Magdalena” is a new solo multimedia performance piece by Gabri Christa, a Guggenheim Fellow. The piece incorporates dance, storytelling, and powerful visuals to discuss the very personal story of Gabri’s mothers battle with dementia. Gabri’s mother’s life was one full of triumphs and struggles such as interracial marriage, war, and untraditional mothering. The show will run at Theaterlab from September 12 to September 22 with tickets priced at $20.

When dementia first started to take hold, Gabri asked her mother to write down her memories as a means of preserving her experiences which led to the formation of “Magdalena” which covers eight decades of the titular character's life.

Writer, performer, and filmmaker Gabri Christa has a background in dance and choreography and garnered numerous awards for her work in dance film. She is a 2018 Fellow of the Atlantic Foundation for Equity in Brain Health and a professor at the Columbia University's Barnard College.

Gabri granted an exclusive interview discussing her work, global successes, and future plans on August 17, 2018.

Dance, creativity, performances, and mothers

Meagan Meehan (MM): You act, dance, and make movies, so which passion came to you first?

Gabri Christa (GC): Actually, I was writing before I took to dance making, but that was as a teen, so in the professional world, I would say that I first became a choreographer.

MM: How much did your childhood and mother impact you creatively?

GC: I grew up in the Caribbean – on the island of Curaçao, to be precise. I grew up without television or much to do in general, so had plenty of time to daydream, write, and be outside. I did start yoga at age nine and was an avid fan of watersports. My mother was a strong woman, and supportive -- as long as I was willing to take responsibility for my own actions.

As s special ed teacher, she worked with disabled kids, many of whom she brought home or advocated for. But, creatively speaking, I can't say my mother has influenced me until I started making this piece about her journey with dementia.

MM: How did you decide to create a performance about your mother’s life and how did you find the venue to stage it?

GC: I wanted to tell a story about her life, in part because I needed to piece together her dementia journey. Looking at her life, I realized how unique it really was: she was a Dutch woman who went to marry a Caribbean man, moved there with him, and has been raising two kids in the Caribbean; she experienced the trauma in World War II; and so much more.

I initially wanted to make this performance as a show to be presented in people’s living rooms; it was created during a residency at Snug Harbor Cultural Center in Staten Island, where I live. The Midtown-based Theaterlab, where the piece will premiere, is a small venue; the director Orietta Crispino, came to see my first work in progress and invited me to be presented at her theater.

The piece is very intimate, so it works well in the space and I like the idea of having a two-week run so more people can come to see it.

Ultimately, I seek to operate outside the traditional theaters and to bring MAGDALENA to different communities that might otherwise not see it. The piece is designed to work anywhere, and besides a regular wooden floor, we don’t need much - we are completely self-sufficient and can make magic happen with very few tools.

MM: Why did you break this play down into eight segments? Did any part of your mother’s life particularly fascinate or surprise you?

GC: The eight parts are the most important chapters of her story. I also found that the more painful parts about dementia were harder to talk about, it was difficult even to give them the right feeling until I danced them.

I always thought that my mother's experience in World War II traumatized her, but telling this story made me realize how much this was true; I have also since learned so much about untreated childhood trauma and its effect. Telling her story, I could actually pinpoint the beginning of her dementia; it was both sad and helpful to make this work.

MM: What do you hope people take away from this play?

GC: I hope people start to talk about dementia in their own lives or the lives of their loved ones, and how it affects us as a society. Most of us know someone affected by this condition, but we don't discuss it. There are shame and stigma around it. It's a lonely ride for the caregivers, family members, and friends.

There are also so many forms of dementia (Alzheimer being the best known of them, but it’s just one of many) and so many manifestations of the disease. We - my family - certainly didn't recognize it. By the time one recognizes the many symptoms, dementia is already in an advanced state; if people get this information earlier, it will help detect it or seek help, or in some cases even prevent this difficult disease or slow down its progress. As the first step, we need to start talking and taking away the shame.

MM: How is your mother doing now?

GC: My mom is doing wonderfully since she is in a home for people living with dementia. She has great care as the home is in the Netherlands; they are more advanced there in their treatment and understanding of this illness.

She is happy there but her condition is progressing fast, and every step of her decline is painful.

Plays, awards, films, and the future

MM: You have won awards for your films, so what are they about?

GC: The through-line in all of my work is making personal stories more universal. The majority of my films thus far are dance films; some deal with the history of the Dutch-African diaspora through dance and narrative. My last film is a documentary about my yoga teacher and his unique journey into yoga as a Caribbean man. In many ways, memory is always important in all of my work; I tell stories through different media to create an understanding of memory, history, and ultimately humanity that we all share with each other and that connects us.

MM: From a creative standpoint, how different are plays from films?

GC: They’re not that different: dance is nonlinear and more abstract; for plays and filmmaking, a narrative through-line is essential, no matter how experimental you make it.

MM: What are your biggest hopes for the future of your life as a performer/entertainer and is there anything else that you would like to add?

GC: I hope that my work somehow helps people see something in a different light. I hope they feel something and that feeling makes them reflect and listen to stories of others, both the dear ones and strangers. I like people to think about life in general, with all its difficulty and pain and love – and to see what connects us to each other rather than what sets us apart. That's a big hope for a small film or performance piece, but I really long for us to see how much we all share as people. I just do that differently – after all, I'm still an artist.