ISSUE#4 / "THE WRITING BODY." Guest Editor, Scott Thurston

Guest Editor 4, Scott Thurston

Editorial statement

Poets and writers have been fascinated by dance throughout the modern era. As Terri Mester argues in her study of dance imagery in W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence and William Carlos Williams: ‘modernists saw in dance a mirror of their own preoccupations’ (Mester 1997: 3). Yeats, of course, is author of one of the most famous poetic reflections on dance, in the conclusion of his poem ‘Among School Children’ (1928): ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’ One can also point to earlier examples of poets drawn to movement as well as dance, in, for example Walt Whitman’s celebration of the moving body in ‘I Sing the Body Electric’ (1855): ‘to see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more.’

Other important instances of poets writing and thinking on, about and with dance are Stéphane Mallarmé’s influential essays on Loie Fuller’s dancing in the 1890s, Paul Valéry’s essays on dance from the 1920s and 1930s, William Carlos Williams’ collaboration with Martha Graham in the 1940s, Charles Olson’s appearance in a Ballet Russes production in Boston in 1940 and his dance play Apollonius of Tyana (1951), and poet Edwin Denby’s dance criticism (1986) from the late 1930s into the 1960s. Goellner and Murphy (1995), Koritz (1995), Mester (1997), Van Den Beukel (2000) and Coulter (2004), have charted some of this territory from a critical perspective.

A number of other contemporary practitioners engaging across dance/movement and poetry/language indicate a strong concentration and history in this area, and this curation of video material seeks to give an overview. The story begins in the New York City dance scene with artists connected to the Judson Dance Theatre (1962-1964) such as Simone Forti (b. 1935) and Trisha Brown (1936-2017) and other luminaries like Kenneth King (b. 1948) and Bill T Jones (b. 1952). In 2012, also in NYC, artist and performer Clarinda Mac Low revived her father Jackson Mac Low’s (1922-2004) book of poems for dancers The Pronouns (1964) in a spectacular three-day series of performances at Dancespace Project (reviewed here). Written using materials originally composed for Forti (who appeared in the shows), the performance also featured dancer and choreographer Sally Silvers, whose collaborations with Language Poet Bruce Andrews are included here (interviewed here). During the 1990s, Silvers and Andrews were regular visitors to the London experimental art and poetry scene, and in 1991, Silvers performed with the British artist, writer and performer Jennifer Pike Cobbing (1920-2016), represented here by her extraordinary collaborations with musician and composer Veryan Weston. Returning to the New York context, Rodrigo Toscano’s ‘body movement poems’ are represented here by a clip from his work collected as the ‘Collapsible Poetics Theater’ (see the 2008 publication of the same name which includes many of his scores). Moving again towards the European context, the duo of Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion, utilise spoken word and music in their remarkable seated dance duets, whilst Billie Hanne is a Belgian dancer and poet who improvises both poetry and movement simultaneously. Alongside my own collaborations in this field with Sarie Mairs Slee and Julia Griffin, the younger generation of artists in the UK experimenting with text, sound and movement include Camilla Nelson, Alison Gibb & Elaine Thomas and Nathan Walker, to name but a few. 


Simone Forti & Kirstie Simson

Trisha Brown

Kenneth King

Bill T. Jones

Clarinda Mac Low

Bruce Andrews & Sally Silvers

Jennifer Pike-Cobbing

Rodrigo Toscano

Jonathan Burrows & Matteo Fargion

Billie Hanne

Khaled Bargouthi & Camilla Nelson

Alison Gibb & Elaine Thomas

Nathan Walker

Adam Hussain

To read Th
urston and Slee’s full article (which further surveys the contemporary field) see here.

See Thurston and Slee’s Vital Signs website containing details of their collaborative project and festival, which featured Camilla Nelson, Alison Gibb & Elaine Thomas and Mary Pearson here. More videos here.

Read poet and dance critic Jaime Robles’ interview with Thurston here.

Top of page: EXTRACTED, video of a danced poem by Scott Thurston, was photographed by Roger Bygott; sound piece and video edit by Philip Davenport. Text images above and below: details from original transcription of improvised movement poem, Scott Thurston.