I thought childhood was pretty much about learning to tie my shoes, getting along with a slew of people who all have the same nose, and generally speaking, growing up. After seeing Memoirs of the Sistahood – Chapter One, a new work by sisters and collaborators Becky Beaullieu Valls and Babette Beaullieu Wattigny, I see childhood in a whole new light—it’s about gathering material, for what else, a smashing show. All that time the Beaullieu sisters, Beth, Becky, Babatte, Bonnie, Bitsy, and Barbara, where trying to make it to church on time, they were really rehearsing. And what a rich soup of material sisters Valls and Wattigny have to play with, growing up in a Catholic family in Louisiana during the 1950s.
The Beaullieu sisters create a dreamscape with Wattigny’s sculptural pieces that transform into portals for Valls’ dances. Using decorative back porch doors, intricate narrow closets that resemble medieval alter pieces, and rustic window frames, Wattigny colors and covers the stage with entrances, exits, and hiding places. They serve to let the performers weave in and through their own whimsical logical time line and completely free us from any linear narrative. Glorious stage pictures elegantly frame Valls’ dances.
Valls crafts her choreography from a fluid post modern dance style, while also playing off recognizable gesture and everyday actions. As each sister enters from one of Wattigny’s colorful back porch doors in a slow motion dirge, they carry a sculpture crafted from nature on their backs, as if to resurrect something from each of their pasts into the present. One carries a collection of sticks, another a vessel, symbolic of traveling through time, each with a distinct gift. One ensemble section completely conjured the tight living quarters six sisters must have survived. Valls herself danced a sweet duet with Mechelle Fleming. One wonders if Valls here is a time traveler and is dancing with herself.
All collaborators contribute to Memoirs’ sense of wholeness. The sound score combines eerie tunes from Dead Can Dance and the like with Misha Penton’s ethereal instrumental pieces. Kris Phelps’ lightening emphasizes private spaces and a suitably dreamy atmosphere. A video montage by Deborah Schildt also hopscotches through time, landing on memorable moments, birthdays, holidays, vacations, giving us a glimpse of family record without a litany of actual events. Costumes by Valls and Wattigny draw from Louisiana folklore, 1950s fashions, and southern debutante glamour. On a post-show close inspection, one costume reveals a trim of doll parts, and other junk drawer delights. Both costumes and sets hold their own as an installation piece as well as a performance. In fact the piece concludes by the performers bringing all the visual elements together for one last look, a final tableau.
The capable performers included Kara Ary, Mechelle Flemming, Jennifer Magill, Stephanie Rodriguez, Joani Trevino, Toni Leago Valle, and Corian Ellisor (as the solo male child). Valls and Wattigny made smartly positioned cameo appearances as well.
A few bumps down memory road included: an occasionally overly cluttered stage, abrupt and long blackouts, and some sheer practical concerns about moving such intricate and complex objects on and off stage.
There are many lovely elements to this work, but chief among them is the pair’s commitment to telling a new story rather than falling into the dreaded page-from-our-journal- autobiographical-syndrome. There’s little attempt to use personal history as just that, the truth. Memoirs of a Sisterhood – Chapter One derives much of its drive from mining the power of memory alone, most specifically the embellishment of imperfect recollection. Memory is a dance, an art in and of itself. Memory can only be a creative act. When we remember we re-create; Memoirs enlists this process exactly.
A scene with all seven children waving from a speeding boat proved my point about the meaning of childhood. They are waving at us from the past, as if in that actual moment, they all knew that it was a keeper.
I doubt I was the only audience member who wanted to wave back in thanks for the Beaullieu family coming into my life.
Memoirs of a Sisterhood- Chapter One continues on December 14 & 15th at DiverseWorks. Call 713-822-0144 or visit www.diverseworks.org.
reprinted from Dance Source Houston.