Warhol & an unidentified breakdancer in his Factory, early 1980s. Photo: Paige Powell
The connections between painting and poetry have long been explored—Ut pictura poesis and all that good stuff—yet it seems to me that the closest cousin to poetry is not painting or music but dancing. Utilizing breath, syncopation, and space (as a field through which to carve the articulation of language, whether with words or with the body), dance and poetry move to keep things whole. Zadie Smith gets it; exploring the compositional relationship between writing and dance is a rich but neglected realm.
So what I'd like to do this week is investigate and celebrate the possibilities inherent in collapsing the false Cartesian distinction between the writing mind and the dancing body. Part of my interest in collapsing these distinctions lies in the fact that, though I have been both dancing and writing since childhood, the mechanisms by which I create in either context still feel all too compartmentalized in my own body. I don't necessarily feel present in my dancing body when I write, and I am usually trying to get out of my own meta-cognitions when I am composing in a dance space. So, in the past few years, I've been “seeking the feet” in my artistic work, to borrow a phrase from the twentieth-century poet and dancer Mark Turbyfill; I'm trying to get grounded, to let the nervous system, bones and muscle tissue, the head and heart work in concert with each other, to avoid prioritizing the imperatives of one aspect of the creative body over another. Maybe it's a matter of opening ourselves up, of trusting that, in the moment of composition, our faculties will be present in the way we need them to be—that, in seeking the feet, we can become more connected to what's within and without. Naturally, it's also a matter of just showing up to do the work, even when it doesn't work. On Sunday I attended an evening of three instant composition pieces here in Berlin. Two worked, one didn't. The relative success of each piece didn't have anything to do with the movement vocabulary used, it had to do with “being inside time,” as Berlin-based movement researcher Jan Burkhardt says. Of course, failure is as instructive as success, and in watching the two dancers and one musician improvise outside of time, fussily moving about the space in an attempt to be interesting, in the guise of personas removed from their personhood, I began to understand all that had gone wrong with my approach to a novel manuscript I worked on for several years: there we were, performing toward our idea of an idea, end-gaining, imposing rather than composing, our ambitions impeding the possibility of being present. We needed to stop describing what we wanted the moment to look like and embody it instead, to be brave and risk vulnerability, to be humble and allow what needed to happen to happen.
In recent years, I've also been engaged in the practice of literary translation, and so am especially curious about what it means to 'translate' modalities of movement into poetic contexts, and vice-versa. Just as a word-for-word rendering of an Italian phrase in English is a way of describing but not translating the phrase, to use poetry to describe dance seems to me to miss the point, or just graze it. As with successful translations, effective ekphrastic dance poems, capture, in my view, the essence of a dancer or dance by embodying structures and qualities of movement in language particular to the demands of the poem itself, rendering an equivalent effect rather than an observational gloss. If that sounds exceedingly abstract, fear not: I will follow with some favorite examples in subsequent posts.
But for now, here's a delightful example of ekphrasis flipped backwards: an excerpt from Nederlands Dans Theater's 2003 piece “Shutters Shut,” by resident choreographers Sol León and Paul Lightfoot, set to Gertrude Stein's 1923 recording of her poem “If I Told Him, A Completed Portrait of Picasso.” Jerry Hochman writes rather beautifully on the expansive nature of this choreographic translation in a review of NDT2's performance at the Joyce in New York last year. I also love what NDT2 dancer Spencer Dickhaus says about “being the track” when performing the piece (a variation on “being inside time,” perhaps?) in this interview from Jacob's Pillow (min 1:50 to min 3:55).
What other propositions can dance offer to enrich poetic language, and poetry the vocabulary of dance? Dear Reader, I invite you to comment: I'm curious to know your thoughts on this, your favorite ekphrastic dance poems, and/or your own examples of poetry translated into choreographic contexts. In Parts 2 and 3 of “Seeking the Feet,” I'll share with you some poems that distill, in my moving mind, essential aspects of dancers and dance.