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Review

Painter/Cartographer -- Dancer/Storyteller 

By Lindsay Zier-Vogel
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"Portraits/Mapping"

Sarah Chase

Toronto May 6-8, 2004

Sarah Chase paints portraits without paint and creates maps with no arrow pointing north. Instead she replaces brushstrokes with spoken stories and degrees of latitude with movement - her own gestural vocabulary. In “Portraits/Mapping”, Chase exposes the circularity of memory, the weight of small details and the significance of personal histories. She traces a dense map of three people – Gust, Renate and Marc – through candid stories and expansive, articulate gestures. This union of words and movement is disarmingly poignant, a language that speaks louder than words alone ever could.

Portraits/Mapping began several years ago with Chase telling dance-stories about members of her own family. Curious about the lives of others, and with the certainty that there is no uninteresting life story, Chase began collecting strangers’ stories. To do this, various dance presenters in Europe arranged for her to spend a day in the home of a stranger (who was put up in a hotel for the duration), exploring the house alone, wandering among laden bookshelves, peering through windows and kitchen cupboards, gathering questions and learning from the inside out. After this, she and her composer, Bill Brennan, would spend three days with the individual, asking questions, listening and culling stories, memories and dreams. Each process culminated in a performance by Chase and Brennan in the person’s home. From these intimate interactions, Chase has created portraits, which reveal tapestries of dreams, memories, family histories, personal and emotional environments.

Over the last few years, Chase has investigated the lives of nine people in Germany, Brussels, Switzerland and Canada. “Portraits/Mapping”, involves a re-telling of three of these experiences. Through movement and story, she reveals the patterns and symbols that unite her characters. Chase proves to have an uncanny ability to uncover the essence of a story – the singular nuggets of emotional truth that have the capacity to define the crux of an individual – and to then allow the story to resonate in the presence of her audience.

Between two long panels designed by Tina Van Aarschott and lit with images of hallways from these European homes, and in front of an ocean spilling from a large screen at the back of the stage, Chase begins the evening standing and speaking, costumed plainly in black. The simplicity of the set allows her words and movement to extend beyond Harbourfront’s black box. Composer Bill Brennan joins Chase on stage with piano and percussion, playing bits of songs that had infused the memories of Gust, Renate and Marc. He layers his performance seamlessly to hers, as a lover’s hand on one’s back at just the right moments. The generosity of both Brennan and Chase is matched only by their sincerity and investment in the re-creation of the maps, the portraits of Gust and Renate and Marc.

She tells stories few ears have heard 

hands drawing and slicing themselves through story

her arms are like cradles, like pencils, like ribbons, like wind

with shadows filling collarbones and the soft pocket of elbow. 

 

The stories of three complete strangers,

their papers and paintings, kitchen doors and windows

are unraveled carefully

by long arms, her open palms.

We rarely hear the stories of strangers so openly and so fully. It is an honour to receive the personal histories of strangers that were not overheard on streetcars or subways or the line at the grocery store, but offered generously and thoroughly. We are welcomed into these spoken studies that make up the lives of Gust, Renate and Marc. In our print-obsessed culture, the tradition of oral history has waned. Chase accesses this essential form of communication in “Portraits/Mapping” and confirms that it is still in our blood to learn history through spoken word. Evading the instinct to preserve and disseminate stories in written form, Chase trusts her body to hold these histories and share these active portraits physically.

It is November 18th

in the Turkish Quarter of Brussels,

and Chase is carrying a key that weighs too much

in a tightly wrapped palm.

 

And inside,

paint spills from walls,

from canvases, like curious fingers from fists.

 

It is a painting in the kitchen that captures her.

The paint is slightly blurred,

as though the eyes that had watched had been moving;

her own eyes, in the telling, move.

The first piece in the evening of work explores the stories of a Belgian man, Gust, and she begins by offering us the movement that defines his story, a series of precise gestures and long looping arms. She speaks as I, an I that is Gust, who, in 1956, lit candles for patient nuns at a sanitarium, stopped speaking Latin at eighteen, and became a communist instead of a priest. Chase crosses her arms as we imagine he did and offers us his stories, the small bits that make up his life. It is a telling of arms and hands, and she switches to the present seamlessly. Her movement reaches beyond the gestural to a majestic song from Gust’s communist past, and she veers into militaristic movement, asserting her presence within the darkened square space.

A February morning:

the skin of ice is licked carefully

with a thick, transparent tongue,

the sea has frozen in huge waves

heaving violently to sky –

icy gargoyles caught mid-flight.

 

That afternoon, he is painting an attic,

the sharp angle against his spine

and he sees her legs,

bare under hem

and with belly wide and belly laugh,

their daughter, Polly, is born

(it is 1968).

 

Later, remembering a certain suitcase

that had been full of cookies and winged whispers,

he will hold his granddaughter, Lucy,

Lucy who dreams in blues

and speaks in the language of sea.

Chase dances through movement, gestures repeating over and over again like the refrain of a ballad that, because of the development offered through the verses, returns again and is invested each time with a changed layer of understanding. These stories cannot be contained solely within text, and langue courses through her limbs as her entire body does the telling.

The next piece is of Renate, a woman who fills her kitchen table with cakes and does not speak any English. Chase’s delicate fingers weave Renate’s stories in the colours of the naive pastels that decorate the walls of Renate’s Cologne apartment.

She dances Renate’s story in three-four time,

dancing stories of these stories in six-eight,

finding the right words in a dictionary of bones and softened bellies

and uncovers the movement of hand in the memory of voice.

 

Leaning on her own palm,

she speaks of flowers

that burnt the backs of eyes,

she speaks of walking west,

blinded by the sharp smell of missing

and of mustard flower.

 

These stories she waltzes are sad stories,

words of war and wanting with arms full of flowers

sad stories pressed tight against cheekbones,

lengthened along collarbones

and swallowed spoonless.

Chase speaks of loss, of war and of tuberculosis in all of the portraits – not as negative, debilitating forces, but as doorways to expose the tenacity of her subjects. Chase infuses each of her subject’s stories with new life, moving the memories beyond the past, beyond the bodies of their original carriers. From throat to ear to heart and throat to ear to heart again, Chase breathes a slip of immortality into them.

She speaks without end,

without ending,

speaks the stories that had been breathed to her,

offered in palms wide

the words that spilled from throats in sound,

memories undug

and laid out as an August picnic.

The shadows deepen, her arms seem longer, her body disappears into space. Chase’s hands, her forehead are whiter than before as she speaks of an elevator with room for only one. She tells us that she opened the door to a small apartment in Brussels, an apartment the size of a pinky finger. Chase laughed, she says, at this tiny house, a house filled with books of long ago things. It is Marc’s home.

As she dances, Chase speaks of Marc’s friend, Miriam, a blind woman he travels with each year. She tells us, with busy fingers and long strides, that Marc leads Miriam through each of their hotel rooms, fingertip to fingertip walking through and speaking the room as they go. Chase reflects that where the sighted initially receive a general view of their surroundings and learn the details later, the blind learn detail by detail and over time they gather enough details to create a whole picture of a place or situation.

He stares at her mouth when she speaks,

left ear filled with empty space,

a thick, muffled silence.

 

He tells her he can read Braille,

but only with his eyes,

his fingers are too thick with the press of coins,

the skin of old lovers,

with newspaper ink

and years of warm coffee cups

to learn the fine raise of bumps

that mean letters

than mean words

that tell stories.

In “Portraits/Mapping”, Chase offers us the details, word by word, movement by movement, taking a magnifying glass to minute details – Gust’s favourite dessert at eight years old (apple pudding), the vibrant colour of Renate’s mustard flowers, the lock on Marc’s childhood bedroom door – that, when re-assembled, evokes the essence of a life story. It is as though the entire work was created as Chase looked through the small circular opening between thumb and finger. It offers us this view, tiny yet full, that moves beyond the shadowed space of the stage. Chase presents her chosen details, offering her audience the freedom to create and imagine the whole.

Sitting on a round piano stool with arms spread wider than her stories, Chase opens herself at the end of “Portraits/Mapping”, and lets us read her slowly, carefully – and we do. It is like reading the last few pages of a favourite book, word by word, with reluctance to reach the final page. We knew it was over, but she let us savour the last few whisps of sound and movement as she allowed us to return to ourselves. She ends sitting, her stories ringing in a sea of ears. I have not ever heard applause like this. Hands sounding against hands with intense appreciation, yet our bodies and voices are remarkably still. Part of us lingers within her stories, the lives of Renate, Marc and Gust and the transition out of their lives is unhurried. It is extraordinary to witness so much, to hear and to see the stories of strangers who are no longer strangers. 

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