“We are all damaged, every one of us,” was the resounding statement that opened the latest dance production, “What Do I Remember,” at San Francisco’s Z Below performing arts space.
The four dancers began the performance center stage, bathed in a wash of blue light and ocean sounds, and arranged around the only set decorations: looming pieces of driftwood, sculpted naturally into a shape reminiscent of neurons, and hung sporadically across and above the stage.
For the next hour, these dancers wove their personal tales of loss and healing onstage through dance and spoken word. The performance, choreographed by dancer Wei-Shan Lai, was designed to be a multi-disciplinary meeting of dance and neurology, mapping how humans cope with loss, from loss of a limb to loss of a loved one.
Lai, a San Francisco-based dancer, choreographer and actress from Taiwan, has led a parallel life as a scientist that helped her bring this work to life. Though she has loved dancing since she was six-years-old, she holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in zoology from National Taiwan University. After graduating, she worked for two years at a neuroscience lab in Japan, where she was first struck by the beauty of neurodata.
This visual data collected from brain scans spoke to Lai as much as an artist as they did as a scientist.
“[Neurodata] has its own artistic voice,” Lai said.
Lai was fascinated by the concept of neuroplasticity and the wide scope of adaptation made possible by the human brain. In all the data she processed at the lab, she saw both art and a story of human resistance.
“I started to think about how [neuroscience] could be related to people,” Lai said.
After living and working in San Francisco for several years, Lai began conceptualizing a production that could express this convergence of art and science. When the project first began, even her dancers were in the dark about what exactly the goal of the performance was.
Dwayne Scheuneman, who has been a wheelchair dancer since 2002, first met Lai during the summer of 2015 at a summer program for dancers with and without disabilities through the AXIS Dance Company, and began working with her on “What Do I Remember” soon after.
“In the beginning we would start off telling stories,” Scheuneman said. “Every rehearsal, she started with some different impetus for us.”
Rather than choreographing moves ahead of time and directing her dancers to perform them, Lai allowed the work to emerge organically from the movement and stories of her dancers.
“All the movements came from the dancers,” Scheuneman said. “She really gave us so much autonomy through the rehearsals. That’s why the audience feels how genuine the stories are.”
The emotional tension built up throughout the boundary-crossing performance was never more genuine than in the final moments, which Scheuneman carries to conclusion:
“And now,” he said from the center of the stage, “20 years later, I realize that I haven’t lost anything.”