Inheritance: A Litany
How do we define ourselves in relation to our biology, DNA, history, and our aging? “Inheritance: A Litany” is a journey into the myriad ways a daughter has “become” her late parents. She inherited “her father’s wavy hair, her mother’s singing voice, her father’s sarcasm, her mother’s fragile bones”…but also a lifetime of their objects, belongings, their thoughts and ways of being in the world that all seem to reveal moments of a family’s story and a daughter’s path. A poetic narrative, a dance, a non-linear play, an opera, a comic drama.
I began the initial gestalt for this work two years ago, after the death of my mother in early-2016. Having lost both parents, I began making personal lists (litanies) of their lives, accomplishments, influences in the world and on me. This began to reveal the profound notion that I had become them in a myriad of ways I had not understood before, and caused me to begin revisiting the biological, psychological, physical and emotional traits that have formed who I am, as I age, in relation to them. To this end, I worked in the studio by writing a “script” of non-linear litanies, played with movement integration and this text, recorded my singing voice as a layer over Jerome Begin’s initial music pieces, and sang “live” versions on top of recorded material. This has been a nine-month-long process that has offered me a very singular and deeply focused period of time to digest this topic and to reinvestigate the art of solo performing.
In 2010, my two sisters and I packed up the house on Long Island where we grew up and where my parents had lived for more than fifty years to move them into a Senior Retirement Community. I rediscovered journals I kept in high school where I was apparently already inclined to make and keep “lists.” I found lists of music I had played live with my best friend in our folk group, of songs I identified with particular boyfriends, of every place our rock group performed and how much we received! Rediscovering these papers again last year was another inspiration for this new work based on much more substantial, personal issues and topics.
There are only two existing family cassette tapes that contain my parent’s voices –one a 1970 family Chanukah gathering (when my sisters and I were 12, 14 and 16), and the other a detailed, linear record of my father telling of his World War II experiences, from boot camp through the Battle of the Bulge, to the end of the war. I worked with these two recorded texts to begin editing specific lines/quotes from the family gathering, and specific stories from the WWII tapes that relate to a scene in the work I call “He Said/She Said.”
Research included a 2013 article by The New Yorker writer/critic James Woods “Becoming Them”, Lydia Davis’ story/poem “How Shall I Mourn Them?” and most recently The War After by Anne Karpf. I am currently researching specific TED Talks having to do with heredity and genetics, including Gregor Mendel’s “Classic Genetics” (researched between 1856-66) which looked at genetic inheritance from plants to human beings through sexually reproducing organisms.
I very much intend for this work to speak to multiple generations. Being at an age where I am watching my peers go through similar life-changing situations regarding the care-giving and then the deaths of their parents, I am also cognizant of younger generations who have gone through this process at too young an age.
At a rehearsal of the new material this past May, I invited a young Juilliard graduate who I had mentored in his 2015 choreographic project to come in to watch and give his reaction. The three statements he made were, “This makes me want to know more.” “It feels necessary.” “I’m now considering my own familial path.”
In the last ten years, my work has taken a more narrative turn within my dance company’s projects. After more than thirty years of making dance, voice and theatre work, including numerous solos, “Inheritance: A Litany” is actually the first full-length solo project I have created for myself. As a mature interdisciplinary artist/performer, this is the right moment for me to venture into explicitly personal-narrative territory, to take the risk of performing a “one-woman show”, and to share the subject matter. The full 45-minute, interdisciplinary work will premiere on October 4 and 11, 2018 at the United Solo Theatre Festival.
Janis wheels suitcase Downstage R, stops, opens it, sits down on floor. She takes each item from suitcase as each line is sung, places them around herself and the suitcase. Jerome Begin’s music plays underneath vocals. Janis sings and harmonizes on top of the recorded vocals.
My father’s wallet My mother’s music box And his jacket And her blouse And his walking stick And his carvings And her diamond ring And her stock options And her savings books And her saving everything And his Buddhas And his journals And their photo albums And their letters from me And our crumbling anti-war posters And his tennis racket And her boots And their wedding photos And his World War II medal And her birding book And her embroidered handkerchiefs And the Israeli vase I brought for them And his wallet, his wallet, his wallet And her diamond ring And his suitcase And her saving everything, her saving everything, I’m saving everything…
Janis closes suitcase, slowly walks backward away from the objects as she says final text on top of recorded voice.
*Please Note: Ms. Brenner wrote most of this article for the online publication The Dancer-Citizen which was published in May, 2018. It has been expanded upon here for All About Solo.
Photo Credit: Renee Morello for “Women Between Arts” preview event, June 2018
Janis Brenner is an award-winning multidisciplinary artist and Artistic Director of Janis Brenner & Dancers in NYC. Known for her “meticulous artistry” (The Village Voice), she has toured in 36 countries and is recognized as a “singular performer” with a multifaceted artistic range. Honors/grants include the NY Dance & Performance Award (“Bessie”) for her performance in Meredith Monk’s The Politics of Quiet; the Lester Horton Award for Choreography in LA; the NY Foundation for the Arts Fellowship; the Fund for US Artists at International Festivals; the U.S. State Department; Asian Cultural Council; the Trust for Mutual Understanding; UNESCO; US Embassies in Bosnia, Moscow, Jakarta and Dakar; and a commission for the interdisciplinary work The Memory Project from the Whitney Museum of American Art. Her work has been commissioned/restaged by more than 50 companies and colleges worldwide and she performed with Meredith Monk and Vocal Ensemble from 1990 – 2005, 2014, recording on ECM Records. Ms. Brenner was a soloist with the Murray Louis Dance Company from 1977-84, working with Rudolf Nureyev, Placido Domingo, Dave Brubeck Quartet, Joseph Papp, Bat Sheva Dance Company in Israel, and Alwin Nikolais. Janis Brenner & Dancers has performed throughout the U.S., Asia, Russia and Europe since 1989 and has been presented by leading NY organizations. The company is known for the caliber of its dancers, its wide-ranging and encompassing national and international guest residencies as well as its “emotionally authentic” and musically diverse work. Brenner has been on faculty at The Juilliard School since 2009. More at: www.janisbrenner.com. Janis will perform her one-woman show “Inheritance: A Litany” at this year’s United Solo Theatre Festival. The October 11th performance is SOLD OUT, but tickets are still available for the performance on October 4th, 2018.