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Memory, Mothers, and Home

Dancer and choreographer Jasmine Hearn explores family lineages.

Jasmine Hearn in a work-in-progress image from Memory Fleet: A Return to Matr, 2023. (Photo by: Preetika Rajgariah)

When talking about Jasmine Hearn’s Memory Fleet: The Return to Matr, there are certain words that come up again and again. Memory. Mother. Home. Concepts that spring out of and return to these words have been motivating work by Hearn over several years and are currently manifesting in this project, to be produced by DiverseWorks the first weekend of April. There are at least three beginnings to this event.

Origins I

Hearn was born and raised in Houston, growing up in the northside neighborhood of Acres Home. They describe themself as a clumsy and shy child, always falling down. Hearn’s mother put them into a ballet class, following the example of an older sister who was a ballet dancer. Hearn loved the dancing and took to it well, but admits now, “I would only dance either in that random ballet class that my mother put me in, or all by myself in my room upstairs.”

Despite that shyness, Hearn describes their childhood as growing up in a dancing environment, encountering dancing at family reunions and at church. “I was always trying to catch up and be like my sister and like my aunties who I saw getting ready for parties. So in a way, dance was just part of the everyday.”

As Hearn grew, they lost their shyness about dancing in front of others, and by the age of 12, they were enrolled at the Houston Met Dance Center, enjoying the rigor of the classes found there. Soon, they were finding opportunities to dance and taking every one, “from doing improvisation solos for The Links for their lunches, or for Jack and Jill of America talent shows, to dancing in different productions in high school,” Hearn says. “So I always loved dance and I always made time for dance. I was very grateful that my mother made space for me for that.”

When it came time for Hearn to go to college, they headed to Pittsburgh and Point Park University. Immediately upon graduation, Hearn landed their first professional job as a company member of Dance Alloy Theater, a prominent dance company in Pittsburgh at the time. Since then, they have never stopped dancing professionally and have danced with, among others, David Dorfman Dance, Sandra Organ Solis’s Earthen Vessels, and Urban Bush Women. With every job, they found mentors as well as colleagues.

Origins II

In 2015, Hearn made a memory piece in collaboration with their grandmother, who was starting to lose memories to dementia. That dance theater solo, Memory Keep(h)er, was an exploration of not only memory but of the divine feminine. Hearn began thinking about expanding these thoughts, gathering more oral histories from other matriarchs and aunties. How is memory stored? In what ways do we remember? How do you archive the lives of mothers? This became the beginning of Memory Fleet.

“Within my own familial lineages, there is a running hereditary situation of forgetting and dementia,” Hearn says. “I was thinking about ways of being with this sense of a fleeting memory, but also being with the sense of ‘we build these moments together.’ Memory Fleet in itself is a way I ask myself to be in community with the lineages I’ve been able to be a part of and a way of holding the memories for one another and for myself. It’s a way I get to be in conversation with my aunties—those that mothered me in my own community of Houston.”

Memory Fleet is only starting in Houston. The plan is to take this process to Hearn’s other homes in Pittsburgh and New York in order to explore those dance lineages. For the DiverseWorks showing, Sandra Organ Solis, the first professional Black woman in the Houston Ballet, will make an appearance, so that lineage will be very present in this iteration.

Here, a who’s who of Black women choreographers spills from Hearn. “I’ve been able to be a part of lineages such as Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who founded Urban Bush Women; Bebe Miller, Marlies Yearby, Joan Miller, and then also other lineages that folks know about a little bit more just because of how we share history, like Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Debbie Allen. I’m knowing and naming the fact that without their work, without their rigor, without their rest, I would not be able to do what I do today.”

Photo by Jay Warr

Interlude: Archiving

Hearn speaks of Memory Fleet as not only a performance, but also an archive project. They think of archiving from at least three directions. “First and foremost is what I learned from Mame Diarra Speis of Urban Bush Women. She talked about how her body is her first home. That really stuck with me, and I continue to be in the understanding that my body is my first home. So if my body is a home, what do I store in my home?” The practice of listening to the stories and responding to them through movement is one way of storing or archiving the collection of memories in the body, and taking it on the road to share with audiences.

Secondly, there is a collection of clothing. “We’re also collecting different garments that are loaned or donated from this community of womb-centered people,” Hearn explains. The collection contains a variety of dresses and skirts that were meaningful to the owners. “These very treasured pieces hold memory in themselves. So these garments are traveling as an installation in the performance.”

Finally, the stories that are being collected will be part of an online archive, a place of collected and collective memories from mothering and mentoring figures. This will launch in March of 2025.

 

Origins III

Ashley DeHoyos Sauder, curator for DiverseWorks, first saw Hearn perform while in New York City for a conference. It was 2019 and Hearn was presenting their work you think you fancy at Danspace, a prominent venue for dance. “They came out in these costumes that were so Houston,” Sauder says. “Part of Jasmine’s practice, which I love, is thinking about the materiality of the costumes and the histories and how that fed into dance. I just remember [the performers] parading around Danspace and they had on Frenchy’s Fried Chicken T-shirts with sequins.”

That performance started a conversation between Sauder and Hearn, as Hearn was already developing Memory Fleet. Hearn wanted to make this expansion of Memory Keep(h)er, and it had to premiere in Houston. “They were really intentionally thinking about what it looks like to come home,” Sauder says. This struck a chord with Sauder, who describes herself “as someone who spent half my life trying to get out of Texas, only to come back to Texas for my curatorial work and career.” That’s five years of conversations about memory, leaving home, and returning.

“This is a really exciting time for me to return back home as my whole self.” Hearn says, reflecting on where they were in their journey as a teenager leaving home. “I hadn’t come out as queer, I hadn’t come out as a nonbinary person, so to be able to return to those who had mothered me and to be fully in my identity has been incredibly cathartic and really difficult, and also one of my favorite moments of being a part of this project.”

Such a tender, vulnerable time might give others pause, but Hearn concludes with a declaration for how they share their work and their heart with the world: “I do understand that I am my most powerful self when I am in movement.”


WHAT: Memory Fleet: A Return to Matr
WHEN: April 6–7
WHERE: Houston Met Dance,  4916 Main St #100
INFO: tinyurl.com/JasmineH

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Neil Ellis Orts

Neil Ellis Orts is a writer living in Houston. His creative writing has appeared in several small press journals and anthologies and his novella, Cary and John is available wherever you order books. He is a frequent contributor to OutSmart.
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