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Poems of Gesture: Dances at a Gathering

George Balanchine once described dancers as "poets of gesture." With that evocative line in mind for our 19-20 Season, we invited a group of poets to explore the ways in which the stage and the page unite in a series of commissioned poems, including this piece on Dances at a Gathering from poet Dominika Wrozynski.

Upon the 50th Anniversary Performance of Dances at a Gathering



Love jetés onto the stage, and it pirouettes
and pliés and simply walks.

And we are all at the gathering now,
because love does not care if we arrive
singly, or in pairs or threes, if we return
to 5th Avenue townhouses or crowded 5th floor walk-ups.

It just cares that we show up, and that we are
in it: first-blush romance, or one-night-stand, 
or a 50th anniversary jubilee.

The dancers remind us love is the furious push
and pull of Chopin’s mazurkas, their feet flying
through échappés and bourrées.

And it is the slow étude, the notes
as alone and wistful as the Girl in Lilac, 
who waits for her lover to return, though she knows he won’t.

What does return, when the dancers are finally still,
is this present night, which will soon dissolve
into memory, but which has wrapped us, for now, in wonder.

Dominika Wrozynski is the author of American Accent, winner of the 2017 Sinclair Poetry Prize from Evening Street Press. She is an Associate Professor of English at Manhattan College, where she teaches creative writing and literature and co-directs the college's Major Author Reading Series. Learn more about the process of turning a ballet into a poem in this exclusive Q&A.

 

What exposure have you had to ballet in the past? If you haven’t attended a ballet before, what did you know about the art form?
 
I was born in Poland and my parents worked in the arts — both in Poland and when we immigrated to the United States. My dad was a stage actor and director, so I’ve been around theaters and various forms of art all of my life. I haven’t seen a ton of ballet, though I knew about the art form and some famous dancers and choreographers. But I’m by no means an expert. It was really great for me to be present for Dances — what a fantastic ballet and what an amazing showcase of ballet’s versatility.
 
Beyond later structuring the ballet you saw into a poem — into language — what was your immediate visceral reaction to it?
 
I was deeply moved by the emotion I saw written across the dancers’ faces and bodies. The set and costumes are so sparse that the vulnerability of love — in its joy and pain — was really stunning. It was a privilege to get to witness it.
 
What was your process for this commission? Was there anything different or surprising about that process?
 
I knew I wanted to capture the ideas of different kinds of love — the dancers displayed those feelings so beautifully and matched them so well to Chopin’s music — and I wanted to pay homage to their craft. In a way, this poem is a love letter to the dancers, hopefully showing them how at least one member of the audience felt. I also had to do some research about dance steps, what movements are named. I wanted to get those right and to learn about the movements I admired so much. 
 
Balanchine described dancers as “poets of gesture.” How does that line resonate with you given this assignment?
 
I loved that “poets of gesture” line so much when I read it! Although I’m often hesitant to call something poetry when it isn’t (I’m tempted to throw things at my television when sportscasters call a play "poetry in motion"), I think it absolutely applies here. Every gesture or movement needs to be the right one — just like every word in a poem needs to be the right one. The movements build on one another and connect to ultimately say something about what it means to be human. That’s what poetry does, too — just with words, lines, turns of phrase (even a word like "turn" implies that motion, doesn’t it?). 

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