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Margaret Jenkins Dance Company
in "Breathe Normally"
Yerba Buena Center, San Francisco, October 25, 1999

by Azlan Ezaddin

Each person’s unique memory is equally valid. That was what Margaret Jenkins and Ellie Klopp said in an online discussion on Voice of Dance. And that was an idea their performers expressed in Breathe Normally, the current project on display by the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company.

In a piece executed onstage by five dancers – including Jenkins and Klopp, who is the Associate Artistic Director – and two actors, the performers recall, reenact and recount tragedies in their family history. They contradict each other and themselves as they agonize over the details. How many people were in the car when it fell over the bridge, who was in the front seat, who was in the back, how many brothers were there, how many wives, how many died… This obsession to piece together the past becomes comical at times, tickling the audience in spite of the sad subject.

But Breathe Normally is more than the eight performers on stage. A screen that decisively separates the rear half of the stage from the fore not only provides a third dimension to the stage but is also used to project video images of an hourglass and black-and-white family photos, invoking the passage of time and nostalgia. The lighting design effectively creates a mood of melancholy. The chairs are cleverly used and rearranged to project a home at rest, a family in anguish, a vehicle before the accident or immigrants settling. The most dramatic element however of Breathe Normally is the text by Rinde Eckert. And the most dramatic representation of the text comes in the form of taped voices, including that of Olympia Dukakis, who is also credited as a creative consultant.

At times, Breathe Normally appears to belabor its points. The details of the tragedies constantly being contradicted makes the audience stop caring about the stories. However, the beauty of the movements – such as, for example, the graceful passing of furniture and suitcases by the immigrant family – manages to keep the audience focused on the stage.

Still, the text is what holds this piece together and in a memorable sequence, two voices are heard recounting the “accident”. A daughter, in her narration, contradicts her mother’s version of the story. The audience may be inclined to believe the mother, as she is one of the survivors. However, the mother falters in her recollection, contradicting herself and leaving the audience wondering if one version of the incident is more valid than the others. Or if they are all equally valid.

 

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