Arts & Minds: Mark Sarvas' 'Memento Park' and Israel's Ate9 dance company

An artist that muses on the past and a choreographer in search of the new

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Left: Author Mark Sarvas. (Photo credit: Yanina Gotsulsky). Right: Ate9 Dance Company in “calling glenn.” (Photo credit: Cheryl Mann)

The narrator and principal character in Memento Park , Mark Sarvas' fast-paced, multi-layered new novel (published by Farrah, Straus and Giroux), is Matt Santos. 

The son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, he was born, as he notes with characteristic self-deprecating irony, the same year "America elected a B-movie actor who promised them a shining city on a hill."  And while he grew up in Queens, by the time we meet him he is living in Los Angeles and working as a less than illustrious but ever dependable B-list movie actor himself, and living with Tracy, his beautiful, fashion model girlfriend.

And then Matt gets an out-of-the-blue phone call from Australia that will end up changing his life -- driving him to finally probe the family history that his emotionally withholding father would never discuss, and to explore the Jewish identity he had so consistently ignored or denied.

The caller informs him that, according to the protocols of restitution, he has been identified as the rightful owner of "Budapest Street Scene," an Expressionist painting by Ervin Kalman (the artist is a creation of Sarvas, but his work is in the mode of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner).

Considered a masterpiece, it was taken, under duress, from his grandparents' Budapest home during World War II. It would now fetch an enormous amount of money at auction.

The author Sarvas, like Santos, grew up in Queens, but is the son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants who left Hungary in the wake of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 rather than during the Nazi era. And in a recent chat he stressed that his book is very much a work of fiction. 

He will speak later this month when he visits Chicago as part of Spertus Institute for Learning and Leadership's 2018 One Book | One Community, which has selected Memento Park as its focus this year.

"I didn't set out to write a book about restitution, although I was interested in the inherent drama of the concept, and was intrigued by books about it such as The Rape of Europa and The Lost Museum ," said Sarvas. "It put in play all the thorny issues of who owned something and where it had been, of shared guilt, of the passage of generations, and of the perennial question of 'Where were you, and what did you do during the war?'"

"But the book also is about the tricks memory can play, and about how you are never quite sure whether the stories you are told by your parents are true or made up. My own father -- who worked on Yankee Stadium as a plumbing contractor for one of the largest companies in the U. S. -- was a tough, demanding immigrant who inspired a healthy dose of fear. But he also had warmth and humor. I think we didn't really know what to make of each other. The father in my book is more monstrous and self-aware, but many readers have found him to be their favorite character."

In fact, Sarvas did not begin writing Memento Park until after his father's death in 2009 because, as he confessed, "I didn't want to hurt him."

Sarvas also admitted that his first draft of the book was too autobiographical, so he came up with the idea that Matt made his living as an actor.

"It turned out to be the perfect choice -- resonant with the themes of identity and self," he said. "And while I've never been an actor, living in L.A. I knew a lot of actors…"

Sarvas was perfectly familiar with growing up in "a totally secular, post-war generation family that felt abandoned by God, and thought being overtly Jewish was a dangerous thing. We even had Christmas trees."

"Writing this book changed me greatly in that way," said Sarvas, who was never bar mitzvahed. "I was shockingly ignorant about Judaism. But like Matt, I became fascinated with the notion of the Sabbath, and more comfortable with my place in 'the tribe' -- with a level of certainty I never felt before."

Memento Park , which moves from Los Angeles, to New York, Chicago, and Budapest, takes its title from an open-air museum in a far-flung corner of Budapest that was created in 1993 and is a sort of crazy "cemetery" for statues of Lenin, Marx, Engels, and others that were displayed during Hungary's Communist era. 

Given the current controversy in this country regarding the fate of Confederate statues, it has an uncannily timely quality. So does the book's surprising ending -- one that seems perfectly suited for this current era of Banksy.

Meanwhile, Sarvas is already at work on his next novel.

"It's about a surveillance state and an NSA-like agency," he said. "It's about the reach we now have into other people's lives, and also about how we are more than our meta-data."

Israeli-bred choreographer joins forces with Wilco's Glenn Kotche for a
Chicago debut

Born in Israel in 1984, Danielle Agami worked variously as a dancer and rehearsal director for the fabled Bathsheva Dance Company from 2002-2010, along the way teaching "Gaga," the unique movement language developed by its longtime director, Ohad Naharin.

When it came time for her to spread her wings she moved first to New York, then briefly to Seattle, and finally settled in Los Angeles -- "a place close to the weather in Tel Aviv, where the nature gives comfort, and where there is an established Jewish community connected to the arts," she said.

And Ate9, the contemporary dance company she founded in 2012, quickly took off. The name is rooted in a children's joke that delighted her which asks the question: "Why is 6 afraid of 7?" The answer: "Because 7 ate 9."

Ate9 will make its Chicago debut at the Auditorium Theatre on Nov. 16 as part of the "Made in Chicago" series -- an evening of innovative contemporary dance that also will feature two well-established Chicago companies -- Visceral Dance Chicago (for which Agami created a piece in 2016 with help from her Princess Grace Award), and Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, renowned for its blend of African American and modern dance.

There is a further "local" connection for Ate9, as the piece to be performed here, "calling glenn," was created in collaboration with Glenn Kotche, the Chicago-based percussionist of Wilco fame. 

And Kotche will be playing live in a work for nine dancers that Agami explains "makes equal partners of dance and music, and is really an overview of society at this moment, when humans can sometimes create terrible things, and sometimes amazing things."

Agami was introduced to Kotche by a mutual friend and, as she put it "had a mutual understanding, so that this work became the product of two bodies -- his music and our dance. I chose some of his existing music, and asked for some changes along the way, and he also created some new music for one section of the piece. We only perform this work when he is available, but he really loves doing it and has made it a priority."

Agami is currently at work with Kotche and another high-profile collaborator -- actor Jon Hamm (of Mad Men ) -- on a new theater project called Fishing . Set to debut next year, it "explores the beautiful, simple absurdity of desire."

Ate9 will perform Nov. 16 at 7:30 p.m. as part of the "Made in Chicago" dance series at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress (recently renamed 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr.). For tickets ($29-$68) call (312) 341-2300 or visit,

Hedy Weiss, a longtime Chicago arts critic, was the Theater and Dance Critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1984 to 2018, and currently writes for WTTW-TV's website and contributes to the Chicago Tonight program.


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