Preview: “Departure Study of Mother/land Fabric” presented by The Exponential Festival, filmed at The Brick Theater

Photo: Shunyao Zhang


Departure Study of Mother/land Fabric is a multimedia performance about the story of Annie Heath’s adoption, but it’s not about the facts. The facts in her story are sparse, and a little suspect. Her narrative is standard on the surface, but as with all histories involving family and government institutions, things get hazy.

Annie has a familiar Asian-American story, especially to anyone who grew up in the 90s: a South Korean woman gave birth to a daughter with a cleft lip and put her up for adoption. A white family from upstate New York adopted her, and she became an American citizen, raised in a town full of people who look nothing like her.

In Departure Study, Annie looks at this narrative and sees only gaps. Was her birth father present for her birth? Did her birth mother name her before giving her away? Did they hold her? Do they think of her? Does she look like her siblings? Suspicion, mourning, and years of reflection turn a simple story into a web of missing information. Annie uses this solo performance to display the holes in her family history, and her process of discovering them.

The murky, unsettled nature of Departure Study is refreshing at a time when white audiences are clamouring for simple answers to questions of race. The dance world has taken a particularly strange approach: spotlighting Asian artists across diasporic and artistic backgrounds as a bizarre nonsequitur to the rise in hate crimes targeting Asian people in 2021. Annie has been included in these presentations despite the intentionally non-prescriptive nature of her work. As exciting as it is to have experimental art included in conversations about race, anyone looking for a neat takeaway will miss out on Annie’s nuanced artistic vision.

Part of this complexity comes from the variety of mediums included in Departure Study. Videos, spoken poetry, and a set of bojagi-style hanging textiles round out the atmosphere. In projections, smaller versions of Annie drift across the silk, occasionally syncing up with full-size Annie as she folds and carves through the golden light. Her body is layered, recorded, repeated, distorted against the close brick walls. Yet the mystery and magnetism of Annie’s living body grounds the piece, holding your attention amid the stage set.

There is an implicit power in Annie’s movement. She improvises gracefully, leaving behind beauty in favor of smoothness and strength. Twisting her body in a squat, she slows down, makes an invisible adjustment, and continues to turn impossibly around her feet. She spends much of the performance walking backwards—hands gripping her calves in crouched steps, or wandering upright as her limbs float around her. Later, she flips her body fluidly onto the ground, lays on her stomach, and floats her legs into the air behind her. Seamless, ghostly, and simple.

This form of measured improvisation takes years to develop. The impulses are not gestural or playful—they result from an investigation of inner feeling. Annie’s improvisation reveals a deep relationship to her own body, determined by pleasure and effort, and almost entirely devoid of external reference.

What is the body if not your closest, most concrete tie to blood lineage? It’s a mirror, a translation, a vessel for parallels and repetition across oceans and decades. In the moments where Annie lies on the ground with her legs spread, time telescopes as she reenacts her own birth, and mimes the possibility of future motherhood. She demonstrates, subtly, the iterations of history alive in her body.

The sticky and unsatisfying takeaway of Departure Study is that the story of self changes over time. Each person’s connection to their diaspora grows, shifts, and matures. Departure Study holds two years of Annie’s ever-changing relationship to her narrative. In the time since she began this solo, she has gotten married, moved out of New York City, lived through years of a pandemic, contacted her birth mother, and is now considering having children of her own. There is no redemption arc or resolution to questions about her past—just a continued commitment to investigating, reassessing, and process.

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