Dance & Spoken Word: Making Polos

Hi everyone! I’m so excited to announce that today we’re publicly releasing the new video for my poem “Polos”! The poem is linked at the bottom of this post, but rather than just posting the video up here I thought I’d also share the creative process that went into conceiving and producing this work. It’s the product of a lot of experimentation, inter-medium translation, and collaboration. For the story and the video, read more after the jump!

This project began almost four years ago, when I was a sophomore studying English and Dance at Bates College. I was in a Dance Advanced Composition course taught by Rachel Boggia in which the project was to choreograph a solo dance piece. At the time I was wrestling with a lot of body confidence issues, so I wanted to use the project to process these issues. I was a bit lost with how to start choreographing, but kept writing poetry on the subject, so I decided to use text to jumpstart my project (one major thing I’ve learned with inter-medium collaboration: if you just can’t start making in one medium, try jamming the topic out in another medium to get the juices flowing!). So, I wrote a poem for my high school dance teacher, who clearly struggled with body image issues: about how we as young dancers inherited some of these problems through her teaching, even though she did not mean to pass them on.

I found that writing poetry about the experience allowed me to be more exacting about it; to share a narrative with rich personal meaning using storytelling. But then, since the story was about bodies (and since the goal was to make a dance), I needed to somehow convert this text into movement. I decided to play around with performing the poem (memorised) while dancing: to directly bring these two art forms into conversation with each other.

I was curious about the fruitful intersection between dance and poetry; how a movement can underscore a line, or subvert its message; how moving almost to the point of breathlessness so that speech becomes difficult alters its meaning; how significant pauses (in speech or movement) become in this context. This is a mode of choreographing which is still one of my main tools when creating work: begin with textual material, then transfer it into movement. Going back and forth between mediums can yield rich new material. (There’s a blog post coming soon which explores this idea of ‘kinetic poetry’ in more depth; stay tuned). I began by improvising movement while performing the poem aloud, then accumulated and set the movement into a kind of poem-dance.

This is a video which captured excerpts of the poem-dance when I performed it at the 2012 Bates Arts Crawl in that rough draft format:

 

Eventually, I took the choreography that I had developed through the Polos project and performed it divorced from the text as part of the final dance piece. For me, the movement was still imbued with the words which had helped to develop it; the textual, meaning-coded power was still present. I unfortunately don’t have the link to video of that project, but it was an odd piece (entitled “Flesh III”) involving a strip tease to Queen’s “Fat Bottom Girls” and solo agitated dancing in a spotlight while my exact body measurements were read out again and again.

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Photo Credit: Arthur Fink

Photo credits: (L) Arthur Fink, (R) Ebbe Sweet.

Photo credit: Ebbe Sweet.

I then left the project for a while, feeling as though I had exhausted the topic and wanting to move on. It wasn’t until I really began performing spoken word poetry last autumn that I picked it back up. As I wasn’t engaged in dance practice at that time, I decided to try performing just the poem, divorced from the words; to go the opposite direction. I edited the poem according to what I’d learned from my fellow performers in the Scottish poetry scene (and according to my changed perception of body image issues) and began performing it as a standalone poem. Here’s footage of an early performance of Polos, just as a poem:

Once I became more comfortable performing Polos just as a poem, I started experimenting again with adding back in bits of dance; keeping the piece primarily as a poem but enhancing it with movement to underscore the meaning. I started taking the mic out of the mic stand to give me more mobility on stage so that I could perform dance steps in certain sections if I wanted to, or go on relevé for the section about standing on pointe. This allowed me more freedom to innovate and to being a sense of the physical back into the piece.

And this bring us to the video project! In the spring of 2015 I decided to do a Kickstarter to fund the self-publication of my first poetry collection and the filming of my first poetry video. Perry Jonsson, the in-house videographer/photographer for Loud Poets and a very talented artist, agreed to work with me on both projects. We chose Polos for the video shoot because of the potential to experiment even further with combining poetry and dance. Perry was excited by the prospect of filming movement to coordinate it with the text and bringing a cinematic quality to the video.

In the name of innovation, and since I’d reworked the poem and learned more about it since 2012 when I’d first composed it, we decided not to replicate the first dance/poem piece. Time and space constraints prevented us from choreographing an entirely new dance piece; and we also wanted to allow room for flexibility and spontaneity in the studio and the editing process. We planned out many of the shots to underscore the words in the video, but while filming we mostly had me improvising while running the language of the poem in my head; again, to let the sense of the narrative influence the movement. While editing, Perry and I chose the most salient moments of the dance footage and matched them to the relevant sections of the poem. As easy as it might have been to pick “flattering” shots, we chose those which honestly underscored the message of the piece, which meant releasing ego and letting it all hang out (metaphorically and literally).

I hadn’t yet experienced the process of intensive video editing of my own work; it felt like choreographing after the dancing, which was unfamiliar and quite fun! It’s hard to sit still while watching yourself dance on a screen; I kept wanting to leap up and do a move again correcting a sickled foot, or turn out a little more, but that’s the challenge of video editing! You can’t be a perfectionist (which is somewhat the video’s message anyway). It was wonderful working with Perry, with his keen eye for what works on screen and technical accumen. If anyone in Scotland is looking for a videographer, I would highly recommend him (you can find him on his website and Facebook page).

 

I learned so much from developing this piece over the past four(ish) years, including:

  • Experiment! Never be afraid to play in the pools between art forms; it always yields something exciting and new.
  • Art is never a solitary effort; to get from inkling to production, you’re going to need (and want!) help, and the product will be so much richer for it. This never would have been possible without the backing of my Kickstarter supporters, or Perry, or the production assistants, musicians, social media promoters, etc.
  • Always plan for it to take way more time and work than you initially anticipate. There are always so many more factors that you expect, from equipment malfunctions to illnesses to work jams to simply wanting to take more time to make the project better.

And here it is! It feels wonderful to share with you the product of so much experimentation, collaboration, and community support. Thank you so much to everyone who helped make this: from my university dance professors for encouraging me to experiment with multiple mediums, to the spoken word poets in Scotland who have helped me develop my practice, to the Kickstarter supporters who funded this project, to the videographer, musicians, and production assistants who brought this video to life. Enjoy!

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