Friday, October 25, 2013

Dancing Emily Dickinson

I enjoyed the talkback more than the performance itself.

Last night, at the Cultch, iconic Canadian solo dancer Margie Gillis and American actress Elizabeth Parrish presented the world premiere of their spoken word and movement collaboration, Bulletins from Immortality... Freeing Emily Dickinson. The work was much as I have just described it: Parrish, armed with a talismanic black notebook, read from Dickinson's poems while Gillis interpreted the words in movement. I was relieved to see that the poetry was presented unadorned, without any additional biographical scaffolding. Parrish has a rich and sonorous voice, one that captures the unique syncopation of Dickinson's meter and slant rhymes. However, I found Gillis' dancing a bit too mimetic for my liking, with the result that the movement became largely illustrative rather than aesthetically juxtapositional or conceptually dialectical (which, I would argue, is at the heart of Dickinson's disputational poetry). That said, Gillis remains one of the most emotionally open performers working today, and however diminished her range of movement in this, her fortieth year of dancing, her presence on stage is still a force to be reckoned with.

Then came the talkback, where the architecture of the piece was revealed to have a few more layers of complexity than at first might be supposed. For example, Parrish discussed her choice of poems, noting that they were carefully selected to provide a thematic and emotional through-line to the piece. And in answer to my question of how one dances Dickinson's famous dashes (which, as I further explained, was meant to solicit thoughts on how the distinctive punctuation, as a marker of breath and musicality in the movement of a poetic line on the page gets translated into a line of movement on stage), Gillis talked in detail about how the choreography throughout the piece variously follows, anticipates and is in synch with Parrish's voice.

As Gillis noted in response to another question, she has been dancing to literary works since the start of her career, and we can thus trust that she knows what she's doing. Judging by last night's enthusiastic response to this work--and my caveats notwithstanding--she's right.


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