Arthur Mitchell. Photo: Columbia University Archives
History teaches. America is made great by the spirit and talent of people such as Arthur Mitchell. That spirit perseveres.
Marianne Moore's poem "Arthur Mitchell" captures the fine finesse of the dancer's "peacock-tail," seen here in a pas de deux with Allegra Kent from Balanchine's Agon, which City Ballet premiered in 1957. Naturally, the language in a poem paying tribute to a dancer will stem as much from the aesthetic imperatives of the poet herself as it does from those of the dancer, but when it works, it works: and Moore, with few words, succeeds in giving the reader a sense of what it's like to watch Mitchell dance by embodying rather than explaining his confident, elegant way of moving, comparing him to a "dragonfly / too rapid for the eye / to cage." This poem and the others featured here stand on their own as works of art, whether or not one is familiar with the dancers named; still, it's fun to seek out videos of them doing what they do best. Here are four more favorites honoring iconic dancers:
Ed Ochester, "Fred Astaire": Ochester's poem translates Astaire's everyman brilliance into language as everyday-sublime as the dancer he describes, who "looked like a bus driver who could dance." And "doesn't Fred look a bit like Carlos Williams, who also talks plain without ornament, just like Astaire when he's singing," just as Ochester does when reading his poem?
Charles Olson, "Merce of Egypt": In this propulsive poem about fellow Black Mountain artist Merce Cunningham, "The ankle / is a heron" and Cunningham is as well. He has the same alert, lithe quality, a stop/start way of moving both liquid and staccato. Olson's poem spins out from there: "the ball of my foot / on the neck of the earth, the hardsong / rise of all trees, the jay / who uses the air. I am the recovered sickle / with the grass-stains still on the flint of its teeth." I love, too, that this poem embodies Merce's voice in a figurative sense by speaking each stanza from the 'I.'
George Seferis, translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, "Nijinski": Frank Bidart's "The War of Nijinsky" may be better known, but Safaris's prose poem, honoring the man who people say was the greatest male dancer of the twentieth century, is a stunning and perfectly distilled two-page arc that captures the dancer's charisma and descent into madness; with ingenuity, Seferis leaves the reader feeling sure she knows something of Nijinsky's essence, while at the same time challenging that certitude: "He held in his hands a large box of red matches which he displayed to me like a conjuror taking an egg out of the nose of the person in the next seat. [...] Though I was witnessing an agonizing struggle, I had the feeling that I was better, that I’d triumphed over something. Before I could draw breath I saw him, fallen full length now, plunge into a green pagoda portrayed on my carpet."
Frank O'Hara, "Ode to Tanaquil LeClercq": Le Clercq was a principal dancer with New York City Ballet and the last of Balanchine's four wives (if not ballerina-loves); tragically, she contracted polio at age 27 in 1956 on a NYCB European tour. O'Hara wrote her this ode in 1960. The tone of the poem is both ecstatic and mournful, celebrating the winsome ease of her dancing while lamenting the cruel nature of her disease, "because you are beautiful you are hunted / and with the courage of a vase / you refuse to become a deer or a tree / and the world holds its breath / to see if you are there, and safe / are you?"
Stay safe, Dear Readers. Tomorrow, in part three, I'll detail my favorite poems that document dance ekphrastically.
May our dancing be an affirmation and assertion of our humanity.