“We dance round in a ring and suppose, / But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.” The Secret Sits by Robert Frost.
On the 22nd of December 2016, dance artist/researcher Paula Guzzanti and I began work exploring the middle place between poetry and dance, to create a collaborative piece as part of the wider ‘Knowing the Dance’ project. This was the actual interface between the two artforms*. We had a number of additional guiding principles we worked to:
- that the collaboration was founded on the principle of parity of esteem between the two artforms – so this wasn’t a situation where one would be the interpreter or responder of the other’s art. The creative process would happen in an equal manner with no leader or follower;
- that the collaboration would showcase the best quality work relevant to the practice of both artists – ie that I as a ‘page’ poet would create work that was publishable in that realm and Paula would work to an innovative model of dance/performance improvisation as is her current practice. In reality, we all (the music came a little later) made artistically-led concessions for a coherent final performance but we stayed true to this as much as was usefully possible.
- that, though this was always going to be an exploration of a new process, the emphasis would be on artistic expression and the creation of artwork.
*The Music of the Middle Place
Those who know about, or have seen, the performance know that this is, in fact, a three-hander. Martin Devek – Paula’s long time collaborator and husband – entered the middle place as music composer c.May/June 2017, here with a strong innovative improvisation practice aligned to Paula’s, as we moved to create the performance. I need to, as I work through what is a very long piece, make that point that I am coming from a stance of exploring dance/movement/poetry interface, and the original generative work (Dec 16-Apr 17) as part of the overall ‘Knowing the Dance’ project reflects this – in that it was dance improvisation/poetry only. When creating the project proposal, I had originally imagined any performance to be in the style of ‘pecha kucha’ type session where we could be very experimental – here stripped back to the inter-arform seams and without music. But as the ideas took shape and grew so did our ambitions for what the presentation of the process might be like. It was a very great fortune to have Martin join us at this stage. And the creative team – in the manner of all that happened in the middle place – was three. A special word of credit is due to Martin for creating the opening short film of the performance which showcases the process and conversations that carried it from early composition to full performance.
Showcasing the Work
I am happy to report – with no small thanks due to my collaborating artists Paula and Martin that we have had four iterations of the three dance~poem sequence.
- 6 June 2017: Evolving Fields: Sensoriality, Imagination and Memory in the Humanities (in-progress performance with accompanying workshop), QUB, Belfast
- 12 August 2017: Dance House Ireland Residency preview performance, Dublin
- 9 September 2017: ‘Knowing the Dance’ premiere, Downpatrick
- 17 November 2017: ‘The Middle Place’ Brian Friel Theatre, QUB, Belfast
Find a video of the live performance (Down Arts Centre) of ‘Intertwine – Noose – Weight~Dissolve’ HERE
Acknowledgement is due to HU (October 2017) for publishing three of the poem elements
- Ghost Net
Read them HERE
Paula and Martin have also been performing dance elements – particularly from ‘Noose’ and ‘Intertwine’ in various dance/performance venues.
My sincere thanks to all who supported the development and showcasing of this work. First, the Arts Council NI, with a particular word of thanks to Damian Smyth, who provided a framework to create a funded ACES project of which this was one aspect. My thanks to Down Arts Centre for being the temple of our muse for dance~poem composition, and for providing space and support for the premiere performance. Their ongoing support is much appreciated. Thanks to Dance House Ireland for an amazing environment to work on the sequence, and the Anthrology Department at QUB for accepting the proposal to have this as part of their ‘Evolving Fields’ programme in its early stages of development as a connected performance. Thanks to QUB also for support through Paula’s PhD fellowship.
A big word of thanks to the incredible, engaged audiences who attended the performances. Their questions, insights and feedback have been a cornerstone to the development of this work.
How has the work affected my practice?
This was a question from one of the audience members of the most recent performance. An excellent question – and like all excellent questions, as one might say, difficult to answer. My thanks to him for being gracious when I curved and swerved around the idea without actually answering. At that stage, in truth, I wasn’t sure. But today as I type, I have a sense of completion about this part of the ‘Knowing the Dance’ project. Below is a reflection of what I am carrying through from the work we had done.
The process works
It worked. Again my thanks to Sarah Warsop for the inspiration of her own practice and the masterclass in January 2017. I had wanted two quite challenging things to happen (1) poetry in all its glory on stage and (2) dance which wasn’t responding to or interpreting the text (in other words choreography in all its glory) – and still create coherent collaborative pieces that engaged audiences in their expression . While I’m experimenting in my own writing with stretching out the breath/movement aspects to work on them, this part of the wider ‘Knowing the Dance’ provides a template for further collaborative work – however different the artforms in their manner of creation and showcasing.
That skin is a ‘hard’ border
“Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat our tunes for bears to dance to, while all the while we long to move the stars to pity.” Gustave Flaubert.
I’m just noticing this quote that I’ve carried around like a mission statement since I was a teenager has both dance and move in it. One set of movements, and then another, and then (hopefully) another. I think an examination of how one movement proposes another and how it works in poetry (which is primarily for the page – I find making this distinction uncomfortable – but it was significant in this work) is at the heart of the whole ‘Knowing the Dance’ enterprise.
The most affecting proposition, in my opinion, and in terms of the strength of the final dance~poem was the one that Paula and I had used for the dance~poem that later became ‘Noose’. Suggested by Paula, we, in turns, took a number of minutes to touch two parts of the other’s body simultaneously – with the outcome being connections made with parts of the body which might not ordinarily connect. It’s an exciting proposition, don’t you think?
However, when we came to share the initial dance improvisation/free write – a touch on the neck was what had produced the most profound affect. This is where the electric connection started.
This is only the second time I’ve been in a workshop type situation using touch as the inspiration. The first was in a workshop led by Kate Newmann in Denvir’s, Downpatrick, some years ago. Again, it proved to be a powerful experience – from very inspiring to very uncomfortable. It seems that there is a beautiful skin-to-skin conversation that warrants further exploration – but with some ‘hard’ negotiations required.
It isn’t surprising that physical touch isn’t the mainstay of new-writing creation workshops, of course. We have a wonderful protective mechanism ‘flight-fight-freeze-appease’ when we feel threatened and anybody, beyond our intimates, entering our ‘space’ triggers the alarm.
As an aside, I read a very useful piece of advice for anybody who presents in any context. As biddable as it feels to step forward to come closer to whoever you are speaking to, unless you are the (beloved, trusted) parent or lover of your audience, they will instinctively frisk you for signs you are about to attack. Try this. Step back instead – you’ll hear an almost audiable sigh of relief from the bodies in front of you. And that is just invading space boundaries – no actual contact.
So while this person-to-person touch is very inspiring, it is one that requires very careful handling. Trust is a big part of that – and it seems to me trickier because hurts to trust in any regions of the person-to-person contract translates through to aversion to skin-to-skin contact. The body has its reasons.
In neither a short-term collaboration or a worskhop is it possible to create a space as safe as our most trusted, intimate relationships. I don’t know what the answer this is, but I think it bears futher exploration because my experiencesuggests that communication from skin to self is dynamic, visceral, moving and utterly poetic.
Affect was our Friend
In this instance – possibly because of creating a parity of esteem relationship between the artforms – we seemed at times to be tap-dancing precariously on a tight-rope that I’ll call loosely the ‘I-We’ continuum.
And, as in all human connection, affect was our friend in navigating this. Affect (theory) is very much at the heart of Paula’s academic work and it was happily installed in the middle-place. Hand-over-heart, I don’t know much about the theoretical dimension of it. When I use the word here – I am using it in an altogether unacademic sense of how something that happened affected the person to whom it happened.
Because the dance/poetry joins needed to be beyond the realms of response or interpretation, holding a strong sense of how we were affected by stimuli and sharing that – without a sense of this made me do that – made the conversation that underpinned the dance~poem composition (both artistic and verbal) far richer, allowing for both a sense of mutual connection while maintaining individual artistic ownership within the world of joint experience.
Not Airtime but Resonance
If this hadn’t been recorded I wouldn’t have remembered saying it. At this point I am moving into the arena of performance development rather than dance~poem elements generation.
So you have a poet who writes primarily for the page not the stage and who reads her work when a sharing of it is called for. Received wisdom for reading is that 20mins is pretty much as much as the attention span for the audience can take. A poem of 5mins is long to the ear. A haiku too short to lodge in the eardrum in a meaningful way.
It came to me that poets who write primarily for the page are kind of anti-performers – and anarchists in the world of performance – flouting a lot of very happy performance norms. I’m going to blog separately about why my leanings are totally to the page/reading side of things – but please know here that I operate from the principle of nobody is doing anything wrong and that I believe that mostly people make decisions based on what feels appropriate to them in their practice and delivery.
What I learned was that this kind of poetry conforms more to visual art norms – or any artwork which you can buy and take home – in that the receiver, whether reader or viewer or hearer, can choose how long they spend with the piece of art. I can stay with a poem kind happily for a few years. The poets – those few who are still alive – would, I expect, find my long-term engagement difficult if it required physical presence.
Artwork here is durable across time. The work is written down, in a sense, to create a middle-place between the poets’ and the readers’ imaginations where the reader can do a certain amount of refurnishing and recontextualising in their own time – in every sense of that phrase – and all of this a fortunate part of the process of poetry.
I was working with two artists whose artwork was, primarily, in the performance. (Martin as a composer, however, has the more long-lived aspect in his other musical composition). And both their performance worlds had slightly different norms as well.
Timing was an issue because of external constraints of venue scheduling and audience expectation. And any performance that is ephemeral and embodied must take into account the needs of other bodies – toilet breaks, eating, clearing the eyes, ears, throats.
Those are things everybody knows. Exciting times came for us in trying to create a performance with three artforms, two vastly different communication styles – and one which respects but does not privilege their own artwork in its performed state.
We all made concessions but what we didn’t do is work out what duration programmers were likely to require and split it in three and say here’s your allocation, fill it. While taking into account that there are differences in airtime – our choices were primarily artistically- and midde place- driven with some tailoring relating to the communication norms of our individual practices.
Improvision in a place of Permance
You never step into the same river twice.
The first time I came across the concept of improvisation was watching Stéphane Grappelli on the Late Late Show and my awed father explaining to me that he composing the piece in real time.
While whatever familiarity I’d had previously was in the area of jazz/music composition, improvisation as a display of composer/performer virtuosity is something I have a great deal of respect for. I was interested here to understand what it meant in terms of both Paula and Martin’s respective, and joint, practices. I was also interested to understand the ‘why’ of it and what felt, for them, particularly inspiring about it in the areas of choreography and composition.
However, while an exploration of dance/movement elements within my poetry was a central focus of my own work, changing my practice in that regard wasn’t something that excited me, perhaps, mostly because I am not part of the ‘performance poetry’ world. For all that I wondered and wondered and wondered again, what are the lines of latitude that run between improvised dance practice and poetry whose normal residence is on the page.
Proposition 1: Editing & Performed Reading Curation
I wondered whether ‘in the moment’ affect-to-choreography may be approximate (and only ever approximate) in intention to what is going on in the editing process of a written piece. My editing process is an ongoing re-entering inspiration, refining, asking, negotiating, feeling my way to the next step in its creation. The final piece – and this may not be every poet’s wish – is to create a structure delicate enough that the reader/hearer can enter the piece as part-receiver, part-owner. I trust that the right words will find the right ears (whether they be the ears of the eyes or not). For me the better I know a piece, the more I can ‘let it go’ – and I have had the experience of ‘seeing’ a long finished poem take on a whole different meaning when reading it to a particular audience. Quick note here to say I find an audience can be a very potent artistic partner. And in this case, that vibrant newness that seemed to be a key part of improvised work, can come into play for me beyond the act of original composition.
I do, however, feel that improvisation is an ‘in-the-moment, in-the-same-body’ conversation between choreographer and performer. And so I did revisit also my commitment to the act of trust that happens in the time that words – whether written or spoken – are transmitted and received, and how that affects how I relay my work. It may be worth saying also that I, like many readers, will leave a reading structure loose, intending to curate a reading sequence that is affected by what’s actually happening at the event.
Proposition 2: Improvised Editing
A little magical. I discovered as we progressed that I couldn’t edit the poem elements of the dance~poems out of context. I needed to hear/feel/see all that was going on to keep the integrity of the joint work. Three, out of the four, settled into a format that had enough openness in the writing to accommodate largish changes in the dance/music elements that came through the improvisation process. One element – a longish piece called (for now) ‘The Round Dance’ defied capture. Altogether. Like the other piece it had structure enough and openness but… I never read the same piece twice.
On the night before the second full performance, I was in despair. Then I had a break-through. What if the ongoing ‘edits’ were in fact new pieces created as a result of new inspiration in the moment. On each iteration I seemed to be adding new layers and/or stripping out ones that seemed to have slipped through the net of the current dispensation of the dance~poem.
What if I challenged myself to do a full scale recalibration on stage (by which I mean change an element/s of the whole thing and retune the whole structure so it still holds up – a bit like moving round a stud wall). Which is more or less what I did. I don’t think anybody else would have realised what was going on but it was an interesting challenge.
The line between Poetry and Poetic Hokey Pokey
You put a word in here, and a phrase in there…
Did you do the Hokey Pokey as a child (some call it the Hokey Cokey)? I can still be an enthusiastic participant when the situation calls for it. It’s a good old workshop, great for entertaining smallies, and I don’t know about you but I’ve found as I enter the middle place of middle age there are vast amount of new body parts that can be ‘put in’ or taken out…
Aligned to the guideline that the poem elements would function as publishable poems, I found, in this collaboration, I was often navigating the territory of what poetry is. And then beating a nihilistic retreat into a knot of writhing words, some of which were shaping up nicely, and others were just missing something.
So what is Poetic Hokey Pokey?
Not only does the Hokey Pokey provide a fun break for you and your toddler or preschooler, it also helps your child’s physical and mental development. From an intellectual perspective, it also teaches parts of the body, opposite sides and motor skills. Dancing the Hokey Pokey creates self-control and coordination, even if your little one isn’t naturally athletic. Source LINK – http://living.thebump.com/teaching-children-hokey-pokey-17210.html
Sometimes we recognise things by what they are not. As light-hearted as the name is, Poetic Hokey Pokey isn’t a particularly flippant concept. It’s a name that I’ve given to a recognisable, excellent art practice – in this instance in the world of poetry composition – but I believe elements of all artforms have Hokey Pokey transfer potential.
The Hokey Pokey, itself, while being fun and fabulous, is also a skilled tool to teach those who need to learn it (often, but not always, small children) – by creating complex connections – the link between object names and those objects whose names belong to body parts under motor control. Artform Hokey Pokey, I have noticed in a range of contexts, has a similar artistic function of making connections – causal, casual and/or creative – between indivdual words, phrases, repeated refrains and elements of the wider artform/s where they appear.
An example of this, which I came across during the year, was a fascinating exploration of memory and social/political landscape. A video piece with an emphasis on the visual, it also included a sound score with poetry – in this case the heavily repeated phrase ‘the cookies are in the kitchen‘.
I experienced this as adding to the overall artistic expression, working well as an integrous part of the overall piece of art, and using, very creatively, mechanisms that are stock-in-trade in poetry-making. But every part of my instinct said while this is really good, it isn’t poetry.
Because you asked me about the line between poetry and Poetic Hokay Pokey
I am rephrasing the title of Howard Nemerov’s poem that I use as a marker of where poetry ends and prose begins.
I think everyone one who writes poetry will/should find themselves from time to time negotiating boundaries. For me, it’s generally more a feeling than a set of rules or regulations. What was useful about this collaboration is that it allowed me to gain more understanding of what lay on either side of the border – and make an educated choice on how I wanted to particiate on both sides.
Poetry is made up of so many versatile elements – all with fascinating artistic applications in their own right. Weight, size, shape, resonance, sound, movement, depth, feel, rhythm, echo, phsyical presence, space, grammatical scoring and so on. And the joy of words as an art material is that you also have meaning and communication packed in whereever you put them. I would argue even if you just use shapes of letters.
So it stands to reason that these elements have been – and will continue to be – used in wider art works. Those who write poetry are liable to be excited by this (well I am) but the problem with Hokey Pokey is that – and I mean this kindly and gently – it can lack a certain contemporary/sophistication when set against poetry which exists in it’s fullest form – and I’m back to ‘not airtime but resonance’ here.
This dividing line is one which has caused me discomfort to the point of considering stepping back from poetry/non-word based collaborations. And that coupled with the fact that I always want poetry to stand ‘eye to eye’ with high end, raw intense, but largely non-verbal explorations of human experience – in the way that I know it can.
This collaboration provided a framework for full-orchestral poetry composition to function in equal artistic partnership, without needing to strip back the words until they were operating elements of a wider artform. Appearing here as an integral, and still connecting, whole in their own right. The process allows for that.