February is the month of love and the month of African American history. On Feb. 19, the Seattle-based performing arts project, Poetry+Motion, presented the results of an innovative collaboration between local black poets and dancers. “Love, Our History” featured dancers performing self-choreographed numbers inspired by original poems, which were read aloud by the poets as accompaniment to the dance performances in lieu of music.
Without the expected harmonies of a dance score, “Love, Our History” drew on the tonality and rhythm of the poets’ voices, with results that were sometimes startling, sometimes humorous, and always affecting. Ranging from a 16-year-old girl whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Ghana to award-winning publishing veterans, the poets represented a diverse range of voices speaking to the African American experience. Though voiceless on stage, the dancers nonetheless “sang” through their creative interpretations of the writing, which touched on themes of love without devolving into the schmaltz of the average Valentine.
The brainchild of writer Lola Peters and dancer Suzanne Simmons, Poetry+Motion debuted in October 2010. For its fifth showcase, which was presented at Town Hall Seattle, Peters and Simmons encouraged free improvisation by its cast of four dancers throughout the rehearsal process, while placing a welcome faith in the words of the seven participating poets.
The inaugural poem/dance of the evening, eponymously titled “Love, Our History,” set the tone for the evening. Read by Basheera Agyeman, the text was a haunting love note from one slave to another. Dancer Erricka Turner Davis turned in the first of many elegantly restrained dances, evoking longing, regret, and an undeniable hope with spare, elliptical movements. Later appearing in Karen Entrantt’s “When a Woman Respects Her Man,” Davis brought an effervescence to the piece, with many sly, knowing glances at the audience.
Appearing in a second, darker poem by Entrantt, “Can Love Bring Her Back?” dancer Sarah Lustbader managed to subtly illustrate the three misfortunes that Entrantt believes can break a woman, without calling upon overt mime. Channeling resistance and buoyancy, Lustbader counterbalanced her movement with an externalized sense of pressure that seemed to be forcing her down, like gravity brutally magnified.
Seeming to defy gravity, the high-flying Julian Young wowed the audience with his ability to execute elevated jetés straight from classical ballet on the small stage of Downstairs at Town Hall. He did some of his best work to the accompaniment of Marcel Davis’ “Groundbreakers,” which catalogued the “literary soldiers” of the past, and called upon the next generation of black poets to take up their cause.
Honoring black artists and activists of the past was a dominant subject of the “Our History” portion of the evening’s theme. One of the most effective evocations of both creative history and the personal love it can inspire was found in Imani Sims’ ode to jazz and blues, “That Indigo Hue.” Sims’ use of language — “Lyrics that lap at our earlobes like waves” — was finely tuned and provided a wealth of material for Lustbader’s lithe take on the text. Sims’ later “Hole in HerStory” allowed Young to explore Sims’ fantasy of Harlem through a series of ecstatic leaps, as Sims enthused, “I want to lose myself in this wealth of culture.” Their collaboration was simultaneously wistful and grounded in the reality of an outsider’s view of Harlem as a historical touchstone.
Of all the interpretations of the “Love” aspect of the theme, perhaps the most moving was the idea of self-love, which appeared in several of the poems. Nation Son Holmes offered two of the most effective. In “A Great Destiny,” she proudly proclaimed, “I know who I am. Undoubtedly,” providing dancer Davis with many personas to embody, from the earliest human, “Lucy,” to the queens of Africa. Holmes and Davis also offered one of the audience’s favorites of the evening, “Breathe In Breathe Out,” a powerfully peaceful, meditative moment of reflection that induced the crowd to chant along with Holmes, “Breathe in, breathe out,” like an invocation.
Though the dances were each carefully studied interpretations of the poems, there was a certain feeling of repetitiveness by the end of the evening. The dancers had highly individualized styles, as did the poets. Seeing one dancer interpret one poem offered a highly charged moment. This sense of the unique faded, however, as poets returned to the stage again and again, and the dancers seemed almost to be reprising themselves to the words of yet another writer. Still, this afforded the dancers a chance to put their own “spin” on the words of a third, fourth, or even fifth poet.
Poetry+Motion will return with a new showcase of poems and dances this summer. Video of recent performances can be viewed at vimeo.com/album/1770410.