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CADENCE VIDEO POETRY FEST

Video poetry. As a poet, the concept intrigues me, but what exactly is it? The Cadence Video Poetry Festival defines it as a literary genre presented as visual media that makes new meaning from the combination of text and moving images. The Cadence Festival, in its seventh year, is a series of 55 screenings from 20 countries during National Poetry Month presented by the Northwest Film Forum in collaboration with Seattle author Chelsea Werner-Jatzke and artist Rana San. Workshops and an artist residency augment the screenings. The festival, which showed in theaters and online, includes five dance-forward video poems. In these works, the choreography is in response to poems which are both spoken and appear in subtitles. This fusion of dance and poetry is potent in that words and movement are assembled in unexpected ways.

Still from Antipodes, directors: Elena Motiejunaite & Lyja Maknaviciute, poet: Elena Motiejunaite, Lithuania, 2023, 4 min, in Lithuanian with hardcoded English subtitles.

Antipodes (meaning “points directly opposite”) filmed along the Mediterranean shores of Tenerife, Spain stands out in my mind as an apt example of how poetry, dance, and video use rhythm to stir our emotions. The dance starts as slow, contemporary flamenco, sometimes in the middle of a road where the dancer’s arms curve organically against the hard mountain in the background and sometimes by a building overlooking the sea. As the poem unfolds, emphatic heel strikes in the dirt pick up speed as images wash over me—the violinist playing her instrument in the surf, drawing her bow across the naked back of the dancer, the violin bow making a vagina-shaped tear in plastic, two women prone on the beach shells covering their naked breasts shuddering as waves hit their feet. 

The festival program says Antipodes (based on the poem of the same title by Elena Motiejunaite) is about friendship overcoming life’s challenges. I don’t know that I got that exactly upon first viewing. But part of the beauty of video is being able to rewatch, pause, listen to the poem read aloud, and read the subtitles. In this festival, the subtitles are embedded in the video and cannot be turned off by the viewer, providing the ability to revisit the content in much the same way that you can pick up a book, reread a poem multiple times and get different shades of meaning. 

Each time I watch Antipodes, I glean something more of the yin and yang of relationships the poem describes. The scenes toggle between black and white and color underscoring the complementary interconnectedness the poem expresses. The choreography amplifies this tension as dancers pace facing each other across a field to the line The ebony magnetism of existence binds poles. Throughout the video, the spoken words rise and fall with the crescendo of the music and crashing of the surf as the dancers feet tattoo the earth–a demonstration of how choreography and poetry use repetition, theme and variation that stimulates empathetic waves of emotion in the viewer. The pace of the video editing between scenes acts like poetic punctuation or choreographic choices for stillness amid frenetic movement. 

Still from Exiles (Exils), director: Josef Khallouf, poet: Corinne Boulad, Lebanon, 2023, 5 min, in French with hardcoded English subtitles
(Honorable Mention for CREATIVE ENERGY)

Another bonus of video is the ability to juxtapose images by fracturing the screen into multiple panels to create an everywhere-all-at-once effect. Exils is set in Lebanon where the economic crisis and political instability forces the poet, Corinne Boulad, to anguish over the ramifications of leaving or staying in her troubled homeland:

I’m leaving. Let me be absolved for choosing my own good.
I’m staying. The strength of the wind alone can uproot me. 

The screen is divided between everyday images of street scenes and balloons rising, which I imagine symbolizes escape from the tyranny that she rails against. This split screen visualizes her choice to stay or go. Sometimes the screen is cut in three. We see a dancer on the roof of a building jumping, sweating, arms flinging, seemingly embodying the rebellious prospect of persisting among chaos. 

The festival literature remarks that throughout history poets have been persecuted for not writing the party line and it strikes me that dance also has often been outlawed as a subversive form of expression. When I think about how video is instantly shareable across the world via social media and how, like dance, it offers a form of communication that transcends spoken language, it is understandable how video has become a powerful tool of modern revolt. Exils combines all three—video, dance, and poetry—a triple threat, an amplified way to shout out to the world.  

Still from Only, director: Maxine Flasher-Düzgüneş, poet: Rebecca Foust, US, 2023, 2 min, in English with hardcoded English text

Sometimes instead of shouting to the world, the video poems articulate highly personal experiences like grief and giving birth for which there are no scripts. In these situations, poetry can strike an emotional chord but dance can fill holes where words can’t easily go. Dance and poetry both abandon rules of linearity and literalness, choosing images that express emotions in ways that are complex and intimate to an author or choreographer. That’s what I found watching Only, a short film based on Rebecca Foust’s reflections of when her son was born not breathing. I didn’t know what exactly she meant when the poem said, 

When finally he spoke, he spoke with wide, whorled leaves of corn.
He spoke the crickets in clusters beneath the sheaves. 

But the words combined with the simple movements of the dancer lying on a sand dune, head turned from the camera, fingers idly moving somehow touched my mother’s heart and simultaneously triggered pangs of grief over my father’s death. I can’t explain why these images and words lifted the veil between my world and the video poet’s, but therein lies the power of these genres combined. 

I think one thing that is key to illuminating my empathetic response to watching Only is a principle I learned through my training as a Dance for Parkinson’s instructor. Scientists have discovered that watching someone dance pleasurably activates the brain’s movement areas. In the classes I teach, the participants feel a fuller movement experience just by watching the teacher even if they don’t express it on the outside. 

Perhaps that is why when we watch dance, even about topics we have not personally experienced, we can feel aligned with the “otherness” dancers can express. This happened for me watching Fairies, a video poem about growing up queer on a farm in the Netherlands. Fairies showed at the Frye Art Museum as part of a video collection the festival curators called Across Landscape and Language. This video collection was inspired by an exhibit at the Frye called Subterranean Ceremonies by Ho Chunk artist Skye Hopinka who explores how language shapes our perception of place. The Fairies video chronicles a male dancer wedged into the corner of a barn, pressed between walls of plastic-wrapped hay, carrying black sheep (intended symbolism?). After hefting a large wet clump of clay, perhaps representative of potential and transformation, they suddenly emerge from a hay field, resplendent in a pink gown and a gold shiny cap. Then again by a waterfall in a shimmering form-fitting gold gown. While I’m not queer and have no inkling of the challenges of claiming that identity, their movements in drag glamor against the provincial backdrop elicited a sense of fierceness in striving for a life beyond small-town limitations that I could relate to as an aspiring ballerina growing up in rural Montana. 

Still from Reading the Body: Recovery, directors: Danielle Ofri & Paige Fraser-Hoffman, poets: Anthony Aguero, Monique Ferrell, Talia Bloch & Nicholas Yingling, US, 2023, 14 min, in American Sign Language & English with English intertitles.

While Fairies is a montage of images and dance sequences, the fifth dance film in the video poetry fest, called Reading the Body: Recovery I found to be the most typical of what I would expect of a dance video. It was a series of solos performed in a theater setting. Before dancing to the poems, each dancer was interviewed. The interviews helped contextualize how they interpreted the poems’ topics through the lenses of their own experience. One dancer talked about living with grief in the wake of a family member’s death, and how they drew parallels to their danced poem that spoke of addiction. This is a transformative quality of both dance and poetry, which draw upon universal emotions and through their open-ended nature, allow interpretation personal to audience members or readers. 

Dance becomes physical poetry visualizing the essence of experience. Poetry, in much the same way, abandons many literary conventions and creates its own syntax and lexicon that free the reader from literal meanings. This line from the poem Love We Never Get Too Far featured in Reading the Body: Recovery captures the ineffable power of video poetry that allows viewers to imagine new pathways through reality. 

Like the soul, it never quite shows up on an MRI, but here we are just out of focus and keeping the faith. 

 

 

The Cadence Video Poetry Festival showed in theaters April 19 – 21 and May 16, and online April 19 – 28.