Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company

An impossible symphony and a manipulated dance challenge our experience of time and memory

Kathy Dunn Hamrick (r) rehearsing her dancers for <i>The Big Small in Nu Time</i>
Kathy Dunn Hamrick (r) rehearsing her dancers for The Big Small in Nu Time (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The Big Small, a dance choreographed by Kathy Dunn Hamrick and performed by her company last month, might be understood as a performance of memories. Its vignettes seem to be the crystallized, mind-made recollections of experience. Nine dancers, in faded summerwear, were coddled in warm nostalgia before a crisis threw them into desperation. Before I saw the piece, I'd been thinking about how memory-making is endangered by the sameness of our slick, onscreen experiences, and The Big Small made memory seem beautifully imperfect, driven by chance and our fellow humans at least as much as by our own synapses and subconscious.

But what if we could go back and manipulate the formation of our memories, manually choosing and filing away the experiences we keep, recategorizing them, creating intentional associations? For Fort Worth's Modern Dance Festival at the Modern, Hamrick is reworking The Big Small, keeping its narrative structure but manipulating the movement as it occurs in time. As part of a project called 9 Beet Stretch/Music of the Spheres, Hamrick's company will perform two 30-minute dances accompanied by the impossibly continuous strains of Leif Inge's 9 Beet Stretch, a recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that has been computer-stretched to a length of 24 hours. Pitch is not distorted. It's a physical-world impossibility: a dynamic, busy, euphoric 19th century masterpiece maximized, fit to the frame of our planet's unit of measure.

When I spoke with Hamrick two weeks before the performance, she predicted that the music would simply parallel the dance. She didn't know exactly which part of the music – a sound installation – would occur during her dances. But conceptually, 9 Beet Stretch (heard in Austin during SXSW 2006) is a mind-bending foil for her manipulation of The Big Small. Though a quarter note could be half a minute long, the expansion is proportionate. Memory-making is the opposite, in that the divisor fails hopelessly at slicing time into equal portions. Experience's filing system is reckless. Unlike the precision of the symphony stretch, everything in memory is distorted. Some seconds loom gargantuan; others are lost altogether.

When I spoke with Hamrick about the project, she pulled her hands apart, as though stretching taffy with her fingernails, to illustrate the expansion of time. In the dance, she says, movements will be slowed, sped up, magnified. At times, she'll have one group sustain the movement, as if she's applied the damper pedal of a piano, while another group continues. A tiny yet significant piece of paper may increase in size exponentially. Another prop, a single umbrella, may multiply.

In the original piece, the umbrella appeared in the crisis section. While creating this section, Hamrick taped news articles to the studio mirror: hurricanes, tornadoes, wars. "Bad things are happening," she says. People lose their homes; it's one of her greatest worries. "You can't go back." Nor in memory can we go back to change the experiences as they occurred or to adjust our filing system. But for the second dance at the Modern, Hamrick will have the dancers perform the same movements as in the first performance, only in reverse order, from the end back to a beginning which is not new and, at the same time, is.

The Big Small in Nu Time will be performed Saturday, July 27, Part 1 at 1:30pm and Part II at 2:30pm, in the auditorium of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, 3200 Darnell, Fort Worth. For more information, visit www.themodern.org.

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Kathy Dunn Hamrick Dance Company, Austin dance, The Big Small, The Big Small in Nu Time, Modern Dance Festival at the Modern, Leif Inge, 9 Beet Stretch

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