Dancing Words at the BFI, London: An Afternoon of Poetry Made Movement

Still of Ella Mesma dancing in ‘Ballad of the Small-Boned Daughter’ by Mona Arshi

On January 30th Dancing Words productions showed five dance poetry films at the British Film Institute, London. These included two new pieces with poems by Forward First Collection Prize winner Mona Arshi and T. S. Eliot Prize winner Sarah Howe & internationally recognised dancers/choreographers Ella Mesma and Shelley Maxwell. The audience was incredibly diverse; their ages ranged from 7- 70 plus and they covered a wide range of backgrounds and interests. There were poets, critics, academics dancers, choreographers, dance theorists, filmmakers, curious members of the public and even a Professor of Neuroscience.

In less than a week the new viewings of DW pieces on You Tube has been over 3000.

This is the introduction I gave as Creative Director and Founder of DW:

What is Dancing Words? To put it simply Dancing Words translates poetry into movement, two of my greatest passions. Ever since I was a child, I have found that a good poem speaks to my mind; a great poem speaks through my body. It bypasses the mind and becomes electrical ripples through neurons, muscles and skin. It breathes and has a life. For some poems the only way to fully express the words, the pauses is through movement,

  • a ripple,
  • a contraction
  • a rhythm,
  • a line so perfect

it has to be danced.

I’m the person who rushes home from poetry readings so that I can ‘dance’ the poems out.
I am by no means the first person to find a connection between dance and poetry. Artists Benji Reid & Jonzi D are doing amazing work in this area: physical l theatre using hip-hop and spoken word. Their pieces are extraordinary and dazzling. More recently, performance poets including Sabrina Mahfouz and Toni Stuart have taken part in dance pieces at Sadlers Wells combining poetry with flamenco and kathak. My interest, however, is not in this kind of large scale performance, it is the desire to translate the intimacy and immediacy of reading a great poem into movement. To transpose that ‘whisper straight to the soul’; to take the most private moment and make it public.

Still of Shelley Maxwell in ‘Tame’ by Sarah Howe

My interest in poetry has dictated much of my career path: a PhD in Latin American poetry, 20 years in writer development. The passion for dance has always been there as well; it began to take form when researching for my PhD in Argentina. The research turned into an interest-and then an obsession -with tango dance and culture. This became a focus of my thesis and of my life. I trained in Latin dance and then in contemporary. I watched endless videos of great dance pieces, went to dance performances, read books about theory and movement. The vision I had in my head of dance when I read poetry became more and more defined.

I began to look for dancers who could create a kind of movement that would match what I saw in my head. I can do a rough version of the poem, hopefully enough to communicate with the dancers a rough translation but not to take it to the next level. And over the years I found the dancers I needed. Dancers of intelligence and fluidity. The dancers I was drawn to combine contemporary ballet –the great rule breaker of the canon- with other forms: Latin, African, capoeira, soca, hip-hop, jazz to incredibly high levels. All of the DW dancers are specialised in more than one form and recognised at an international level: Ella Mesma (contemporary, Latin, hip hop), Shelley Maxwell ( Latin, contemporary, dancehall), Sean Graham ( jazz, contemporary, hip hop), Leon Rose ( salsa, soca, contemporary).

Still of Shelley Maxwell in ‘Tame’ by Sarah Howe

In 2014 I presented the first of the Dancing Words pieces at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank: poet Kayo Chingonyi danced a piece with Sean Graham and they received a standing ovation. And that’s when DW really started. Since that time I have made a series of short poetry dance films with incredible artists. These films have been shown at festivals, Universities, dance companies and art venues all over the world, including the United States, Latin America, Europe and the Caribbean reaching tens of thousands. And that’s what it is really about; finding new ways for poetry to reach a greater number of people. In this case through dance.

Why does it matter? There are some in the poetry world who would have you believe that it is better to close doors than open them; to exclude people rather than to include them. I strongly disagree. In a recent interview on BBC radio Forward Prize winning poet Mona Arshi was asked why poetry is important. She replied that ‘poetry is needed in difficult times’. There is little doubt that we are currently living in difficult times- politically, socially, economically for many of us, personally. The last year has seen many of the certainties we held to, significantly questioned. The centre-as it turns out- does not hold. It is at these times that poetry has a special role to play; a role of bearing witness, or providing a memorial, commemorating what is lost, or reminding us who we can be.

Ella Mesma in ‘Ballad of the Small-Boned Daughter’ by Mona Arshi

Dance poetry, particularly in the medium of film, allows a greater number of people to experience the special power and beauty of poetry. It is no coincidence that every piece DW produces gives voice to the silenced, the marginalised the oppressed. This is the gift of poetry, made greater here through dance. The films tell the stories of young soldiers experiencing PTSD, the tragedy of stillbirth, the outcome of the one child policy, an honour killing. In many cases they are stories of the body, told through the body. A way of allowing the body to become a space of resistance and empowerment. But first and foremost these pieces are art and I invite you to watch, dream and enjoy the journey.

Dr Nathalie Teitler,
Founder of Dancing Words

Ballad of the Small-Boned Daughter – Mona Arshi with Ella Mesma

Tame – Sarah Howe with Shelley Maxwell

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 – http://www.thecompleteworks.net), 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.