Shifts in Mind, Body and Spirit

Brainstorming various aspects of the concept of time marked the impetus of MamLuft&Co. Dance’s most recent work, /SHIFT/, premiering at the Aronoff Center this weekend.

Feb 19, 2014 at 10:15 am

Brainstorming various aspects of the concept of time marked the impetus of MamLuft&Co. Dance’s most recent work,
/SHIFT/, premiering at the Aronoff Center this weekend.

“First, we cast our net really wide,” founder and artistic director Jeanne Mam-Luft says, speaking about the company’s creative and highly collaborative approach. “We asked ourselves, ‘How do you measure time? How do you perceive time? What are different definitions of time in terms of physics? What’s the deal with time zones, and how do different cultures regard time?’”

As befits its title, the piece ultimately shifted slightly toward a different but related focus. What started off as a post-modern conceptual piece became something slightly more narrative, but in an abstracted sense.

“I wanted to look at how things change slightly or maybe dramatically over the passing of time, or because of the passing of time,” Mam-Luft says. 

She’s interested in small events and changes happening in the world now, such as ongoing civil rights struggles that, in hindsight, will come to be viewed as bigger historic movements.

“I was drawn to the idea that what someone might think of as a major change in history is often more of a slowly building avalanche,” she says. “Each tiny little shift and each tiny little wave in peoples’ perceptions … build up and create some kind of big happening.”

Although this all sounds rather intellectual, /SHIFT/ is also extremely physically demanding — even more so than usual, says Mam-Luft, who co-choreographed the piece with longtime company dancer Susan Honer. Mam-Luft describes the new work as very energetic and athletic, even very vertical, and perhaps the most physical piece they’ve ever made in the 10-member company’s seven-year history here. The dancers climb each other, on shoulders and on walls.

Even within modern dance’s abstractions, emotions generally also play a role to balance out the equation. After all, isn’t one of the primary delights of dance its emotional expressiveness?

“When you make a work, you really want to have some kind of visceral reaction to something,” Mam-Luft says.

Indeed, much of Mam-Luft’s work is inspired by powerful events that shaped her own past and present life. An immigrant and refugee born to Cambodian parents who fled the Khmer Rouge genocide with her as a young child, she describes some life-altering moments. 

When she returned to Cambodia for the first time as an adult, she found out that her Cambodian aunt, uncle and his mother had been fleeing with her parents. At the border, at the very last minute, those three relatives suddenly decided to stay behind out of fear.

“That moment changed everything for them, and for my family and me,” she says. “Not many people have experienced that split-second when you have to make a decision that’s going to change the rest of your life now, when you don’t have the time to think things through.”

Although /SHIFT/ isn’t directly inspired by that experience, the work begins with suggestions of a catastrophic event, albeit an undefined one that has already taken place before the curtain even rises. It could have been an apocalypse, a change of power, an epidemic, a plane crash, even a personal trauma; the details are left up to the audience to decide.

Yes, there’s thinking involved. But at heart, /SHIFT/ also explores the emotional bonds of community and relationships — and ultimately offers hope. 

According to Mam-Luft, another intention of the piece is to encourage people to go back to being human and experiencing joys, in spite of the selfishness, greed and power that exists.

Mam-Luft herself finds and spreads joy generously across a broad range of endeavors. A self-described “interdisciplinarian,” per her biography on the company website, she’s a choreographer, designer and photographer who also dabbles in lighting, video and sound design. In addition to earning a Master of Fine Arts in dance from Texas Woman’s University, she also holds a Bachelor of Architecture from Carnegie Mellon University and worked in architecture for some years. In addition to leading her namesake company, Mam-Luft is also the assistant director of the local Contemporary Dance Theater and is a founding member of the Greater Cincinnati Dance Alliance.

Whatever her concepts of time might entail, it appears Mam-Luft spends it wisely, living life to the fullest. 

MamLuft&Co. Dance presents /SHIFT/ at the Aronoff Center Friday and Saturday. Tickets: 513-621-ARTS or