Charlotte’s Song: a mini-memoir

Nancy Ferragallo is an international dancer, choreographer and writer.  Nancy and I have remained friends since we met in NYC many years ago. It is my pleasure to welcome and introduce her to you now.

You recently had a showing of Charlotte’s Song, a theater piece I call a mini-memoir because it’s based on experiences you had as a child with your mother.  As I understand it, you incorporated movement and text to explore issues of betrayal, hurt and ultimate understanding of your mother’s behavior.  A trailer I saw of the work moved me by its beauty.  The juxtaposition of words, music and visuals was stunning.  My first question is what came first: music, movement or text?  Can you walk me through that process? 

The overall concept came first, followed by the text, music and movement, in that order. For example, an integral thread to the transitions between the mother and daughter living under one roof to when they are living in different cities, and their primary communication is through their letters, required a textural layering so the audience could process that reality. Fortunately, I had kept many of those letters and after selective editing included some of them that both actors address to the audience.  The letters, with interspersed monologues, make up the underbelly of their dynamic.

Musically, I had known for a long time that I wanted to use Luciano Berio’s Sequenza III per voce solo.  Berio’s dissident score and Cathy Berberian’s astonishing vocal range and dramatic clarity defined the inner world of the mother and allowed her unspoken voice to be heard.  Crafting the musical score around the dancer’s movement vocabulary was a challenge for both of the dancers and myself which was resolved by working in a collaborative process.  For example, I knew from the beginning that I wanted movement segments around a clothing ritual that could speak for the mother’s recurrent psychotic episodes.

The production unfolds from the point of view of a doll that witnessed everything that you, as a child, experienced.  Did you plan to use that device from the beginning or did that evolve as you worked on the piece?

Yes, I always knew that the doll’s voice would be an intricate element, as well as a unique device, in telling the back story of the play.  With the exception of the doll’s monologue, her onstage role is that of witness in the daily life of Hannah and Charlotte.

Footnote: the video focuses on the doll’s monologue as a backdrop for the actors and dancer.  This decision was an artistic device as the full production is 80 minutes.

Did using the doll’s POV give you a distance that made dealing with painful feelings less traumatic?

As a child, I invented a voice for my doll because it was often very difficult to communicate with my mother.  As I recall, my mother accepted this doll figure into our lives although we never spoke directly about the role she played.  I have memories of her sewing her neck which makes me think that I probably animated her head while giving her a voice from which to speak.

Do you plan to structure your future theater projects by incorporating text and movement?

That depends.  The genesis of my next project is a conceptual work that evolved out of my personal experiences with radiation therapy after my recurrence of breast cancer.  The musical component will be as essential to the story line as the movement elements were to the construction of Charlotte’s Song.

In the trailer, you list a co-choreographer.  Since Charlotte’s Song is about your experience what was it like to bring someone else into the process?

It was a delicate balance between informing the artist of the fixed movement elements that I envisioned and their psychological components while at the same time giving her the artistic freedom to develop the more structured segments.  I respected her movement style, which I would loosely describe as being somewhere between Pina Bausch and Butoh.  We worked together through structured improvisations and dialogue.

Tell me about your earlier work as a choreographer, before Charlotte’s Song.  Did you use personal experiences to create those projects?

Yes, I have always drawn from personal experiences in creating my works.  For example, in Short Story West, a solo dance theater work without text that I developed and was performed in Bremen, Germany, I explored the theme of suicide.  In this production, I did not use improvisational techniques, but crafted the work onto the dancer.  This was a fragmented version of an earlier work, Agni, which was my first choreographic piece performed in Oakland, California in the 1960’s.

What made you decide to create such an intimate piece now? Was Charlotte’s Song one of those works that nagged at you as an idea until it found the right time to take form?

Yes, it tugged at me for decades waiting to be born.  It began as text, sat in a drawer along with other literary fragments and beckoned to be heard.  There is always a right moment and if we are patient with ourselves and the physical and emotional vicissitudes of our lives, it will happen.

I know there are future performances of Charlotte’s Song scheduled for Spring, 2014 @ The Theater for the New City in NYC.  How set is the piece, or is it still  evolving?

The piece is still evolving but I am clearer now having produced it as a work in progress that I want to develop the text for both characters as well as tighten the choreographic segments to bring greater physical clarity to the role of dancer/performer.

Do you have any plans to appear as an actor or performer in Charlotte’s Song?

I have been asked by the directors to take on the role of the mother, Hannah, but have declined.  I think it is important for me to stand outside the play for a number of reasons, one of which is that it is too painful for me to imagine myself playing my mother.  It is a challenging role for any actress to take on but, I ask myself: why put myself in that position?  I would rather be the observer than the observed.

What are your future plans as a dancer and choreographer?

Only the gods really know the answer to your question.  I am a great believer in allowing the universe to surprise me.


Author’s bio:

Nancy Ferragallo is a dancer, choreographer, conceptual artist and writer.  She began her training and professional career in dance with the San Francisco Contemporary Dancers in her native city of SF, California.  Over the course of her extensive career she performed, choreographed and gave workshops in the U.S., Germany, Israel, India and Trinidad.  In addition, her work as a movement therapist at a psychiatric hospital in the Midwest provided her with a rich resource for her conceptual work that followed. Most recently, she collaborated with OneHeart Productions, the first as Luna, in the non-speaking role in LUNAS ARMBAND in Berlin, Germany (2010), while presenting her own conceptual dance theater work, A Symbolic Improvisation, with members of the New York and Berlin cast.  She conceived and wrote CHARLOTTE’S SONG for the LaGuardia Performing Arts Center’s Little Theater (2012) and was resident choreographer for the New York based production of BREAKING THE SILENCE at the Edinburgh Festival (2013).

Link to trailer:

11 thoughts on “Charlotte’s Song: a mini-memoir

  1. I was stunned by the beauty and feeling conveyed in this work. I can imagine this as a longer production in the theatre–a full memoir. The doll image merging with the girl image is beautiful; I especially felt this in the stylized hair and faces and movements and when the second dancer appeared. Congratulations to Nancy Ferragallo and other artists in the production.
    Breaking past imagined boundaries like this is inspiring. Gracias, Lorenzo.

    1. Marlena, thanks for stopping by. I agree Charlotte’s Song is a stunning work, and the trailer, despite its brevity, conveys the beauty of the piece. It’s a testament to the depth and creativity of Nancy Ferragallo.

  2. Lorenzo, thank you for sharing this creative method of sharing a story. Sometimes, I think deep feelings are best conveyed through music and dance. The trailer is stunning, almost haunting and make me feel very intrigued to know more about the story. Very inspirational post.

    1. Thank you, Kathy, I agree that music and dance are great vehicles for conveying deep feelings. And when text joins that special partnership, the result can be stunning as in Charlotte’s Song.

  3. Very interesting interview about a talented artist, thanks for sharing it with us Lorenzo.

    1. Thank you, Susan, for responding as you did. Your keen awareness of my “approach” nourishes me and gives me the power to do the work that lies ahead of me as the play moves on to a longer run next year.

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