Author of the Week / 5 July 2023

Dance for the times

Author of the Week: United Kingdom

On choreography and poetics

Dance is the first art form that moved me as a child. Much of my youth was spent with visions of Indian classical dance presented under the arch of theatre stages or in the frame of the television, and more vitally with the sensations and regimes of movement learned over years of training inside Bharatnatyam studios. I experienced dance, in those early years, as life’s practice of harmonic exhilaration: a steadying of the spirit, an exceptional site of release, brilliant balance, endless surprise. It lodged itself in the body years ago, rewiring my ocular, aural and kinetic attentions. Dance can set bodies in hopeful and transformative motion, while drawing attention to forms of social relationality that are modelled in bodily practice. It takes me to the same place that poetry does, giving me a new frame of reference for what poetry can be in its preternatural desire to break out of the page and flip conceived forms over. This article is a record of that fixation, as it tries to make way for some musings into the bond – the linearity, nuance and messy contradictions – between poetry and movement, or between choreography and poetics, with an eye on contemporary British poetry.

In an interview with Emily Hasler, poet and critic Kayo Chingonyi describes poetry as ‘a dance of different forms of intellect’. I stumbled across this phrase around the same time that I was contemplating the concept of movement, and my convoluted attempts to pair it in a conceptual pas de deux with poetry. This piece pushed me further into those explorations. Chingonyi is a poet of simultaneities, a writer of immense power and precision. His poetry scrapes, interrogates, humbles. Movement – dance in particular – provides the substance for much of his work, ranging from the published poem ‘Choreography’ (commissioned as part of the Thinking Outside the Penalty project celebrating African lives in football) to Chingonyi’s uniquely collaborative poetry dance film with Sean Graham that was commissioned for Nathalie Teitler’s Dancing Words project. Titled Kumukanda (a nod to Chingonyi’s 2017 debut collection), the choreopoetic sequence refracts the meaning of identity, memory and migration into something beyond words: into language that you feel and intuit rather than process through intellect. The collaborative performance has layers of sinews and grit to it, swerving away when you least expect it, spanning outward to infinity and leaving the onlooker feeling as though they might become more than they are. Dance, here, is understood as epistemic disobedience: a singular form of resistance that unravels racial dispossessions and unflinching reflections in intricate ways. Every movement in this sequence wants to say more than it can; each is about circumscribed possibility. Graham’s movements exist as a visual shadow to the emotional arc of Chingonyi’s verse, revitalising a form like poetry that one can easily get desensitised to. Chingonyi and Graham find within choreopoetry forms of collective resilience and reparative relationality that defiantly reach out into all corners of the soul. There’s a wingbeat of rage running through this sequence, yet its beating heart is crafted so beautifully that it crystallises into something difficult to articulate. A propulsive, radical intimacy, combusting us all into some previous/future timeframe. This is choreopoetry at its affective best: beautifully observed and controlled, but replete with fierce moments of beauty and despair.

The shimmering luminosity of Kumukanda occupies a space that most poets would give their eye teeth for. It makes us see choreopoetry as an extension of form: a visual ‘reading’ and realisation of poetry and an acknowledgement of the dynamic and fluid rhythm of language. Since I’m contemplating the fusion of movement and verse, it would be remiss to not mention other choreopoetic collaborations in the British poetic establishment. Morbleu – a dance-poetry film collaboration between poet Karen McCarthy Woolf and dancer Ella Mesma – most naturally comes to mind for its innate, mesmeric power. As does Jonzi D’s trailblazing Breakin’ Convention festival, or Danny Pandolfi’s Raise the Bar series that captures the fusion of performed poetry, music and movement. These performances are unique in their ability to evoke a genuine sense of delight and devastation, agency and rebellion. They are worth revisiting for their sensory weight and expansive arrangement, as well as their astonishing ability to implicate the reader/onlooker within their remit. I love poetry that feels like it’s physically enacting its own content, and that’s exactly how these choreopoems feel: fragile, intricately woven structures that experiment with form and meaning, trying to fit them smoothly into each others cogs and jagged spaces.

The continued relevance of choreopoetry in the contemporary British poetry landscape might also be ascertained through the emerging oeuvre of Safiya Kamaria Kinshasa: a British-born Barbadian poet who similarly relies on choreography to provide the emotional heft that is the modus operandi of poetry. Kinshasa’s debut collection Cane, Corn & Gully (2022) is formally and tonally subversive, and invests in a language that reimagines the Caribbean female body and its everyday movement as choreography and aesthetic. Her mighty poetic project reckons with the violence inflicted (historically and currently) on the black female body and the imbrication of ‘violation & liberation’. The poet exposes dance’s violent ground by unearthing hidden forms of racial violence – as well as spatial and psychic operations of imperial and colonial subjection – through performance. Incisive and original, the collection roots Afro-diasporic dance and choreographic meaning in the politics of space, gender and race.

Cane, Corn & Gully explodes outwards from the first poem, titled ‘I Tied My teeth to My Feet & Ate My Own Testament’, that unfurls generational trauma: ‘a man broke my grandmother’s jaw with headlice / she turned tuh sweetgrass & goatskin / i squashed my finger in my stomach stuffed in a bucket’. The lines that follow fly out like shrapnel, vividly embodied in Kinshasa’s movements, until the entire performance coheres suddenly in a moment of final, devastating intimacy. Kinshasa’s words, plainspoken yet luminous, refract the meaning of female subjugation or gendered and racialised violence into something beyond words, something that presses down on the reader’s lungs every time we read this work. Her collection offers movement as a challenge to the binarised oppositions between essentialised presence and absence, identity and difference. Poems such as ‘Preface: And if by Some Miracle’ speaks with displaced and forgotten lives, voices of the past, who are brought back by the incantation of dancehall rhythms and Kinshasa’s use of dialect to form living presences in the absence of justice.

I cannot shake this narrative off. Kinshasa’s choreopoetry reckons with the chronic and ongoing subjugation – indeed, the trauma – of Black women in social and economic systems that variously fetishise, debase, destroy and erase them. Her work with live language, and her performance-led poetry, demonstrates the manner in which the intimate territory of the body is interrupted and administered by these very systems. Body-language, movement and breathwork shapes her choreopoetic sequence, and alerts us to the ways in which the poet works and reworks the white-hot stuff of poetry through the physical intensity of performance, before it is finally ready to cool on the page. More remarkable yet is how Kinshasa also manages to suffuse her collection with hope and militant tenderness: ‘we must stay low & positive, sing / morning cannot wipe the sweat from our brows’. This is a fearlessly original exploration: one that promises to set bodies in reparative motion while commenting on the social conditions through which groups of people are held in place or forcibly displaced.

In its fusion of choreography and poetics, Kinshasa’s work challenges us to see poetry as more than what exists solely on the page. Her choice of a hybrid art-form, choreopoetry, gives us the sense that the lives she depicts are nuanced and open to different possibilities. This is poetry that resides at the bottleneck of language, one that shatters your heart very, very softly with its concisely skewering portraits of unimaginable truths. Kinshasa’s choreopoetry rings louder than any protest: strikingly powerful on the stage and concurrently powerful on page. I found all my despair in her poems – singular and prophetic – and her efforts to dance thereunder but knowing observance of body electric. A tall glass of pure blinding sunlight.

Finally, Oluwaseun Olayiwola’s choreography – set to accompany Andrew McMillan’s reading from his book pandemonium – commissioned for Ledbury Poetry Festival 2023, deserves mention as one of my poetic excitements this year. I’m in awe of Oluwaseun’s choreopoetic practice, and his tender but knowing exploration of queer desire, grief, and the black body in Stay: a poetic dance film developed with Sam Williams last year. They manage to do so much in this performance. It’s like watching an explosion in slow motion, one that I’m constantly humbled by. ‘Swan Sequence’, commissioned for Ledbury Poetry Festival, will similarly be a duet that purports to make the audience feel, emotionally and kinaesthetically. Oluwaseun explains:

Collaborating with Andrew McMillan to activate ‘ swan’, the eight-part poem from his most recent collection pandemonium, provides another kind of opportunity. It was written ekphrastically in response to choreographer Matthew Bourn’s swan lake, which itself was a re-imagining of the classical ballet ‘Swan Lake’, for an all-male company. What Andrew pulled into language,  I’ll be – almost – pulling back out into movement, thus, what will be shown at Ledbury will be like a fourth or fifth distillation, that goes back all the way to 1877 when ‘Swan Lake’ first premiered. But, as any process that engages with ‘poiesis’ asks, how?

The dance sequence will be a duet, and the way we’ll make the dance will always have its own bespoke process. Dramaturgically, some ways I usually start involve movement generation from concepts embedded in the poem, building and expanding specific images from the poem, or, in one of my favourite practices, having a dancer improvise to questions drawn from the text. For an uninterrupted 20–30 minutes, no music; a dancer ‘lives’ a question (rather than answering it), plumbing psychological depths of meaning, symbol, exhaustion. You’re probably asking, what does it mean to ‘live a question’? I think we’re all doing it right now. And I think coming to the event Friday 30 June from 8 pm at the Market Theatre, might offer one way in which to approach this enquiry.[1]

Hybrid art-forms like choreopoetry bring other several inquiries to the heart of its explorations. For instance: what is dance’s embodied phraseology and how might it intersect with – or expand – our ideas of poetry? How does dance work respond to, or critique, what Fanon calls the ‘phraseology’ of violent state apparatuses?[2] How do choreography cultures respond to the socioeconomic structures of production and dispossession that set the terrain for lived experience? And finally: what forms of corporeal expressions might poetry take? All the performances explored in this article reckon with the weight of these questions in ways that feel thoroughly original and vital. In their hands, choreopoetry emerges as a hypnotic and surreal medium that is characterised by a commitment to craft, risk, and innovation.

[1] Email to author, 21. 6. 2023.

[2] Frantz Fanon: The Wretched of the Earth (1961). NY: Grove Press, 1963, p. 45. Translated by Constance Farrington. 


Shalini Sengupta

Dr Shalini Sengupta is a postdoctoral researcher for an ERC/FWF-funded project titled ‘Poetry Off the Page’ at the University of Vienna, where she works on contemporary British and diasporic poetry and performance. She earned her PhD in English from the University of Sussex, where her research was fully funded by the Chancellor’s International Research Scholarship (2017–2020). In April 2021, her thesis earned honourable mention for the Adam Weiler Doctoral Impact Award awarded annually to exceptional researchers registered at the University of Sussex. She remains a Ledbury Poetry Critic, and was selected for the national mentorship programme by Professor Sandeep Parmar (University of Liverpool) and Dr Sarah Howe (King’s College, London).