Original Phantom Limb Company Production

Everything on stage was a work of human creativity.
— Charles McNulty, LA Times

Memory Rings is a part of a greater trilogy that includes 69˚S., united by ecological and environmental threads of narrative and research. The title refers to both the resonance and impact of 4784 years of a living being and the poetry of age shown through Dendrochronology, or aging using the rings at a tree's core. The memory of who we have been, the growth of the tree, and the changing environment are all represented with cycles and circles. The tree is a living record of everything that has transpired during its history as it stands in mute testimony of civilization’s encroachment.

Our story is told through a series of overlapping scenarios that come together to confront us with one profound choice. The epic tale of Gilgamesh, woodland creatures as storytellers, fairy tales full of enchanted forests, and a new fable - the disintegration of four people in an identity crisis - all overlap. Dance, puppetry, mask, installation, music, projections, costume, and the occasional bit of Nietzsche are all judiciously used to tell our otherwise wordless story.



The world’s oldest tree is 5,062-year-old Bristlecone Pine located somewhere - only scientists know exactly where - in California’s White Mountains. The world’s oldest account of deforestation is perhaps in the Epic of Gilgamesh, a 4,100-year-old-tale of a man who, among other things, levels acres of cedar trees on his quest for fame.

It would seem, then, as though the treat posed by man to the natural world is nothing new, and that our alienation from the environment has been a long, slow slide. So, what exactly is different now? It’s just one of the questions obliquely posed by Memory Rings (Harvey Theater, Nov. 17-20), the newest work from Phantom Limb Company, led by Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff.

A nearly wordless cautionary tale marrying puppets, fairy tales, and literary references (including Gilgamesh) with Google searches and selfie sticks, Memory Rings plots a surreal course through what it proposes to be humanity’s increasingly alienated relationship with the natural world. Part of Phantom Limb’s environmental trilogy - which included 69° S., a series of tableaux vivants inspired by Ernest Shackleton’s 1914 Antarctic voyage - it uses the forest as a frame for our species’ solipsism creating a space where, in the words of of the creators, we can “sit with our apprehension, our grief, our foolishness, and our hope.”

The name refers to the growth rings used to date trees - cryptic traces of time reminding us that nature has always been there, bearing witness. “The tree is a living record of everything that has transpired during its history, standing in mute testimony of civilization’s encroachment,” Sanko and Grindstaff write.
Throughout Memory Rings, the world’s oldest tree quietly observes from center stage - the fixed point around which the millenia revolve. As the piece opens, all is well in the forest. A man-deer wakes from its pine needle bed in bucolic eden, where plants and animals seem as one. A menagerie of other creatures dance around the tree, evoking the cyclical time of nature and memory rings themselves. Symbiosis seems to rule the day as the humans wait in the wings.

But then things get more complicated. A fox scratches its back on the trunk, and tree becomes tool. He poses for a group selfie with his animal friends, and tree becomes scenery. The tree begins to give. In another series of vignettes, culture itself seems to do the distancing. As a flash flood threatens, three men Google for advice before distracting themselves with a cloying rendition of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.” From their presumable house of bricks, pattycake cuteness disarms both predator and storm.

Later on, when a puppet reenactment of “Little Red Riding Hood” presents the wolf in another guise, we’re reminded that there, too, culture can distance even as it comforts; nature is a threat only insofar as it can stand up to valiant woodsmen. As the slain wolf is dragged off stage by a group of animated pine trees, we pity it.

And yet ultimately, Memory Rings is more a dream than didacticism, owing largely to the wordless way these vignettes play out. If there are suggestions of a simple man vs. nature narrative, they are quickly complicated. Human actors slip into and out of their bestial gestures, blurring the line between animal and man. A bird flits around chasing the sound of a cricket, only to realize its ringtone. To be alienated from the natural world is to be alienated fro some part of ourselves, it seems to say. We, mere wolves in human clothing. Devoid of detailed features, Sanko’s puppets help to mediate between beast and human while also serving as a theatrical tabula rasa. “The thing about a puppet that distinguishes it from an actor, Sanko has said, “is that it has no history, no background and arguably, no inherent personality and no ego to get in the way. Thereby, it is simply a blank canvas for whatever the puppeteer’s intention is and for whatever emotion the onlooker is willing to project on it.

A clue to what that intention is becomes clearer later on, when the bird finally answers its phone and it turns out to be Nietzsche. As the voice muses over the notion of eternal recurrence, itself a kind of memory ring, we are reminded of something else Nietzsche says: that “man is a rope tied between beast and overman [...] a bridge and not an end.”
Puppets as übermenschen? Perhaps. As blank canvases for our projections, they allow us to imagine the other side of Nietzsche’s bridge, where future humans see tree and wolf as kindred spirits along a compassionate continuum.
— Robert Wood for Brooklyn Academy of Music



CONCEIVED BY Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko
DIRECTION &  DESIGN | Jessica Grindstaff
CHOREOGRAPHY | Ryan Heffington
COSTUME DESIGN | Henrik Vibskov
SOUND DESIGN | Darron L. West
VIDEO DESIGN | Keith Skretch
DRAMATURGY | Janice Paran
PRODUCER | Mara Isaacs, Octopus Theatricals
STAGE MANAGER | Randi Rivera
SPOKEN EXCERPT, "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" | Jennifer Charles

Media Courtesy of Sierra Ulrich, Pacific Forestry Centre, Canadian Forest Service, Prelinger Archives


Aaron Mattocks (Dance Captain) 
Carlton Cyrus Ward
Lucie Baker
Rowan Magee
Takemi Kitamura
Lisa K. Locke
Daniel Selon
Toby Billowitz


Paul Singh
Emeri Fetzer

Memory Rings premiered at OZ Arts Nashville in June 2015 and is commissioned by BAM for the Next Wave Festival, CAP UCLA, the New York University Abu Dhabi Arts Center and ASU Gammage at Arizona State University. Development residencies provided by OZ Arts Nashville, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/Rauschenberg ResidencyMASSMoCA in North Adams, MA, and The Hermitage.   Additional support provided by New Music USA, made possible by annual program support and/or endowment gifts from New York State Council on the ArtsNew York City Department of Cultural AffairsAndrew W. Mellon Foundation, Paisley Powell Elebash Fund, Gladys Krieble Delmas FoundationThe Jim Henson Foundation. Memory Rings is made possible with the assistance of New York Live Arts.