In 2005 choreographer Alex Ketley of The Foundry and poet Carol Snow collaborated to create Syntax, a dance/poetry work of an estimated 40 minutes in length. In Syntax poet and choreographer explore how dance can serve to underline the experience of language and its structure, proposing that “a dance could be choreographed” not to music and not to the content of a text “but to the linguistic patterns of what is read.”
JR: Rita Feliciano describes Syntax, your first poetry / dance collaboration in the following way (you’ll let me know if you think this is inaccurate!):
The idea behind the forty-minute work was to have Snow, a poet, read a collaged text made from fragments of her own writings and those of other poets ranging from Yeats, Shakespeare, Homer and Apollinaire to Gertrude Stein, Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum. Ketley, a ballet dancer and co-artistic director of The Foundry, was to choreograph Snow’s selections in terms of the text’s grammatical structure. Metaphor, meaning, resonance was to give way to the bones of language where each part of speech has its own basic function.
Ketley devised an elaborate dance vocabulary analogous to verbal language in which each move had its syntactical correspondence. To make it easier for the audience, the printed program provided a code that spelled out the relationship between the moves and their linguistic counterparts: possessive-self touch; noun—starting position; intransitive verb—travel, trailing off; transitive verb—travel to position; apostrophe/address—facing movement; “to be”—shift weight.
CS: Feliciano’s description is pretty accurate, except that Alex and I also collaborated on the “code” or “key.” I had thought through some of the poetry and envisioned quite a few vague “gestures,” which Alex made specific and varied. Other favorite “analogous movements” were: partnering for prepositional phrases, touching the ground for negatives, turns for gerunds, and lifts for infinitives. [A list of the codes are attached here: Codes Syntax]
JR: Could you describe how the collaboration of Syntax came about?
CS: Invited once to participate in a group celebration of W. B. Yeats, I made quick dibs on “Among School Children.” Reading this poem aloud, such a force and joy! That grammatical moment in the final stanza — “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance!” — that precedes the famous “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” That 50-50 active/passive “swayed to” and “brightening”… How could I possibly underline and share the syntactic thrill?
Let’s see: if I could “illustrate” the grammar with a system of movement – for example, one type of movement for active and another for passive – and then apply the whole system to “Among School Children,” these particular phrases would have accompanying movement that combined or was somehow halfway between the key/code/gesture established for active and passive. (And then, the perfect end line!)
Had I mentioned this idea or had it in my back pocket…? The Creative Work Fund underwrites art projects where an individual artist partners with a nonprofit organization. Dancer and work colleague Justin Flores suggested we might apply; Justin had worked with Alex Ketley and his company, The Foundry. The complete title of the project was Syntax: A Reading, Danced, and the performance (I read onstage alongside the two dancers) was essentially a reading composed to establish the movement/grammar system then applied to “Among School Children,” the reading/dancing of which ended the piece.
I should say at the outset how much I appreciate and continue to admire Alex’s choreography. Besides which, his collaborative skills are long-honed and genius (myself of course a complete tyro) and our aesthetics entirely copacetic. Lucky chance!
JR: How did you write the poetry?
CS: Surprisingly quickly. The intent was to establish through repetition that a certain movement type went with a particular grammatical form, so the piece was easily sectioned into “nouns,” “adjective + nouns,” “verbs,” “gerunds,” “prepositional phrases,” etc. with complexity increasing toward sentences and longer quotes.
JR: Why did you choose to collage fragments of speech, many by other writers, rather than write a kind of libretto in your own rhythms, syntax and metaphoric speech?
CS: It was all about illustration, not expression: language to illustrate or to be illustrated by. As it happened, I loved the breadth of the “songbook” of quotes, and I got to read so many of my favorite words aloud! Almost all, already in memory. I thought some of the sections particularly funny… “Famous Sentences. Famous First Sentences.” And the infinitives section: one lift after another! But it was definitely my own rhythm, the rhythm I’d use to compose a poem or establish a “set list” for any reading; in fact my rhythm, distilled.
JR: What, if anything, did the choreography reveal to you about writing?
CS: That the music of language is pattern-based. That writing alone is lonely.
JR: What did it reveal about dance?
CS: Dance keyed to syntax could have no variation in tempo, only in style. Because the grammar of the language was unceasing, the choreography had to be movement, movement, movement. So as not to kill the two dancers – Justin and his then spouse Andrea Basile — I intermittently read edited portions of Gertrude Stein’s “On Grammar” (unfailingly amusing), which we treated as “white noise,” not choreographed.
In the end, the whole project seemed to demonstrate that the brain can’t after all follow grammar (vs. meaning) in the ear and movement in the eye at the same time. Seeing it on tape, a weirdly disorienting split-hemisphere feeling!
JR: Have you done other dance/poetry collaborations?
CS: Thankfully yes, Alex Ketley and I have completed two other collaborations since and are embarking on a third.
JR: Have they varied substantially from “Syntax”?
CS: Indeed; each has had its own initiating concept and form.
Vessel, for AXIS Dance Oakland (2008), had choreography initiated by Alex with some improvised speech in the setting process. Then we interviewed the dancers about the movement itself and I proceeded to “Garage Band” the interview tapes into a multilayered verbal soundtrack. The accompaniment included some music and some rhythmic loops that Alex composed, but the taped speech (dancers moving to their own words/voices) was primary.
For Swan Lake: Recalibrated (Stanford Theater and Performance Department with The Foundry, 2014), I wrote a ten-minute text to read in duet with dancer Aline Wachsmuth, who both spoke and danced. For this piece, as for Syntax, I was a presence on-stage; Aline and I sometimes alternated lines and sometimes read/spoke in unison
The new work, No Hero: Deep South is TBD; I believe I’ll be editing and co-creating text for the Foundry dancers to speak. Deep South will premier this fall (2015).