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Poetry + Motion: Where Words Come to Life

Written by Mariko Nagashima 

(Photo: Dancer Scott Bartell and poet
Alvin Lloyd Alexander Horn)
Sunday, October 23rd, marked the first anniversary of Poetry + Motion, a unique event held in the “Downstairs at Town Hall” space. Audiences have long been accustomed to witnessing words with music, or dance with music, but in Sunday’s Poetry + Motion event, the audience experienced the subtraction of music from the equation, allowing words and dance to interact alone together. To accomplish this half-poetry-slam half-dance concert, the event coordinators, Lola Peters and Suzanne Simmons, asked six dancers to select poems by local poets that inspired them. The dancers then choreographed or improvised a dance while the writers read the poems aloud. The effect was symbiotic; one medium informed the other, giving viewers the opportunity to access both from a different avenue.

Though in many instances the dancers fell into the trap of miming the subject matter with simplistic gestures, the times when they transcended this basic idea were quite powerful. In “Trees Are Falling—Human Trees,” written by Alvin Lloyd Alexander Horn, dancer Scott Bartell offered a moving interpretation while dazzling with impeccable ballet technique and inventive combinations of steps. Illuminating the injustice in and culpability of a society in which “trees” such as Martin Luther King and Malcom X are “cut down” by “chainsaws loaded with bullets,” Bartell leapt in place in frustration and trembled in rage as he lay down, another fallen tree. Dani Long also gave an evocative performance in “A Coil Called Skin” by poet Kumani Gantt. Violently shaking his arms, he initially attempted to shed the shackles of his skin. Later, as Gantt spoke about questioning identity, Long’s frenzied African dance-inspired jumps and undulations echoed this confusion.

(Photo: Dancer Kristen Kissell and poet
Alvin Lloyd Alexander Horn)
In the humorous “I’m So Ready” by Brenda Gale Wright, a work about searching for love in all the wrong places, dancers Victoria Jacobs and Kristen Kissell peered about the stage, exasperated. Their subtle glances and shoulder shrugs enhanced the poem’s tongue-in-cheek tone. Jacobs also stood out in Gantt’s “Stone Tablets,” about gritty urban life. From popping and locking her shoulders in the beginning to a final backward arch, hands covering her mouth as if screaming out because she “can’t run when she hears gunshots,” her full immersion in the language was apparent in each movement.

The sultry “Break Open the Blues for Billie Holiday,” by Monique Franklin, featured dancer Erricka Turner Davis slinking across the stage, coolly flicking her fingers and swaying supplely. The combination of Franklin’s velvety voice and Turner’s sultry style evoked great jazz music without anyone ever playing a note. Davis’s dancing also showed a sweet tenderness in the ode to mother’s love, “Do You Know Mommy Loves You” by Brenda Gale Wright.

A distinctive collaboration, Poetry + Motion created the opportunity to consider dance in a new light. Even though the choreography could have used more depth at times, the framework in which it was performed gave it a unique flair. Without the rhythms of music, the dancers became finely attuned to the poets’ voices, mirroring each shifting cadence and articulate pronunciation. The images their bodies created brought a greater level of understanding to the words, by introducing a moving, visual element. Definitely a program worth seeing, Poetry + Motion will be producing its next event this coming February.