Slow-dancing the Poem: Body of Words @ Dixon Place

Rosamund S. King "Cocoon" - photo by Madhu Kaza

Belladonna: Body of Words:  Tuesday, February 15,  7 pm at Dixon Place.  The critical and kinesthetic intersection of text and physical performance featuring Alexandra Beller Dances, Rosamond S. King, Lauren Nicole Nixon, and  Sally Silvers. Tickets ($6)

Poets can make language seem to dance.  What happens when dancers duet with words?

This question bubbles up beneath next Tuesday’s installment of the literature series at Dixon Place.   I queried curator Emily Faye Skillings and her chosen artists about this, and the measure of the meter went something like this:

Hey, Emily, how did this evening come about and how did you initially become involved?

Well, I’ve been working for Belladonna*, a feminist poetry collective, for almost two years, and we have this amazing relationship with Dixon Place where they let us curate three nights per season.  I think Dixon Place is a wonderful lab for experimental performance, and when I started curating literary events there with Rachel Levitsky, Belladonna*s co-founder, I had this idea for possibly doing a dance event sometime, but wasn’t really sure how things would come together.

When Rachel asked Phoneme Choir, a movement chorus aimed by Daria Fain and Robert Kocik at de-constructing and re-structuring the English language, to perform at Dixon Place for Belladonna*s fall benefit performance, I got a better sense of how we could host an event that supported performances that are also texts.

How did you originally conceive the program, and has that conception changed significantly as you’ve worked it out?  If so, what influenced the nature of the changes?

This year Belladonna* is celebrating “the commons,”  a beautiful, very old idea that in every community there is space that is shared or able to be accessed by everyone.  In the art community, this translates to work that is somehow “multiple” (multi-authored, collaborative, hybrid etc.) and this year we are publishing works that have these characteristics.  This got me thinking about dance, and how everybody is doing this great “hybrid” work that reaches outside of dance and into different fields.  The work is hybrid, but somehow the events are not.  The events are a performance for the same people.  I go to dance performances and see the same people in the audience, and at some point I started thinking where are the architects? Where are the visual artists; where are the poets at these performances that are incorporating this beautiful poetry?  Where is the hybridization of the event, not only in terms of the audience and the content of the performance, but in the structure of the evening itself?

I knew some people who were using poetry in their dance work, and so I asked them to contribute a short, 5-15 minute piece, work in-process, or lecture demonstration.   The first four people I asked became the line-up.

First, I asked Rosamond King, whom I met this summer at Bates Dance Festival after admiring her poetry for many years.  She sings her work.  You are never bored or disengaged when she reads, but I had no idea she was a dance artist.  She was touring Bates with Cynthia Oliver’s company at the time and came into my class and we talked a little about poetry.  Months later I ran into her at the Brooklyn Book Festival and basically promised her a performance!  This is a very risky thing to do in the early stages of event-planning, but I knew I wanted her to show something.

I asked Lauren Nicole Nixon, whom I’ve collaborated with, and who I knew was making powerful solo work that incorporated her poetry. I asked Alexandra Beller, who has been my mentor for many years and who is really craving feedback from the literary community on the way she uses text.  I nervously asked Sally Silvers, a woman whose work totally embodies the text/poetry axis for me, and she said yes–and those were the perfect people.

What changed was the integration of publishing into the event.  In the past, when Belladonna* had a reading, we published a section of whatever the author was working on at the time in a “commemorative chaplet” or small chapbook.  This way, the reading/event had a life in our published work.  It was a beautiful honoring of the event.

Rachel Levisky suggested that I publish a chaplet for the event, so I solicited performance texts from the artists.  These texts are poems, handwritten notes, gatherings of ideas and they really speak to each other when they are next to each other in this little book.   In the book the texts gather in amazing conversation, which is exactly what I hope will happen the night of the performance.

What does curation mean in your mind?  How has your idea of your function or role developed in the course of your interaction with others and work on the project?

Sally Silvers photo by Lois Greenfield

To me, curation is being prepared, but not so over-prepared that things are wooden.   For instance, I’ve never met Sally Silvers, and I haven’t seen 3 of the 4 pieces in the showcase.  When everything is pre-choreographed I’ve found that it tends to stultify conversation.  I have these texts and my conversations with the artists and I’m supported by a collaborative of eleven wonderful women and that feels like enough.  On a simple level, curating is facilitating and gathering.   It’s a kind of fragile thing, making sure everyone’s individual expectations for the evening are taken care of.

Initially, I had an idea for the evening that was more streamlined.  As I spoke to the artists I realized that many of them wanted feedback, and that this event was going to be a performance lab for their work, so I knew that I would need to incorporate a lot of discussion into the evening.  This makes it more of a hybrid event in my mind.  There is the performance, the published text and the discussion of both.

Have you seen or been involved in similar events? Did you have a model in mind on which you based your approach? If so what promises to give this evening its specific brilliance?

My friend Saifan Shmerer runs an amazing series called VIP(arty) in DUMBO with her friend Sarah Rosner.  They invite choreographers to show their work in a restaurant space (which completely re-shapes your idea of the performance, when people are both eating and attending a performance and the bodies are right up next to you, unapologetically).  When the performance ends, she shepherds the audience into a semi-circle and moderates what always turns out to be a brilliant conversation.  I think these talk-backs are so successful because she first asks the artists if they have any questions for the audience. Then she opens up the conversation so that the audience can ask their own questions.  When you give the audience a point-of-entry like that, everyone feels more comfortable.

I asked Saifan to help me moderate Body of Words, so that she could bring that knowledge of facilitation to the conversations preceding and following the performance.  There is going to be a lot of talking.  I think what makes it special is that it’s a dance performance hosted by a poetry collaborative.  When does that happen?

How do you hope and/or plan that the show and/or its artists/presenters will engage its audience?  Who do you hope will come?  At this stage, what would a successful evening look like, at least in your head?

Last night I couldn’t sleep (my feet were hot) and so I was thinking about the event.   I was thinking about this text by Eileen Myles that Belladonna* just published in a chaplet.   Myles says this about curating her poetry series, Scout:

“The crowd that came out for these women was astonishing.  Because…they should have all known each other, the people who knew each of these women—but they didn’t.   Curating, it seems to me is about remembering to draw lines between people.  Making a human chain of connections and concerns.” (From Dear Lia p. 7)

This is how I feel about this event.  The poets I know should know and be inspired by the dancers and choreographers I know, and vice versa.  A more language-focused audience will be hyper aware of a textual element that might otherwise fall into the background, and this will be useful for the choreographers.  Many poets should be more aware of their bodies—in their texts, when they read.  I hope this event forges relationships between performers, among the audience members, between the viewers and the artists.   I hope that this event will help bridge gaps between these disciplines, practices, and communities.  Also the name for the event is way too long, I think that’s why people aren’t listing it, so I hope people make fun of that.

from a guerilla performance photo by Swati Khurana

So, Lauren and Rosamond, when Emily invited you to be part of this program where did your imagination take you in terms of possibilities and/or ambitions?  How did you scale up down or sideways to what you will actually present, why, and how long or easy or challenging has that process proved?

Lauren Nicole Nixon: I started with a pretty solid idea and then things slowly fell apart, quite frankly.  I typically have a sort of game plan for how I like to work, a sort of over-organized mapping of the who/what/when/where and why of the work, but then I had to be honest with myself and realize that it wasn’t working for me so well this time around.  Once I got real with myself, I spent quite a bit of time rifling through old journals and just moving and then moving some more.  Then it just sort of spilled out of me.  I didn’t have to push it as much.  The biggest challenge came from altering my traditional work process and getting out of my own way.

Rosamond S. King: Body of Words has given me a push to gather some ideas and gestures I’ve been thinking about for a while into a presentable snippet.  I’ve been thinking about the ideas behind “Spectacle/SPECTACULAR” (the presence or absence of the poet/scholar body and the omnipresence of the drag/vogue body) for at least a year.  What will be presented at Dixon Place coalesced over the last three months.

Who, if anyone, outside of the usual suspects (whatever that might mean to you) do you hope might turn up in the audience?  How do you think, plan or hope that they will they be attracted?

King: I’m pretty sure it won’t be anyone’s usual suspects.  I hope each person will draw some like-minded folk and, mixed with DP’s usual eclectic bunch and the Belladonna crew, we’ll have an alchemy of experimental, funky artfolk.

Nixon: I have no concept of what the audience will look like at all, and that’s quite exciting for me!  I spent most of my time sharing ideas and concepts with non-dancer friends about the work (painters, photographers, musicians, writers and so on) and that really assisted me in understanding how different people would potentially approach the work.  I don’t have an imagined audience, especially as a new/emerging artist, and I hope that my work feeds all sorts of people.

Creative life, and certainly NYC creative life, tends to be full of unique one offs such as this evening of shared performance. If you’ve been around long enough you’ve probably gained some perspective on the processes they feed into both in your own working and/or presentation process and in the creative commons more generally.  Has any thought crossed your mind as to how you might reference this event in five years or seven or ten? If not, would to have had any such  thought been unusual, even undreamt of? If so, what were you thinking?

Nixon: This event is truly my ideal performance.  As a new/emerging artist, I’ve been involved in festivals and shared space with alot of great people.  It’s refreshing not to have to work within really strict binaries in terms of defining myself as just a poet or just a mover.  Quite often, I feel pressured to push either poetry or movement to the side so that one can be the “star,” but this performance assisted me in realizing that weaving both forms is really important in terms of both the process and the product in my work.

King: What was I thinking? CAD, BD, BAD, or CD*

2 thoughts on “Slow-dancing the Poem: Body of Words @ Dixon Place”

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