Relive, Refine, Remember: Katie McMillan on Paris1994/Gallery

I came home last night thinking about the word ‘genre’. We love to characterize art using this term, separating forms, styles and the time periods that influence them. We love categories, definitions, and distinguishing one from the other, but more often than not our need to label according to genre can be limiting. Take the Pop/Rock section of a music store for example: Black Eyed Peas… Black Sabbath… Rebecca Black… And surely I’m not the only person who showed up to watch Bridesmaids without the much needed mini-Kleenex pouch that accompanies me to most ‘Dramas’. So what happens when we are faced with the inaccuracy of our definitions? What happens when what and how we compartmentalize our understanding of the world is reflected back at us?

Our perception of genre shatters like a baseball shooting through a window.

The Dietrich Group’s latest performance by D.A. Hoskins is listed as ‘Visual Arts’ and ‘Dance’ and while I don’t know what other label would be appropriate, I do know that Paris1994/Gallery is so much more than that. I knew this from the moment I opened the program and noticed credits listed for Film Elements, Original Sound/Music, Dramaturge, and even ‘Words’. It seems appropriate for a piece about memory to smash up the notion of genre because we similarly compartmentalize and define our memories in order to survive, simplifying the complexities of our past experiences or sometimes even ignoring them. This is a piece about what and how we remember, and to express this concept through visual arts and dance alone would be imprecise and deceptive; our memories are constructed through all of our senses.

Director/Choreographer D.A. Hoskins has created a deeply personal work examining time and memory through the most passionate and irrational of relationships: love. Towards the end of the performance, dance artist Tyler Gledhill opens a small white square box to reveal a yellow flower in full bloom. He places it on the floor downstage and hooks up a sandbag directly over top, cutting a hole in the bottom corner. For the rest of the performance we watch the sand pour down on the flower, slowly and steadily, the petals alternately being buried or bouncing back from the pressure of the sand and resurfacing. This display of surrender and resistance appears as a microcosm of the relationship that develops between the dancers. The stage itself mirrors the open box but the audience is included within it; we are witnesses to the secret intimate world unfolding in this shared time and space.

Paris1994/Gallery begins and ends with dancers Danielle Baskerville and Tyler Gledhill sitting in orange chairs facing the audience, sharing with each other the pleasure of bearing witness to an event. The simplicity of this experience was both captivating and revealing, mirroring a number of theatre-going couples opposite the dancers on stage. We commonly see love depicted as active – the chase, the first kiss, losing her, getting him back – while most relationships are comprised of these smaller, more passive moments of sharing in the passing of time. All of the complexities of love are lived out on stage through the dancers, film clips, poetry, visual images, music, and sound. Each moment in the relationship is all too familiar: the first rendezvous, the desire to impress and be impressed, falling out of sync, rejection, celebration, vulnerability and that feeling of immortality that accompanies the experience of being lifted by another person’s love.

So why was this performance so emotional, so personal? Because it forced me remember that every memory of love I have constructed has been just that: a construction. I am likely an anomaly in that I fell in love for the first time when I was nine years old, but like anyone else I have replayed these significant moments in my mind over and again to generate the story of my first love. I see myself shaking hands with this red-faced 11 year old boy and I remember exactly what we were wearing four years later when we first kissed. I was also faced with the recollection of loveless nights, sleepless nights, passionless nights, and the droning persistence of routine that swallows our efforts to compromise, challenge, or change ourselves for someone else.

Paris1994/Gallery is not simply virtuosic; what makes the work so compelling is how vividly we can see ourselves within it. I would argue that many artists attempt to do this (regardless of the genre), but that few are successful. Before entering the theatre I was given a card inscribed with the message “please keep this card as your memory of the show.” On the other side was a mirror made of cardboard that slightly distorted my reflection. As I sat down at my computer to write about the performance, I picked up the card for inspiration and, faced with a blurry image of myself, realized what the work accomplished. Paris1994/Gallery is a penetratingly personal reflection of our own constructed memories of the past.

Katie McMillan is a PhD candidate in Theatre Studies in the Faculty of Fine Arts at York University, where her research focuses on studying gender performance in Canadian actor training institutions. As an active theatre practitioner, her directing credits include How I Learned to Drive and The Pillowman (McGill University). In her spare time, Katie writes for a comedy web-series and performs original comic songs for her cats – and anyone else who might be listening.

Katie is this season’s Theatre Criticism & Engagement Intern for World Stage 2012. This program is a part of Harbourfront Centre and York University’s Faculty of Fine Arts long-term partnership–working together to nurture a vibrant and thriving arts ecology in Toronto.