Sometimes a memory seems to rise up out of nowhere. It seizes the consciousness and jerks the psyche around, wrapping it in images, sensations and feelings long passed until it wrestles the memory down and flings it off, like an old overcoat on the first day of spring.
Attic, an evening-length work choreographed by George Staib and his company Staibdance, presented a rigorous reflection on human memory — how we hold onto memories, how they cling to us, drag us down and sometimes thwart our progress.
Four sold-out performances ran last weekend in the Dance Studio at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. Performed by 12 dancers with professional expertise and unbridled commitment, the production was as remarkable for its evocative design elements as it was for its richly detailed and thoroughly fleshed-out movement invention. Structured as a kind of cleansing ritual, its impact was both personal and universal. Of his works I’ve seen, Attic is Staib’s most accomplished and compelling work to date.
At this point, I must fully disclose that I know Staib personally. He is an ArtsATL contributor in addition to his responsibilities as a senior lecturer in dance at Emory and as artistic director of Staibdance. As fellow writers, we’ve worked through separate channels whenever possible so I could review his work without conflict of interest. But if my objectivity is clouded by my respect for Staib’s meticulous attention to detail, high artistic standards and down-to-earth generosity, so be it.
The thrill of Attic is in the tension between two contrasting sources: Staib’s razor-sharp childhood memories and a widely celebrated, age-old cultural tradition. Staib recalls his childhood in prerevolutionary Iran, as part of a loving extended family going about their lives in a climate of political unrest when threats of violence were frequent and real. Images from a school stabbing, bomb threats, a hijacked school bus and his father’s gun conjure a palpable sense of fear; Staib finds resolution through Nowruz, the annual festival that marks the start of the Persian calendar’s new year with symbolic rituals of rebirth, cleansing and goodwill toward others. On the one hand, Attic is culture-specific and personal; on the other, universal. And this is why the work succeeds.
Attic unfolds episodically, in several sections that progress from the awakening of stored-away memories to one-on-one confrontations between person and personified memory. The dancers’ struggles rose to frenzy and fear, and found resolve through ritual cleansing.
Greg Catellier’s lighting shifted from a mysteriously dark, attic-like atmosphere to a tense world of bomb threats, to bright springtime of gift-giving and rejuvenation. Sound ranged from wind blowing through a drafty attic, to distant wind chimes to a soft, urgent piano melody followed by sounds of an air raid, and finally rhythmic and celebratory Persian music.
The audience sat in double rows that ran lengthwise along either side of the intimate black box space. Its upper tier was strewn with things you’d see in an attic: a bicycle, a football helmet, an old video camera, stacks of suitcases. Under warm, incandescent lamp light, dancers in ivory lace costumes sat in repose, eyes shifting as if their minds were caught up in memories.
The dancers often moved in pairs, as if an individual were coupled with memories personified. One dragged another as if connected by an invisible thread. At times, one clasped her hand around the back of another’s head; at other times they locked wrists while one thrust the other into the floor and yanked her back up again.
It was as if internal struggles of the mind become external, physicalized through swirls, slashes and thrusts. They were sometimes furious, other times quietly insistent, but nearly always driven by urgency and a kind of magnetism that not only charges the need for people to connect, but also causes memories to take hold.
There was rhythmic drive and inner fluidity, but also a sense of surface tension on the body, as if dancers were on the verge of violent outburst. This thin mask of tension seemed to drive them forward.
Specific gestures appeared, such as hands that covered the face, then raised forward, palms outward, as if feeling one’s way through darkness. Hovering over the ground, clenching the stomach, gestures poured out in random order, as when going through a box of mementos: in our minds, one memory crowds out another in rapid succession.
Rhythms were unpredictable, with undulating speed and startled pauses, with barely under-control sweeps of arms and legs. Dancers rolled, kicked, embraced and skittered across the floor on all fours.
There are quiet moments, self-conscious at first and later fueled by generosity, with sprouted grass and gift giving, part of the Nowruz tradition. This built to full-bodied, ecstatic dancing. They leaped and skipped; arms swung in circles as if sweeping away cobwebs or cleansing the space. They moved together down the length of the floor, with wide, rhythmic steps, as if acknowledging all the doubt, fear, fury and courage it takes to wrestle with past memories and shake them off.
Some or all of last weekend’s shows had a waiting list, and people who wanted tickets were turned away. It’s no wonder — this is one of those rare works one could watch again and again and find deeper insights every time. For those who want to see it — or see it again — Staibdance will perform Attic at the University of Georgia in Athens February 25 to 28, and at the American College Dance Association Southeast Conference at Georgia College on March 21.