Dancers Who Write
A Question-and-Answer Session with Rebecca Frost and Linda Shapiro
Linda and Rebecca are the founders of Dancers Who Write, a reading series showcasing the literary talents of writers who are also movers.
The View: How was the Dancers Who Write series born?
Rebecca Frost: Our project was conceived somewhere alongside the fall soccer games of our de facto godniece in common. Linda and I, who knew each other from myriad connections in the dance world, would show up to watch the games in chilly weather, intermittently, independently. In between cheering for preteens’ near scores, we’d talk, compare notes, stamp our feet. Turned out we were both writing a lot and had no idea the other was as well.
Linda Shapiro: As a published freelance writer on subjects ranging from dance to the research of University of Minnesota faculty, I had been thinking that I needed an outlet for my newly hatched fiction. As a choreographer, I always had plenty of opportunities to present my work in various stages of development. I wanted that for my writing.
I’d also been thinking about other dancers I know who write and have published or performed their text-driven work, and thought there might be more waiting in the wings. So we chatted a bit about the possibility of a modest series somewhere and started doing some investigating. Todd Boss graciously offered us three evenings in his Verse and Converse series at Nina’s Café in Saint Paul (January, March, and May 2010). They were successful enough that we wanted to continue into the summer at the Bryant-Lake Bowl—to see what would happen in a Minneapolis venue, and, as the Nina’s events were free, to see if anyone would actually pay to hear dancers read their stuff.
V: What was the motivation for pairing dancing and writing?
LS: Well, our press release asked “Does the body-mind connection endemic to dancers foster a distinctive kind of poetry and prose? Can visceral impulses spark literary invention?” I wrote that a bit tongue in cheek, but it gave us a hook to hang the series on. We also believed that dancer-writers could put on a good show. They are natural performers even behind a podium.
I believe that my years as a choreographer have influenced my writing in numerous ways. I constructed dances by allowing the movement material I created to find its own form in time and space. The expressive dimension of the dance emerged as the material took shape. Writing fiction is a similar process for me. I begin with a situation and/or a character-narrator’s voice and point of view, allowing the rhythm and texture of a scene to shape its thematic development. I try not to impose a plot or force narrative continuity, but allow those elements to emerge.
Dance is the only art form where the artists create directly on human beings. I think this is why it can never be truly abstract—it always partakes of the people on whom it was created. In that sense choreographing is somewhat analogous to getting to a point in the writing process where your characters begin shaping the story. On the other hand, writing is a more direct and private activity that can take place almost anywhere. You don’t have to write grants to pay for space and dancers. You don’t have to deal with other people’s schedules or egos, or warm yourself up for an hour before you can even begin to “create.”
RF: For me, the motivation of pairing the two art forms in a project like DWW had to do with an ongoing investigation into how I might integrate both the separate lifestyles each form demands, and an urge to see cross-pollination between the two communities. How do I sit still long enough each day to generate my masterpiece and also move my whole self enough to stay sparked, limber, free, present to a world beyond the page? How do I express and fulfill my introvert and my extrovert? And how do I get my friends who dance to play with my friends who write? Is there any room big enough for all of us?
V: What is the importance of adding movement to story? How has art played on art, the melding of words and dance?
RF: When I was in graduate school I’d often get scribbles back on my workshopped pieces that said some version of “there’s a lot of movement in here.” This was true for stories and poems and essays. My tendency was to write scenes that described more movements by human beings than was common in the prose my peers (and teachers) were reading. The way my pieces were constructed made the material move. The content I was writing about—and what I thought important to show the characters doing—involved physical action done by live bodies. The form I was evolving was often described as lyrical or musical or even rhythmical. I employed organizing principles such as orchestration, which borrowed from music as a means of ordering and layering my written pieces, which I often referred to as scores.
In the early to mid-’90s I was one of five trained dancers who founded the Women’s Performance Project. Over the course of four years, we produced five original evening-length works. We infused the performances with stories, many of them gleaned from our own experiences. Sometimes we used texts we’d written, and sometimes we gave voice extemporaneously. The combination of organic movement and structured improvisation, woven through theatrical ritual and choreographed dances, allowed for the kind of combustion traditional cultures have understood throughout time. Energy expands when we don’t separate our parts.
. . . Unless you’re wearing a blaze-orange jumpsuit, the kind prisoners wear. And you’re performing an art installation piece adjacent to the Republican National Convention in Saint Paul, like I did in the summer of 2008. Confined in a 6½- by 8-foot Guantánamo Bay prison cell re-created by Amnesty International, I used movement, amplified by my own silence, to transmit the visceral misery a detainee experiences. In that instance the suspended separation of movement and story made sense. Not until it was time to articulate the facts of the situation to reporters from Korea, Mexico, and the UK covering the RNC did my voice come potently into play.
LS: Many choreographers, including me, have used text in their work. And what is termed
physical theater—theater that is movement based—has been around for decades. I think melding text and movement is a tricky business. Much of the text-based choreography I see is cringingly literal, or earnestly abstract and fragmented. Much of the physical theater I see is mindlessly athletic—actors just throwing their bodies around to up the dramatic ante. But when the play of movement and text works, it can generate fascinating worlds in which the abstractness of dance and the concreteness of language riff off one another. I once created a solo based on an autobiographical monologue about a harrowing experience in a subway. I wanted to find a way to communicate the terror I felt, the loss of control. So I performed it in a narrow beam of light, moving rapidly back and forth, slamming backward into a wall. I could never predict at what points in the monologue I would hit the wall. So the simple dance elements of confined space and linear directionality became the form that exploded the text and heightened its sense of menace.
Of even more interest to me is how the two forms can indirectly influence and support one another. New York choreographer Terry O’Connor reads prodigiously to develop what he terms different modalities of thought, but he doesn’t use preexisting forms from literature in making a dance. He does, however, use novels as an exercise in structure. Borrowing from literary structuralism the idea that the meaning of an image is completely a matter of its relationship to other images, he might consider something like the numerical outlay of characters: How many times is one character with another as opposed to a third? Is the number ordered or random? Does it indicate a hierarchy, or is it an imitation of the spontaneity of things? So it’s not so much adding one form to the other, or even blending the two, as it is finding ways for them to collude, shake up, and ultimately reinforce one other.
V: What impact has the series had—on you, on audience members, on the community at large? What reactions have you had from audience members and participating artists?
RF: Beyond the distinct camps among dancers and writers, each with its own aesthetics, all defining themselves accordingly, the primary thrill for me is so many of these artists coming together in the same space—dancers and writers seeing, responding to, discussing the same work. That convergence—of supposedly unrelated families—had an impact on my sense of what is possible. It gave me a sense of the integration I was seeking.
A highlight for me was when participant Lightsey Darst answered a question from the audience about her process as a writer. She said she uses assorted models or choreography schools as prompts for how she assembles her poetry. She was answering, not identified as a performer, but in terms of the formal elements of craft.
I’ve had audience members e-mail me before and after readings detailing what they loved and what they “couldn’t stand.” In that latter category falls a frequent, and not surprising, reaction I’ve heard from dancers and writers—older and younger generations alike: a pronounced disinterest in watching stilted, monotonous readings. I think many of our DWW readings transcended jaded expectations of what literary events could be.
LS: For some writers, it was the first public reading of their work. Others, including Lightsey Darst, Anya Achtenberg, Mary Easter, and Rebecca, have given many public readings and brought to DWW writers already familiar with their work. But I think the atmosphere was unlike that of most readings I’ve attended. Much of the audience was composed of dancers who discussed the work very differently from the way writers would have. For instance, one woman compared something I’d written to some of my choreography in a way I would have never anticipated, and her observations helped me gain a new perspective on my writing.
One of our readers, Mary Easter, wrote, “DWW gave me a wonderful audience who understood me by their laughter during the reading (I didn’t know I was so funny!) and supported me with engaged comments afterward. (‘I wanted to yell, “you can do it, Mary, you can do it!” ’). The attendees were more varied than the dance community I expected. One totally unexpected result of the evening was my inclusion (with different writing) in a literary quarterly. I was selected to participate in the publication reading because ‘I heard you at Dancers Who Write and I knew you’d be a great reader.’ The impact of the series then, is not only on the dance community (which would be enough in my view) but carries farther into the literary world, a cross-pollination that I have found difficult to achieve in the past. Long may DWW continue!”
Rebecca Frost is the winner of two mnartists.org’s What Light Poetry Project competitions, a Writers Rising Up online journal contest, a Jerome Foundation Spoken Word grant through Intermedia Arts, and, as a member of the Women’s Performance Project, the beneficiary of two McKnight fellowships in choreography. A longtime dancer, she’s performed on nearly every stage in the Twin Cities. Her poetry has been published in Grounds for Peace, Honey Land Review, Currents magazine, and Close to the Ground, as well as a prizewinning broadside. Rebecca served on the editorial board for Water~Stone Review. Her MFA thesis novel, Love, House, was once finished. Now, it’s asking for another pound of flesh. Rebecca teaches performance skills to writers (and others). www.rebeccamfrost.com
Linda Shapiro was a founder and artistic codirector of New Dance Ensemble. She has received numerous grants and awards for choreography, including a Bush and several NEA, McKnight, and Jerome Foundation fellowships. Currently she writes about the performing arts and other subjects for publications such as the St. Paul Pioneer Press, City Pages, Minnesota Monthly, and Dance magazine. She was a 2009 finalist in fiction for the Loft Mentor Series.