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.
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).
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.
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