Finding New Ways to Create | Body Passages Series: Poetry and Dance Collaborations

Finding New Ways to Create | Body Passages Series: Poetry and Dance Collaborations

By Elizabeth Harper

Tomorrow, Friday, Oct. 12 and Saturday, Oct. 13, Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble and Chicago Poetry Center present the Body Passages Series.

The Body Passages Series, now in its second year, is an incubative performance series and artistic residency program for dancers and poets co-curated by Sara Maslanka (Artistic Director of CDE) and Natasha Mijares (Reading Series and Events Coordinator for CPC).

Over a 10-month period, poets and dancers have been collaborating to create and develop their own performances fusing language and movement on this year’s theme “Activation.” The individuals in each performance group vary in age, experience, race, gender, sexual identity and belief systems. Featured performers include: Allison Sokolowski and Maggie Robinson; Carly Broutman, Michelle Shafer and Jeanette Green; David Nekimken; Lani Montreal and Maxine Patronik. Each performance will feature an interactive post-show gallery, which welcomes audience members to join the dialogue around “Activation” and engage personally with the artists.

In September, I attended a workshop called “Creator's Kit to Devising” at Woman Made Gallery in which this year’s collaborators engaged participants in exercises they used to generate ideas for their collaborative creations. I went out of curiosity. My question was, “Why poetry with dance?” I actually got a lot out of the workshop including four short poems I wrote during it and also some insights about parallels between dancing and writing. The process of creating, with writing and choreography, and no doubt other types of creation including drawing, painting, collaging, etc., is a process of discovery and there are various ways to prompt and disrupt that process. I ended up thinking of dance as a form of asemic writing.

David Nekimken had us write Golden Shovel poems. In a Golden Shovel poem, for those not in the know, you take a line from a poem you admire, and use each word in the line as an end word in your poem while maintaining the order. The form was invented by Terrance Hayes as a tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks.

David used the poem “a song in the front yard” by Gwendolyn Brooks for his Golden Shovel poem. Then the participants picked a line from that poem to come up with their own poems.

This is mine:

I want a peek at the back

They never could see me and I
couldn’t see them. Told what I should want,
but they could never imagine me as a
girl who lurked late to get a peek
through the dark, leering at
those sweet painted ladies dancing in the
booths, sticky and hot, in the back…

So how do you talk about this kind of poem and relate it to dance? Setting up the end words first and then creating the poem means each end word prompts its line and then the next line. It’s like a jolt of momentum that carries the poem forward to completion. In describing it, David actually made a gesture with his arm, a sweeping back and forth, zigzagging downward motion. He also compared the end word to the “ding” sound you would get when you got to the end of the line on an old-fashioned typewriter. (That’s what we used in the olden times before computers, kids.)

Collaborators singer-songwriter Michelle Shafer, poet Jeanette (Jae) Green, and dancer Carly Broutman had us form a circle, and we came up with phrases or movements related to autumn and spontaneously shared them with the group. Many thought of autumn memories such as holidays and certain foods. Some called out the words or phrases or described the memory, and some pantomimed activities. I thought of kicking leaves out of my way and being blown around by the wind, so that was an improvised dance movement, which was fun for me.

Here’s the poem I came up with on the theme of autumn:


kicking dogs
damn leaves
wind pushes against
gets in my way
crowds of pedestrians
bundled, closed off

how I want to give in
give up the struggle
stop fighting the wind
stop fighting death and decay
and accept their role
in rebirth, the
individual no more
important than any
fallen leaf

Allison Sokolowski and Maggie Robinson are collaborating together. For their part of the workshop they had us listen to recordings of people talking about how they felt about their identity (cultural, societal, ethnic, gender, sexual, etc.) and write down words and phrases that stuck out for us. And the point of this extraction is to come up with a vocabulary of buzz words that collaborators can use to communicate their ideas to each other across disciplines and they can also function as metaphors and images that can become movements in the dance and tools for storytelling. For example, one of the speakers used the phrase “pulling thread,” which is an idea I can imagine being expanded upon and made into a dance either as pantomime or by using the whole body to dance like an unraveling, wayward thread.

Here’s the poem of buzz words I came up with:

(as we)

For their part of the workshop, collaborators Lani Montreal and Maxine Patronik had us write short, mostly one-word, answers to a series of personal questions. Then we picked three of those answers and developed a dance movement for each one and then combined them into a series, which we repeated in various ways at various speeds. My words were: Betty Boop; drinking; and charity. I was able to come up with a coherent series of movements for that. When I think of Betty Boop, I think of taking very small steps on high heels. Drinking, holding a glass and bringing it to one’s lips, is easy enough to pantomime. And charity is a swooping arm motion culminating in an outreached hand.

I also got this poem out of one of my answers:

Playing Barbies

Doing what you want
in life is all about
having the right
accessories, a well
appointed living
space, the means
to travel, an extensive
wardrobe, the right hair
accessories, lots of shoes.
Ken is optional
but can be fun.

Leave them
behind when
you’re done.

Jeanette (Jae) Green

Jeanette (Jae) Green

From conversations with the collaborators and curators, especially Jeanette (Jae) Green, Sara Maslanka and Natasha Mijares, I was able to gain more insights into the interconnectedness of poetry and dance and the collaborative, creative process.

A lot of conversations happen among the collaborators in the development of the piece. There has to be some playfulness and willingness to make mistakes and stretch themselves as performers. Collaboration is a process of discovery. The projects are necessarily open-ended as they begin; they must be generated. And even in their finished forms, they rely on the collaboration of the audience to make meaning out of the performances. Each audience member brings their own experiences, preoccupations, connections, etc. to the viewing experience. And this makes me think of open texts, particularly Language poetry, where it’s expected that the reader will make their own meaning out of the text, so there are enough gaps and omissions, but also words as signposts, in the text to make that possible. We also talked about various constraints and disruptions that dancers can use in developing choreography. This makes me think of Oulipo. And I asked if dancers came up with their own vocabulary of movements that they found themselves partial to and coming back to again and again, just as I may have certain favorite words or phrases that I tend to use, and the answer was, yes.

One reason this topic of the connections between writing and dance is so interesting to me is that dancing has always been an integral, essential part of my writing process. I always get my best ideas when I’m dancing. So writing for me often involves bursts of movement while I’m writing. Really, it’s been this way since I was a little child, and only someone who lived with me would see this. I’m sure it looks very bizarre.

But as I was talking with Sara, she mentioned that writing is always part of her process of developing choreography. She finds herself writing squiggles, grids, squares, circles, etc. And this was a happy revelation to me, and what made me come to think of dance as asemic writing, an open text, highly individual yet universally accessible.

Body Passages Series: Poetry and Dance Collaboration

Body Passages Poster.jpg

Friday, October 12 & Saturday, October 13
8 p.m.
Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble Auditorium
1650 W. Foster Ave, Chicago, IL 60640

$15 | General Advance
$20 | General Door
$10 | Students & Seniors Advance
$15 | Students & Seniors Door


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