Passing Moments: Rehearsal Video


A rehearsal video from May 31, 2017, showing an excerpt from the second section of the dance as a work in progress. Using videos we were able to see some of what Nikki was setting. Because both of us were dancing or at least “on stage”, it was impossible to know what the overall look and pattern of the dance were. This reminds me that Joe Goode works in a studio without mirrors. Since his choreography is collaborative with his dancers, it means that each dancer has a perspective of the piece, but no one sees the piece as a whole. The dancers are dancing to each other, rather than to an audience.

The rehearsal took place in a studio in south London. In the background the traffic noises blend with the recordings, creating a soundscape combining country and city.

“Passing Moments”: The first performance piece

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Nikki in rehearsal for “Passing Moments”

Our proposal to perform for the In Other Tongues conference meant we had to focus on making a 15 to 20 minute piece. We needed also to shape that piece to the demands of the conference venue. Initially we were to be performing outside on grass.

Performing on such a soft surface meant that rhythms could not be emphasized through the percussive sounds created by tapping or sliding feet. This factor deviated from our original intention, shifting our study of how poetry provides a rhythmic form equivalent to music for dance. We adapted to these constraints by deciding to emphasize the upper body as much as the feet, and to suggest a narrative in the work, rather than relying on pure movement.

There is a narrative of sorts built into my rearrangement of the original poems, which I then recorded as a soundtrack for the dance. Because the percussion of the feet would be lost in the grass, thus taking away an essential “musical” aspect of the performance, I added music to the recording using percussive instruments: shakers, bells and piano.

The narrative is one I’ve used a lot in various ways, in writing haibun and in opera. It’s the narrative of the 24-hour day. In “Passing Moments”, the first poem begins with “morning floats up”, the second and third poems are set in “the afternoon garden” and the last poem presents the dissolving of daylight’s crispness into the “wooly parcels” of evening.

After working on the first section we talked about making the narrative more complicated. Nikki didn’t feel entirely comfortable with a narrative set entirely in the country, and so we decided to add three urban sequences in between the four poems that are set in the green and rural landscape of Devon. The text for these sequences were taken from short poems written by Nikki about her life in London. Here is sequence two:

Domed skies of Europe! Resplendent again & glowing; birdsong your complex heartbeat. Money crouches awkwardly in a corner of its own making.

Revisited the scene of the crime. Place was closed. Standing in the empty car park, it was dark again, but the air was innocent now.

Her idea of the future was a black & white photograph in a fashion magazine that she was never flush enough to buy.

At the summit of the ironing pile, she planted her cocktail stick & called out weakly for a Martini.

So structurally, the dance moves back and forth between two environmental spaces, providing contrasts and enabling us to distinguish ‘parts’ of the story.


The humane choreographic method of Joe Goode

On the weekend of May 20-22 I took the workshop “Finding the Bones” with Joe Goode and his company dancer emerita Marit Brook-Kothlow. The workshop was described in promotional material as follows:

“Using a teaching style developed by Joe Goode that incorporates movement, writing, and spoken word, participants will learn to be more aware and compassionate communicators, honest performers, and creative and mindful individuals.”

Specific acts of movement, writing and spoken word, are also described. But implicit in the workshop’s description is an understanding that performance is often uncomfortable, even when desired and desirable. The description also reveals a source of that discomfort by suggesting that performance doesn’t always feel “authentic”.

Despite its psychological underpinnings, the weekend-long workshop had a steelier direction, systematically revealing Joe Goode’s approach to choreography, a form of dance composition that requires speech and narrative to be incorporated into movement. Even further, that dance is a form of speech and narrative but one that needs those companion forms, essentially, in its performance. Speech, narrative and movement are indivisible in Joe’s choreographic process.

Joe Goode Performance Group

Dancers Felipe Barrueto-Cabello, Andrew Ward and Damara Vita Ganley in rehearsal of the Joe Goode Performance Group. Photo by Jessica Swanson.

This introduction to the process was done in a carefully presented series of short exercises that led the workshop participants to intuit the narrative basis of movement.

The workshop on Day 1 began at 6 p.m. and ended at 9 p.m. It began as a short introduction by Joe followed by a warm-up that he calls “movement for humans”. Joe began the session by asking us to leave our ambitions, striving and the need to compete behind: Your grandmother loves you, he tells us. The warm-up took place on the floor, so that most of the body was supported most of the time. The moves resembled yoga, without the forced positions or sustained poses. Though rolling from curled position to curled position might seem almost too easy, it warms the muscles and the joints. Effort is made but as a form of relaxation. Waking up the next day I knew I had been exercising, all of my body seemed sore, but not, thankfully, too sore.

Rather than sitting in a circle and introducing ourselves in that self-conscious and stiff way that most workshops use so that participants have a sense of who is there and why, introductions to the group were done as a series of short exercises. We paired off, and were asked to enact how we saw the other person when she first entered the room. This was a challenge. I hadn’t seen, or noticed, my partner until the moment we paired off. I had to make a quick intuitive judgement on how she would have been moving if I had seen her at the beginning of the class. We then told each other something about our names. Interestingly, everyone took that to mean their given names, rather than their family names. Then going around the circle, people introduced their partners to everyone else by telling the story of the other’s name while enacting the gestures of how they had first seen them. It was collaborative, informative, simultaneously intimate and distant, as performance is, and completely painless.

The next exercise was to write in answer to the question, “What part of your body disturbs you?” We then chose six to eight words and the one word that contained all our emotion toward that part of the body. We were then given a chair and told to devise three sets of movement; for example, two long elegant movements toward the chair, and a finalizing movement. We then spoke the text while moving. Finally, we were asked to take the body part out of the movement. Voilà: the first dance.

Day 2 ran from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Marit led the workshop in the morning, and from her we learned a combination to music, similar to floor work in most dance classes. The combination had some characteristically modern dance moves along with moves that were extensions of something we might do in the course of the day: wiping a table, for instance.

In the afternoon, Joe asked us to again divide into partners. We shared singing, in an innovative and spontaneous way; a kind of sound-making. And then we were asked to write about our mothers. Once again the text pried into pain, but this time the pain that forms around our closest, most primal relationship. “What,” question asked, “is it about you that your mother is most disappointed in?” Everyone then read her text to her partner and the partner would choose some words in the text that were appealing or engaging. These weren’t necessarily about summarizing the text, or choosing the most insightful six words; the choice could be simply the most musical phrase, or the most nonsensical phrase. The writer of the text would then devise three movements based on text the partner had chosen. Her partner would “amplify” one of the movements by repeating it in some fashion. That gave each person a set of four performative phrases: singing or sound-making; a fragment of personal text; three connected movements inspired by that text; an “echo” of the partner’s movements.

To those four was added another set of phrases. Each performer would “place” her partner in a position, as if she were a statue. Then she would move into the negative spaces of her partner’s position. Once in that entwined position the two performers would “rock”. That gave each performer a set of six phrases. We were then asked to choreograph these phrases into a minute to a minute-and-a-half collaborative piece. Voilà: the second dance.

Day 3, which also ran from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., began with the movement for humans warm-up. After an exercise on reading movement cues from a partner, similar to the “push hands” exercise in Tai Chi, and a short discussion about performance and the emotions motivating performance, the workshop moved on to the third choreographic module. Again, we haphazardly separated into teams of two, and began to devise performative phrases, verbal and kinetic. Questions cued the making of these phrases, such as “What are you good at?” And the texts we each edited down our own texts by choosing a phrase or two of six to eight words, or one word. The one word was then inserted into the other phrase. The words I chose this time around fell into the following text:

dried leaves on abandoned
Victorian brick wall abandoned
music surprising word abandoned

Another text-generating exercise required moving around the large dance studio/ performance space and finding an object we were attracted to and describing it with three words. I found a pair of faux patent leather leopard skin mary-jane platform shoes. The three words were: shiny, animal, comfortable. We were then asked to put those into a description of ourselves. Here is the text I wrote:

Like a magpie I love shiny objects. I also love large, fluffy pillows and heaps of bright-eyed cats, glittering cups of tea, babas au rhum.

These texts we read to our partners. My partner had written a text on the tortures of insomnia. Collaboration with anyone is often an exercise in opposites. And the opening of thought that brings with it.

The movements we developed were extensions of the practices that we had used in the preceding two days. Finally, we were asked to put together a two- to three-minute dance. The difference being that we had to chose a particular space in the large dance/ office/ performance space. One of the major differences between this space and most dance studios is that there are no mirrors, a deliberate choice on Joe’s part. He didn’t explain why but my instinct is that having no mirrors requires two crucial things: trust in the emotional “rightness” of your choreography and trust in your fellow dancers and observers to recognize and accept that emotional rightness.

My partner and I chose a two-story-tall blank dark gray wall. It was the epitome of large open spaces gone entirely neutral. As we worked on putting together steps and text, Joe walked around posing a question and challenge to each group, “Where are you going to put the audience?” The answer had to be very specific, and in our case he suggested we ask the viewers to lie down on the floor with their heads back so that they were watching us from below and upside-down. That was too extreme for me to feel comfortable with – as an artist I tend to be minimalist along with all the constraint that implies – but I’m usually willing to go along with the program if a designated leader has an idea. Why not? It’s an opportunity for experiment, and it’s not going to ruin or even radically change my life. Change has always been a glacially slow process for me; surely a comment on the stickiness of my internal capacity for resistance. And so, our audience watched us upside down and from below as they were stretched out on the floor. Voilà: the third dance.

As I hope the above narrative points out this workshop was a detailed, well-thought-out excursion into a form of choreography developed by Joe Goode over, I imagine, some thirty years of work. It was brilliant, tender and fertile, moving through all the living aspects of performance from dancer/ singer to audience/ viewer.


Talking with Anna J

Thursday, 21 May, 2015

Nikki, Anna and I meet at the British Library. It’s been a while since the three of us have met face to face. It’s been almost a year and a half since we met Anna. We discuss how each of us envisions her own role in this project.

Anna says that she is interested in how the computer would function in creating music for the project. She believes that in order for Nikki to dance, she will need a continuous pulse or beat, and she believes she can take the timbre/pitch of the spoken poetry and turn that into a pulsing sound through digital manipulation.

Nikki talks a bit about her conversation with British poet and jazz pianist Roy Fisher, in which they talked about elements that were relevant to the paper she delivered in Belgium in April. Fisher was amused by the idea of mixing poetry and jazz. He talked about the 1950s practice of mixing the two, which he says never worked, really. That the two forms – poetry and jazz music – never jelled in performance. Nikki thought part of the problem with combining jazz and poetry might be the inability of the reading voice to sustain sound, a vowel or a consonant. That is, I suppose, the greatest difference between speaking, or reciting, and singing. Singing is about sustaining pitches and varying the length of that sustained sound, even when the sound is decorated as in bel canto singing.

I remember seeing films of Jack Kerouac reading to Steve Allen improvising on the piano ( I also remember a record that my brother had when I was a kid that mixed jazz music and poetry. I do remember it as being odd, but fascinating at the same time.

Nikki also talks a bit about prose poetry versus poetry. Prose poetry she remarks always refers to a larger story, though it is not always necessary to have all of the story available to the reader/ listener. There are other devices that make the entire story clear as a background without it being concretised. She also talks about rhythmic repetition, like that found in the Bible. Phrases such as “He went out into the garden/ Out into the garden he went etc. (She discusses this in detail in her book Such Rare Citings.)

Anna points out that silence becomes the “phrase boundary”. She envisions the layering of phrases with sounds and words coming in and out of audibility.

One of the issues of performing together, especially improvisationally, will be cues: how for example would Nikki signal that she is happy or unhappy with the direction of the music or the spoken voice in performance. Anna suggests the possibility of a haptic device, such as a doorway. On one side of the doorway, she would be inside the action of the performance, grooving with the voice and the music, and on the other side of the doorway, she would be outside the action. I imagine this as a real doorway, or the frame of a doorway, on a stage. What is inside; what is outside, Nikki adds, and the question, How lawless am I going to be?

Anna comments that musicians use the smallest of peripheral cues to stay in sync. And that usually it is the horn player who can cue the other instrumentalists because his hands are free. Guitarists use the nod of a head.

We also talk a bit about the visualization of the computer’s coding. Rather than doing live coding, a parody of coding could be developed that is more accessible and humorous while using all the techniques of live coding. This idea brings up the question: Does the computer need to be obedient?

The Curtain Goes Up

After several months I’m returning to the blog. We’ve been interrupted by my traveling for work and returning to California only to leave and return again. Nikki’s time has been additionally impacted by her father’s being diagnosed with cancer.

Even so, earlier in the year, we met to experiment with poetry and dance. The question we wanted to answer was: Is it possible to set dance to poetry? Or further: Is it possible to take the unadorned rhythms of contemporary poetry and use them as the basis for movement without the aid of music?

I have to say it was with some uneasiness that I approached these questions.

Nikki and I met at her studio space at Seven Dials in London. It’s an open space surrounded by the business of people coming and going, antique and junk dealers, clothes merchants. People rent time. The space we used is a largish room full of old brocade upholstered couches, lace curtains, antique lighting fixtures. There are no doors and the walls are partitions, so noise seeps in from every surrounding stall.

We began by my reading the short poem posted early on the site: the colour of tourmaline. I read the poem several times, slowly, so that I could assess the emphases in the language as well as the duration of words. Figuring that out was more difficult than I thought it would be because the changes are subtler than we expect when we schematicise poetry into metrics.

We worked line by line. Nikki working out the patterns of rhythm not only in her body but also in the emphasis of her feet against the floor. The floor was definitely a member of the dance team. Once she had worked out a combination for the poem, we tried some improvisational work. First, with her changing the steps while keeping the basic structure of the combination; second with her keeping the combination while I made small changes in the way I read the poem. Both of us kept the reading and the dancing slow, while developing and memorising the roles of dance and poetry.

Stressed out again . . .

Doing a little search on scansion, I find several other systems have been proposed in the past century, all of them moving away from the binary stressed/unstressed. Most of these waver between three and four stresses. American poet Alfred Corn proposes a three-stress system that merges the half-strong and the half-weak categories of Otto Jesperson’s four-stress system, devised in 1900, leaving strong, medium and weak stresses. Corn puts forth this argument in his 1997 The Poem’s Heartbeat. But Derek Attridge proposed a super-complex system in his 1995 study, Poetic Rhythm: An Introduction. Corn and Attridge need further study. Nabokov’s work on prosody also needs to be looked at, if for no other reason than he seems to have hated the idea of poetry and music sharing notation, or perhaps even the same aesthetic space.

One very interesting item is that Unicode characters have been devised for metrics. Unicode, a computing industry language for consistent representation of text found in most of the world’s languages with writing systems, include such things as Greek metrics: triseme, tetraseme, pentaseme. These ‘semes’ designate the length of a syllable’s sounding rather than its stress. For example, a pentaseme would be the length of five syllables, and the stresses within that length may shift. It could, I suppose, have a rising or falling stress. When I lived in Greece, most of my English-speaking friends had trouble understanding Greek because the stresses, or lack of them, made the language sound like one continuous flow. That was explained to me as a difference from most European languages, which would have a weak stress, that is to say, three levels of stress, whereas Greek had only two stresses. It was very difficult for us to hear the stresses in the language. Homophonic words, distinguishable only by stress, sounded the same to us.

A little background music

This project began in spring of 2013 when a Call for Papers was listed on Facebook. The conference was about experimental women poets and was held in the UK. There were some glaring oversights and some odd citings, which led to an online discussion of why writers such as Geraldine Monk, Denise Riley and Wendy Mulford had not been listed as experimental writers. Of all the comments, Vahni Capildeo’s seemed the most insightful, and so backchanneling her, I asked Vahni if she wanted to write a proposal with me. She was game, and we decided to try to do something as experimental as possible in the proposal topic. Somewhere in the conversation I mentioned that I’d be up for anything: we could dance the text, or something along those lines. Later she emailed me:

Are you serious about dance performance? I know a dancer who interprets text! She choreographs now and also performs/teaches but has a PhD in prose poetry from King’s College London…

The conversation continued:

So far we have:
Your text to Geraldine woven in with Geraldine’s poetry
Perhaps alternating with:
My as-yet-unwritten text to Denise woven in with Denise’s poetry
Both sets of texts interpreted by Nikki OR Emma in another musical / dance performative medium

Sounds pretty good.

Nikki was interested, and Vahni and I managed to throw a proposal together:

Renegade Rhythms: Dancing the She-Poets Geraldine Monk, Wendy Mulford and Denise Riley

Poetry by women, especially in the experimental mode, has long been identified in literary theory as a means to celebrate the body. Does this perspective succeed in overwriting the conventional dualism of mind versus body and its alignment with good/man and evil/woman, however? … Poet/ academics Jaime Robles and Vahni Capildeo, with dancer/ choreographer Nikki Santilli, propose a new way of understanding, literally re-presenting the body in movement, in an exploration of the kinetics of poetry. Their panel focuses on the work of three of the UK’s most influential experimental writers: Geraldine Monk, Wendy Mulford and Denise Riley … Nikki Santilli extracts the rhythms of these three she-poets’ writings, setting them in motion on the screen and through space. Vahni Capildeo and Jaime Robles provide the verbal beat.

The proposal was rejected, and Vahni got caught up in a web of job searching.

Nikki and I, however, seem to be holding on to the project like a couple of pit bulls attached to an intruder’s pant leg. One of the advantages of having the CFP proposal rejected was that it allowed us to change focus, so we didn’t have to immediately address the work of other authors or even a variety of work. We could, in a way, start more slowly and with work that was completely our own.