I had to bite the bullet

As a result of watching her mother deteriorate choreographer Ann van den Broek decided to create The Memory Loss Collection, a series of dance pieces about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. ‘I had to bite the bullet.’

Ann Van den Broek had to promise her mother that she would never put her in a nursing home. But in the end her severely demented mother ended up in one anyway. “My mother’s deterioration was a painful process that went on for years,” the choreographer explained in the enclosed garden of a café in Rotterdam. “At one point the homecare agency told my brother and me that taking care of our mother was becoming ‘too heavy emotionally’ for their care workers. I was so angry and said: ‘Too emotionally heavy for you? How do you think we feel?’ Alzheimer’s is not only that terrible disease that causes such grief and stress for loved ones, but it is also having to face the lack of respect with which these agencies treat seniors.”

“I had to bite the bullet,” said the Flemish choreographer who commutes with her company WArd/waRD between her home in Antwerp and Rotterdam, where she forged an artistic partnership with Theater Rotterdam. “I had to find a release for all those feelings of anger, sadness and helplessness.” She made a dance trilogy about it called The Memory Loss Collection, because according to her one single dance piece would not be enough to tell the whole story of the course of her mother’s disease.

The parts were released individually starting in 2018 and received rave reviews both at home and abroad. She made a covid-proof version of the middle part, Zooming in on Loss, for World Alzheimer’s Day. The piece, originally made for three dancers, was split into three solos to meet the government’s covid guidelines. “It is about losing and missing a loved one,” says Van den Broek. “When you see someone you love slowly disappear in front of your eyes. It’s loss after loss until it becomes too much and you don’t feel anything anymore. Now that it’s danced as solos, perhaps the loneliness the loved ones feel is more intense.”

“Each of the three parts offers a different perspective on dementia,” she says. The first part, Blueprint on Memory, roughly focuses on the deterioration of Alzheimer’s patients. How does the body move, what does disorientation look like and how does it feel when you no longer know what a pen is used for? “For a fit young dancer it is very difficult to imagine that your body starts to function differently. Rehearsals demanded great concentration and commitment. I didn’t want it to come across as fake, like: Look at me acting like I’m demented. I detest that.”

Her multimedia approach to dance – with cameras and soundscapes – intensifies the experience. At times cameras zoom in on the faces of the dancers, we hear voices and sounds. In the first installment, part of the set consists of neatly laid-out bundles of cables connecting microphones to control panels. During the performance the cables get more and more tangled up, causing the lights and the sound to sputter. “That is a metaphor for how the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s operates; due to blockages in the neural networks information is not transmitted properly. Random, unguided bits of information create chaos in the brain.”

Van den Broek saw where this leads to in her mother. “Whether her glass was full or not, she kept bringing it to her mouth over and over again in the exact same way.” That image returns in several parts of the trilogy.  

And that is just one of the many penetrating images she utilized. “To get to my mother’s ward I had to open the door with a code. Behind that door was an alienating and distressing world. There was one patient who would constantly run in circles. Another would stand hunched for hours pushing against a door. But it wasn’t always horrible; there we times where I was laughing very hard. Dementia comes in different stages and one of them is losing your grip on socially-desirable behavior. One man tried to seduce every woman he ran into: ‘Hey, baby, you’re looking very good today.’”

Number one disease
After eight months in a nursing home her mother passed away. “Do you mind if I smoke?” Van den Broek asks. She speaks calmly, but once in a while her words overwhelm her. She talks about the trilogy’s creative process which went in stages and offered more insights as the process progressed. There was a lot of research involved, facilitated in part by the renowned Barbican Centre in London.

The choreographer spoke to leading local and international experts in the field of dementia and discovered that scientific research on Alzheimer’s is under pressure despite the fact that it has been the number one disease since 2015. “I don’t understand why the funding is drying up. Dementia is still not very high on the political agenda, while it has a huge social and economic impact. And yet the scientists I spoke to were passionate about finding a solution; that was very motivating for me.”

That is why she wanted to tell part of the third installment, Memory Loss, from the scientific and healthcare perspective which contends with constant personnel shortages and a lack of opportunities. Although as a dance professional she claims to ‘hate’ using speech in her work, one hears statements from scientists, used abstractly and rhythmically over the cadence of the choreography.

“In the last part I wanted to be very direct: BAM – this is the problem. People grow old and cannot participate in society like they used to. It shows a lack of respect how we write them off, hide them away. The end of life should be celebrated, should be beautiful and peaceful. Not like: let them stick it out until they drop dead.”

Shine a light
She thinks that care for them must improve, be more empathetic. Do not talk about a patient with  Alzheimer’s in the third person in their presence, which happened to her mother towards the end. “As the ageing population increases, sooner or later geriatric disorders such as Alzheimer’s will affect everybody, directly or indirectly. I saw it as my duty to shine a light on it, it is the idealist in me. Whether or not such a dance piece will have any effect is another story. But it is a story I am compelled to tell.” Is that also the reason why she herself is on stage in two of the parts, behind a control panel with buttons controlling the light and the sound? Van den Broek believes so. “I felt I had to be at the center of the work process and literally be part of the experience of the spectators. Maybe because it is so personal and this is a way for me to reclaim some control.”

Alexander Hiskemuller, Trouw, September 21, 2020

I had to bite the bullet
« Back