The Beginning

Dancing Words is an exploration of what happens when you combine poetry and dance in new and diverse ways. We’d love to hear from you so please feel free to comment on the website, or go to the Facebook page or Twitter of the same name.

The Beginning

What happens when you combine dance with page poetry?

Sean Graham performing Kayo Chingonyi's poem at the Purcell Room, Southbank

Sean Graham performing Kayo Chingonyi’s poem at the Purcell Room, Southbank

This was the question which drove me to start the Dancing Words project after many years of working in the dance and poetry sectors. Almost all of the dance-poetry collaborative work I had seen was under the heading of physical theatre, in which dance (often hip-hop based) and poetry (often, but not always, spoken word) are combined in exciting and energy charged shows. I have immense admiration for this work – particularly the brilliant work of pioneer Benji Reid – but was interested in doing something a little different; something which placed much more emphasis on the language, form and structure of the poetry. I wanted to see if I could combine poetry and dance using a process much like translation from one language to another, or the technique of transposition taking music from one key to another. In doing this there were a few things I wanted to find out:

1) Is it possible to transfer the intimacy & complexity of page poetry onto the stage?

2) Is it possible to bring silence onto the stage as stillness? To mark in dance the points of high tension, the turns, the key repeating rhythms and patterns of poetry? To make the poem breath as a physical entity?

and most of all:

3) Can poetry and dance be combined in such a way as to make a new hybrid form, greater than either one alone and which brings in new audiences?

Pulling it together

For five years I carefully watched choreographers and dancers I knew, either from supporting their professional development or training with them. I developed an idea of what I was looking for in a collaborative artist, the most important thing being that they had reached the highest possible international standards in several dance forms, one of which would be lyric ballet or contemporary. I needed an artist who was flexible, exceptionally gifted, open to new ideas and loved language. It was a lot to ask but I found what I was looking for in several exceptional artists.

The first was Ella Mesma – a young choreographer/dancer of mixed heritage who has formed her own company, been a soloist on the stage for contemporary icon Russell Maliphant, performed at hip-hop’s Breakin’ Convention and been the Queen of Rio Samba Carnival. All before reaching the age of 30.

dancing words ella mesma

The second dancer/choreographer was Sean Graham. Emerging from a background in hip-hop and UK Jazz, Sean has been a temporary resident artist in partnership with State Of Emergency Ltd and The Bernie Grant Arts Centre (2007) and excels in a variety of forms. His work has been seen at Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Opera House. He is also an activist with a love of words; as soon as I saw him perform I knew that he would be perfect for a collaboration.

The third was dancer/choreographer Leon Rose who is internationally respected for his Latin and contemporary mix and the work of his Company. As with Sean and Ella, Leon has a love of words as well as dance.

Leon Rose

In 2014 I curated a major event at the Southbank for the national poetry company I direct, The Complete Works Poetry (TCW is an organisation which promotes diversity and quality in British Poetry –, I decided that this new anthology launch would be the perfect place to introduce some exploratory dance-poetry collaborations. I decided to pick poems from the anthology which had strong visual images as well as strong rhythms, changes in energy and an internal sense of movement. The first was by Somalian poet, Warsan Shire, ‘The Ugly Daughter’. The second by Zambian poet, Kayo Chingonyi, ‘Some Bright Elegance’. In each case I marked up the poems as if I were marking a score.


I decided Sean was ideally suited to working with Kayo and Ella with Warsan. I explained the vision to the artists at our first meeting and that it was an experimental piece so that they were free to explore and play. And then I let the magic happen.

Kayo Chingonyi and Sean Graham, ‘Some Bright Elegance’, Purcell Room, Southbank, October 6th 2015

Ella Mesma and Warsan Shire, ‘The Ugly Daughter’ 
Purcell Room, Southbank, October 6th 2015

The two pieces were a huge success, Kayo and Sean’s piece received a standing ovation; I decided to take the work further and this led to the current project, funded generously by Arts Council England- ‘Dancing Words’.

What Next?

The project will see three new poetry-dance collaborations being made and filmed. The first will be an extension of Kayo and Sean’s previous work. Ella Mesma will now work with Karen McCarthy Woolf and the final piece will see contemporary/Latin dancer, Leon Rose working with Malika Booker (for full details see bios). This website will chart the progress, the challenges and successes along the way for the filmmaker Fiona Melville, the dancer/choreographers, the poets, myself as Creative Director and eventually the audience. Early next year a symposium on dance-poetry collaboration will be held in London and I look forward to as many art organisations and individuals being involved as possible.


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