“I remember when your mother gave me Anne of Green Gables. ‘Read it with a box of Kleenex,’ that’s what she told me.” I couldn’t help but think of this line from my favorite romantic comedy—You’ve Got Mail—when I was handed the program for CaZo Dance’s “Remember When…An Old-Fashioned Love Story” and it fell open to reveal a Kleenex.
Of course, I’d seen the posters for this show. My mind flashed briefly back to the image of a man and a woman posing in a fashion reminiscent of “The Kiss.” Were there railroad tracks in the background? I speculated that perhaps there was a moment where we’d wave our Kleenexes while someone left. I groaned internally at the stress of audience participation. I needed coffee.
I carefully held my program so that the Kleenex would not fall out and walked into the [nueBOX] performance space at Phoenix Center for the Arts. There were four benches in the space that reminded me of a church or dentist from my youth. On one of them sat a man and a woman singing “At Last” with mid-century style vibrato. On another of the benches sat a woman, and on another, a man. The final bench was empty. My mind raced with expectation and I saw ghosts of the performance I was about the witness. Smooth mid-century style jazz with sultry red lips and live singers in a smoke-filled room.
The singers left and we were asked to be patient as there were six people in attendance and at least six more people who were expected. I took this time to read the program and discovered that the old-fashioned love story I was about to witness would be based on the true love story of the choreographer’s grandparents. “That’s good,” I thought, “then it won’t be too steeped in romanticism and cliché,” as things self-identified as old-fashioned and love stories can often be.
After a brief while, the choreographer came out into the space to address the audience. She told me what I’d learned in the program and revealed that the costumes were primarily authentic. Most of the dresses belonged to her grandmother and the uniform worn by the male soloist belonged to her grandfather. She also explained that a video projection would accompany the performance to help us keep track of the narrative.
She left the stage space and the projection started. Modern popular music accompanied a video of the front of a photo album. “Remember When…” was written on the cover. “Our Story” was revealed as it was opened to the first page. We saw photographs of the choreographer’s grandparents and I was struck by the superhuman quality of the colorized photos. It looked exactly like the one photo of my grandmother that I’ve ever been shown.
The dancers arrived and I was instantaneously taken aback by the contemporary style of their dancing and of the music. My expectation of mid-century jazz was subverted as I was met with the first of many surprises. The first section told the story of the grandmother (Paula) and grandfather (William) meeting on a train. The projection returned and we flipped through the next couple of pages in the album. The second section told the story of Paula and William exchanging letters. We saw the next couple of pages in the album. The third section was their wedding…
Throughout the entire first half of the show I couldn’t help but think of the constricting roles for women in 1945. I also couldn’t help but think of my friend who was sitting next to me. My friend who, on the car ride over, had told me that her father didn’t want her to get another degree because she would be too old to get married by the time she finished. The happiness of Paula’s character was tainted from this lens. While I wanted to be happy for her, I couldn’t help but feel sad knowing that her happiness comes from the rigid expectations set for her by society.
As distracted as I was, I kept trying to allow myself to be pulled back into the story. Each scene was a discrete moment of danced time, separated and grounded in reality by recorded images of a family photo album. The movement was almost entirely a literal representation of the narrative, which allowed my mind to wander and contemplate the overarching themes of feminism and familial ties as they relate to today and to my life. It was pierced, however, with occasional moments of abstraction that drew me in and invited me to appreciate the choreographer’s command of the form.
After the final piece of the first act concluded, I stubbornly refused to use the Kleenex provided and could feel a similar sentiment from the rest of the audience. A heavy silence filled the room and hung stagnantly until the singers started their intermission show. Everyone seemed scared to attempt to start a conversation and reveal to one another the intense emotions they had just been feeling.
In the second half of the show, there were more moments of surprise for me. I’ve never seen or read The Notebook, but I had expected this old-fashioned love story to play out the way I know that story does. The lovers would die together. Instead, I witnessed an artistic display of familial support and love so resonant that it made me miss my family. I started to think of my sister-in-law, with whom I’ve had many discussions about my art and the art of others. She loves clear, heart-wrenching narratives that are based on a true story. “She would have loved this piece,” I thought and wished somehow I could show it to her.
As we watched the final three pieces, I was struck by an overwhelming desire to see my loved ones. I wanted to tell my sister-in-law about this show. I wanted to tell my brothers I love them and that we need to spend more time with our parents. I wanted to call my best friend from college. And I wanted to call my mom. The friend that I brought to the show said she missed her dad. While I’ll admit I had my doubts that an old-fashioned love story could be anything but cliché, the truth is that CaZo Dance’s “Remember When…An Old-Fashioned Love Story” is a touching tribute to the choreographer’s family that will beg you to reconnect with your loved ones. If you go see it on April 1 and 2 at Phoenix Center for the Arts, be ready to reminisce and—probably—shed a few tears into the provided Kleenex.