Borges, Brontë, and Butoh

The source material for SoGoNo's new Art of Memory is a heady mix. In a single publicity-related paragraph, the company mentions Frances Yates's 1966 "The Art of Memory," Giulio Camillo's 16th-century "Memory Theater," Jorge Luis Borges's 1941 story "The Library of Babel," the Brothers Grimm, and Emily Brontë. Adding all this to the fact that the company draws heavily on the techniques and strategies of the Japanese dance form butoh undoubtedly risks alienating some potential audience members who might already be skeptical of a show about "four librarians trapped in a fantastical library" who "search for an exit and create elaborate physical games that explore memory and illusion."

I am happy to report that the result is as engaging as it is mystifying, and that the pleasures of watching SoGoNo perform are almost as multifaceted as the material that went into the performance. Art of Memory is dense without seeming ponderous, introspective without seeming self-indulgent, and funny without seeming snide.

Of course, because I am one of those people who found the publicity material enticing rather than off-putting, my recommendation might be considered suspect. My guest at the performance, however, was familiar with almost none of the source material, had read none of the publicity, and acknowledged having never seen any performance remotely like this one. All I told him about the show in advance was that it fell under the vague category of "experimental." Because he was so taken with Art of Memory, I feel comfortable recommending it not only to those who think a butoh-derived meditation on Camillo and Jorge Borges sounds like a great idea but also to those who don't know who either of those people is.

While the audience filtered into the theater, a librarian whose dark clothes contrasted starkly with her chalky white makeup scurried along a balcony above the stage, apparently performing a ritual of some kind, preparing the space for what was to come. As the show began, three more women appeared, these dressed in frilly white frocks out of a Victorian storybook. They danced, chanted, and read aloud, surrounded by columns of books. Occasionally the balcony librarian, a ringmaster of sorts, would introduce new elements to spur the games and dances of the three women onstage. She might initiate a story that required call and response, or she might toss books like grenades down onto the stage.

This is a sometimes inscrutable piece, but the fragments and layers have clear connections that make the whole feel cohesive and accessible. The stories presented, some live and some recorded, all center around forbidden knowledge and transgressed boundaries. Again and again, young women are punished for seeking knowledge, objects, and spaces that their parents, lovers, and husbands have forbidden them.

As events progress, third-person stories shift into first-person memories, blurring the line between memory and fiction and suggesting that they are often indistinguishable from one another. Were the fictions reflections of traumatic experiences? Were real-world resentments and eccentricities the result of emotional responses to archetypal stories?

What elevates all of this above the level of self-indulgent introspection and renders it disarmingly entertaining is the precision, passion, and artistry of the performers, designers, composers, and technicians. SoGoNo Artistic Director Tanya Calamoneri and her collaborators have gathered a great deal of material that clearly resonates for them personally. The decision to construct a piece about the creative act of memory does not come across as having been pretentious or presumptuous, but as the result of a quest for a very personal kind of insight.

What is it about these stories, these ideas, that captured their imaginations? Why did an image of the Brontë sisters trapped in Borges's library/universe seem so right? Rather than attempt a reductive response to these questions, SoGoNo has crafted an athletic, compact, and often hypnotic exploration of them, inviting audiences to engage with the material on their own terms and participate in the creation of new memories, even as they ponder the nature of those already recorded.

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