Bringing poetry to life through dance
By Helen Calcutt, Poet and Dance Artist
It’s an unusual concept: taking something as stationary as text, and transferring it into a practical, physical space. Or is it? Is text ever really ‘still’? Or does it move with our eyes across the page? Does language require breath? (yes) space to align itself? (yes) a fixed shape in white space? (yes!)
As both a poet and dance artist, I’ve discovered accessible and powerful ways of experiencing poetry through movement, and in turn, found it a highly enjoyable and productive method of introducing poetry into the dance studio. Not to say that poetry doesn’t have a life of its own. It absolutely does. But as dancers, we can go one step further, drawing on our deep connections with our physicality, and body-bound experiences, to step inside a poem. No longer seeing it as just a piece of text, but as a whole other world, with endless imaginative, physical, and emotional dimensions. This resource will help you engage ways to develop choreography through a poem stimulus. This can be adapted for any age.
Thinking about sound
It’s good to start with reading our chosen poem aloud, helping us bring it right into the body through the voice. What follows from this, is listening. Hearing the sounds in the words as they:
(You can use these words alone as movement prompts to get warmed up. Start walking in a space and call them out).
Take this poem, ‘Owl’ by Alice Oswald:
Last night at the joint of dawn,
An owl’s call opened the darkness
Miles away, more than a world beyond this room
And immediately, I was in the woods again,
Poised, seeing my eyes seen,
Hearing my listening heard
Under a huge tree Improvised by fear
Dead brush falling then a star
Straight through to God
Founded and fixed the wood
Then out, until it touched the town’s lights,
An owl’s elsewhere swelled and questioned
Twice, like you might lean and strike
Two matches in the wind.
Speak this aloud, standing, and abandon yourself to the sound of your voice. You immediately begin to hear the movement in it. Take the phrase, ‘an owl’s – call – opened’. Hear that sense of moving forward, over three pulses. And in this line, ‘Twice, – like you mike lean and strike’, you might hear a draaawn out sound over ‘lean’; and then a sharper, more angular sound on the work ‘strike’. What you’re taping into here is the physicality of the written word. The next step is to explore how you can embody this through movement.
Playing sounds out
This can be done by simply ‘becoming’ the sound of the word. For example, above, I used the words:
I also underlined the words ‘owl’ and ‘opened’.
You can use all these words as direction or prompts for the movement.
Pulse your body – which part?
Oooopppeeenen – from where to where?
Can you ‘call’ like an owl with your body? Is this call lifting or expanding, or both? Distant or near?
A large part of this process is asking questions and exploring answers. Keep referring back to the poem to help you, and always make notes about how it feels to move this way.
Exploring imagery through the body
What is the most striking image of this poem to you? For me, it’s the big tree ‘improvised by fear’. Explore what images resonate, and paint it with your fingers, as if the air were a canvas. Here, we have the deeply imaginative process of ‘seeing’ the image in the mind’s eye, alongside the playful techniques of improvisation. Movement ideas can emerge from both, perhaps even playing some music your move. Think about the dynamics of the brush strokes. Are they
Is the canvas all around us? Above our heads? Under our feet?
Think of the page as space, and that space, your classroom or studio. As a quick 10-minute exercise, work as a group to embody the poem’s structure. Look at how the lines exist together, thinking about:
- Line-breaks, are they long or short?
- Where is the density in the text?
- Where is there room to breathe?
- How does the poem ‘move’ across and/or down the page? Can we embody or ‘enact’ this?
How we move in response to a poem is entirely up to us. I find it’s best to encourage unique responses, based on each individual’s subjective experience. It’s all part of the fun, and what makes this way of working so interesting.
How to choose a dance poem?
Choose a poem that really speaks to you – that excites, intrigues, and jumps off the page. I recommend the bounding, lyrical verse of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Structurally impressive poems by E.E. Cummings. And even old-fashioned nursery rhymes with a great deal of repetition, can lend themselves well to movement.
Whatever you choose, think of it as an experience. Approach everything with an open mind.
And read everything aloud.
Stuck for sources? Try these:
The Lost Words by Robert MacFarlane
The Rattle Bag Anthology, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes.
Michael Rosen’s Book of Very Silly Poems, by Michael Roesen
The Iron Wolf by Ted Hughes
The Emma Press Anthology of Dance (multiple authors)