After two decades, veteran choreographer Peter DiMuro is back in town to create a new work for the Boston Conservatory’s upcoming performance project, “Reflections: Love, Loss and Living.” The project unites the school’s dance, music, and theater divisions to explore how community helps us through loss and grief, and DiMuro, a leading figure in the field of community-based arts, is an ideal choice for creating a project centerpiece. He was a highly respected, engaging figure on the Boston dance scene until 1993, when he became producing artistic director for Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, performing in and heading up some of the company’s big national projects and becoming a 2000 White House Millennial Artist.
For the past five years, he has focused on freelancing and teaching (currently at Philadelphia’s Drexel University). DiMuro’s world premiere commission, “Archives & Etchings,” is inspired by interviews with nine Alzheimer’s disease caregivers and combines movement, music (Cage, Ravel, Nate Tucker), visual arts, and videotaped interview excerpts.
Q. You left Boston 20 years ago. How does it feel to be back for this project?
A. It’s really great. To make a work at the Conservatory is such an honor. That was kind of my proving ground when I first got here, my first Boston-based job.
Q. What’s the genesis of “Archives & Etchings”?
A. Dance work in the elder care world is usually more on the side of therapy. The model of Dance Exchange was to do workshops in elder care settings that could translate to art-making. [Boston Conservatory Dance Division Director] Cathy [Young] and I chatted last year about me doing a piece and found out there was a connection with the Alzheimer’s Association through supporters of the Conservatory. I said, “I don’t want to make a piece about Alzheimer’s, but let’s think about what is it about memory that’s interesting.” Memory loss often gets to a stage where they start to create memories, a kind of fantasy world reconnecting the dots in a collagist way, new memories from a smattering of old memories. That’s more exciting to me because it makes the person in question a successful creator of new memory.
Q. I love the title. It really suggests things not fully remembered. Was that your intent?
A. Yes. The [“Etchings”] inspiration comes from artist Helen Meyerowitz, who we interviewed for the project. In response to her own journey with her husband, she made a series of charcoal etchings that hang in the Alzheimer’s Association. I get goosebumps just thinking about the way she talks about how when she was a young woman, her parents wouldn’t send her to college. But her husband said, “You won’t be happy unless you go, so I’m paying for art school.” She became a very renowned artist. As he was dying, it came to her that Alzheimer’s was like this giant bird preying on her and her husband, and she starts making these drawings. She says in the interview, “I think that I could care for my husband because I knew the process of being an artist, that there wasn’t one answer, one road to go, which I wouldn’t have learned if my husband had not paid for me to go [to art school].” That really impressed me, especially as I think of the value we place on art and why it needs to be in schools. The “Archives” part comes from Rob, one of the interviewees, who was with his partner of 17 years, male couple. Rob starts keeping scrapbooks [for his partner] and says, “I feel like I’m the archivist of his memories.” That really hit me. Another major moment was when I asked a psychologist on staff at the Alzheimer’s Association what he thought a dance about memory loss would look like. He said, “Well, you’d have a dance displayed first, and you’d see it again, but 20 percent would be lost. Then you’d see it again, and 30 percent would be lost.” He was describing choreographic construct and deconstruction, and it was so exciting. We use that as another way to inform the structure of the piece. This work is not about “Let’s make a documentary and feel sad about the situation,” but “Let’s learn from it and change the art because of the interaction.”
Q. What are you learning?
A. That memory is such a fragile entity for all of us. When I hear story after story from these caregivers, the pain of witnessing this loss, they’re constantly in dialogue with their own questions of mortality, the want by the person with memory loss to still feel of value. It makes you value what you have more.
Q. What’s next for you?
A. A work for Across the Ages Dance Project in Cambridge taken from a piece called “Future Preludes.” Twelve of us from different dance disciplines went artistic speed dating to see what we could learn from each other, then we go off and create [a dance] to one of the Rachmaninoff preludes.
Q. Can we lure you back to Boston full time?
A. I would love that. Boston has always felt so much like home, and I enjoy coming back and making dances here. There’s another possible project at Boston Conservatory about alternate abilities, and this is the right time to be in a home place. I’m crossing everything — fingers, toes, eyes. . .Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.