What does a poem have to say to a dance? What does dance, which most often says nothing, have to do with poetry?
Please tell me it’s not just that both can be called lyrical or rhythmic.
I’ve thought about these questions quite a lot. For some years I’ve watched and written about dance in a variety of shapes and sizes. Sure, there are plenty of choreographers who flirt with text or even engage in great love affairs. Take Martha Graham’s great love of Emily Dickinson, no where more potently embodied than in Letter to the World:
This is only one of many dances tangled up in poetry, though it’s focus is, more than anything, on Emily Dickinson as a character. Some choreographers work, then, with the idea of a poet. Others like Anna Sokolow deploy poetry, in her case the poems of Paul Eluard. Paul Taylor’s Dante Variations imagines what hell for dancers would be like and partially immobilizes their limbs for large stretches of the performance.
Another point of poetic contact between dance and poetry would, for me, be the titles of works by William Forsythe: “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” and “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude” are good places to start.
A good number of poets engage with the idea of dance, but I can’t keep out of my head Frank Bidart’s extraordinary poem “Ulanova at Forty-Six at Last Dances Before a Camera Giselle” originally published in Poetry and publishes as part of Watching the Spring Festival. Here’s how it begins:
Many ways to dance Giselle but tonight as you
watch you think that she is what art is, creature
her every gesture and senses its relation to the time
just a moment before when she did something
close to it
This and more I had in mind when, at the recent Associated Writing Programs conference in Chicago I passed by Nightboat Books, where I saw A Lily Lillies with poetry by Josey Foo and notes on dance by Leah Stein, a choreographer with whom Foo collaborated.
The book is divided in three sections and includes photos along with texts by Stein and Foo. Here’s what’s surprising about the book: the language of the choreographer outshines that of the poet. I’m not sure if this is simply because charged description of movement outpaces the often directionless relationship between some I and you in Foo’s poetry. Here, for instance, is “Rain.”
At the top of the page, Foo writes:
Sweet is coming.
Adamant flowers are coming.
Hands pushing on doors are coming.
Mud-soaked feet are coming
and with them
ginger, wheat and fly.
This strikes me as rather pedestrian, even with the suggestive final reference to ginger, wheat, and fly. Here, however, are what I presume to be Stein’s dance notes:
The blooming of determination–leaning in without force but
Four women in a line, smelling — ginger, swaying wheat
and breath–like air and mud. Each of their faces appear and
Clearly Stein plays off Foo’s lines, but why are they so much more compelling? How potent the difference embodiment brings –a tautness and specificity that the “poem” strangely lacks. And perhaps another problem is the limitation of the book form, which suits poetry but not dance. Are the only options, then, to write about dance in poetry as a critic might or perform poetry in a live setting with choreography?
To me there’s nothing more interesting that collaborations across media. And I’ll admit my own fantasy as a writer is to see the things I love–poetry and dance–combine and recombine in dazzling ways.