that inhabited the multilevel stage was designed by MacArthur Genius and Tony Award-winning set designer Mimi Lien and built by Fortè-Saunders’ father Rick Forté. Placed around the space was a tall wooden pyramid with steps, a table and chair, a Macramé sculpture and a very long unicorn horn. Film and videos were projected throughout the performance on the set, the stone walls and onto the stage surface that helped to express what time and/or persona was being represented.

The press release stated “Spurred by stories of Forté-Saunders’ Arkansas-born father’s life, Memoirs of a…Unicorn weaves historic and personal narratives into an embodied tale of fragmented histories, unabated love, and warriorship.” During the after-show discussion emceed by LA dance and music artist d. sabela Grimes, however, Forté-Saunders and her husband related how the work began with the pregnancy and birth of their son. When they found out that their child was a boy, they realized what lay ahead as he was brought into today’s world where being a black man is anything but easy.

The work took two years to create and their efforts paid off with a powerful journey through black history and mythology. Forté-Saunders took her father’s stories and analyzed his body language, speech patterns and mannerisms. She then wove together a magical tapestry of very strong and resilient black men and women down through time.

The unicorn is a mythical animal typically represented as a horse with a single straight horn projecting from its forehead. The narrator for Memories of a…Unicorn, performed with great flair and humor by Rick Forté, tells the story of an African princess who is befriended by a unicorn to save her father and her village from an evil wizard who has inhabited the village’s life-giving pyramid. The Unicorn gives her his magical horn to aid her in destroying the wizard. The unicorn warns the princess that using magic comes with a heavy price. She persists, kills the wizard and is forced to become one with the unicorn and live inside the pyramid for all eternity.

We first see Forté-Saunders seated atop the pyramid wearing the horn of the unicorn. It is the full height of the pyramid and as she descends the stairs, Forté-Saunders manages to lift the enormous horn up over her head and balance it there without using her hands. The horn has indeed come with a huge and heavy price.

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Marjani Forté-Saunders - Memories of a...Unicorn - Photo: Roger Martin Holman for LA Dance Chronicle

Forté-Saunders moved through a series of costume and character changes, bringing her audience into the present time. We witnessed her washing a man’s feet, listened as she writhed in painful agony just off stage and out of sight. She danced in a ritualistic circle and later strutted around the stage, interacting with the audience as her father’s persona took over.

Through all this, Forté-Saunders never lost sight of her heritage or the politics of today. The work was rich with magic, mythology and realism. She appeared vulnerable, humorous, generous, angry, powerful and resistant. Near the end of her solo, Forté-Saunders took out one breast and fed an imaginary child represented by the tip of the wire unicorn horn. As she did this, she raised her fist in the black power salute to tell us that she has given birth to power by raising her son to help bring about change. The end has a wonderful and revengeful act that I will not spoil for those who may see this amazing work in the future. Just know that it triumphant.

Memories of a…Unicorn is not only timely, it is a work that expresses the richness of black culture and how much it has been absorbed into the western culture without always receiving proper credit. One sees this in today’s contemporary dance as choreographers fuse together modern and ballet with hip hop, street dance and jazz. Black composers have long influenced the work of white songwriters and composers. Everett Sanders’ music moved us through the centuries and gave passion to Forté-Saunders’ characters.

Inspired by their ancestors and writers such as Zora N. Hurston, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison, Marjani Forté-Saunders’ choreography was powerful, quirky and original. Her shifts in personae was nothing short of remarkable. She, Everett Sanders, and their entire team of collaborators have created a multi-disciplinary work that should be seen and enjoyed by many throughout this country and beyond.

The striking lighting was designed by Tuce Yasak; Wings and Horn designed by Mimi Lien; Garments designed and constructed by Marjani Forté; Media Designer & Thought Partner Meena Murugesan; Composer was Everett Saunders and additional music was by Nas, Jay Z, Seal’s Crfts, Grace Paley & Pat Stein, Little Boy Blues. Props Mimi Lien and Peiyi Wong.

The one major flaw that I experienced was in the volume of Marjani Forté-Saunders’ contact mike. This improved later in the performance, but at the beginning, much of what she said was inaudible.

To learn more about Marjani Forté-Saunders, click here.

For information on LOVE|FORTÉ A COLLECTIVE, click here.

Featured image: Marjani Forté-Saunders in Memories of a…Unicorn – Photo: Roger Martin Holman for LA Dance Chronicle.