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 inspired by Christopher Wheeldon's DGV: Danse à Grande Vitesse, from poet Diane Mehta.
Danse à Grande Vitesse: One Dancer Hides Another
With a bow to Kenneth Koch’s ‘One Train May Hide Another’
One dancer hides another
inside the landscape of the turning body.
She twists, like DNA, down his shoulders, chest, hips.
It is nothing you can ever see
clearly: One dancer hides another, one choreographer hides another
after the blur of leaving and the enigma of arriving.
Every lift, kick, lunge, and turn blossoms open
in big skies over ancient towns:
Toulouse, Lyon, Limoges, Rouen, Rennes—
locomotion in their toes and lips, the grand life
where something, in the work of moving, emerges.
There is a finale to it: 52 arms swinging, 90-degree knees.
Some speed forward, others, in a blur, recede.
Pairs of dancers move like energy in the sea;
one fixed, the other free. Station-stops on a stage,
one dancer still hides another, all dancers hide their partners.
The body turns three ways at once in its committed
reticulated logic, muscles streamlining, sky-open, up
if asymmetrical in feeling; this is the love of morning
radiance in the evening, the negotiation of blur and fantasy
in hard-earned studio-worked practice-improved lift
eighteen times an hour over seasons during which clouds
slowly shift their performance;
really it is a finale of passionate determination
to be en pointe forever, this woman so precise she is nearly
quantum the way she breaks moments into their parts
and, revealing her command of hesitation,
into her partner’s polygon of arms; he catches her
leap of faith
and in their rehearsal of disaster they hide the ways
in which they are still discovering one another.
Diane Mehta was born in Frankfurt and raised in Bombay before emigrating to the United States. Her debut poetry collection, Forest with Castanets, was published in 2019 by Four Way Books. Mehta studied with Derek Walcott and Robert Pinsky in the nineties and has been an editor at PEN America’s Glossolalia, Guernica and A Public Space. Her previous public art projects include Movie Marquee poems with Nitehawk Cinema and the Lost Poem project for O Miami. She lives in Brooklyn. Read our exclusive Q&A with Diane on the process of writing this poem, below.
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?
The first ballet I saw was George Balanchine's The Nutcracker® at New York City Ballet, which I attended semi-regularly with my mother when I was a kid, but my exposure to ballet since then has been limited. Dance always seemed to me rather triumphant not only in the lifts and jumps but in the surprises in the choreography itself and the way a body fills a space or completes a motion that suddenly seems inevitable. I recognize that classical ballet has modernized itself but am utterly a novice trying to jigsaw it together.
Beyond later structuring the ballet you saw into a poem — into language — what was your immediate visceral reaction to it?
Rapt and humbled. I’m young enough to feel that confident physicality—I was a gymnast—but old enough to feel fragile, cut off from that strength. And I marveled at Christopher Wheeldon’s decision-making: How did he organize her twisting around his body like that? Why did he end with all the women lifted in the air, stiffening into different positions—one upside down and her legs like propellers and another like an off-kilter stick figure—while the men slowly rotated below them?
What was your process for this particular assignment? Was there anything different or surprising about that process?
It took a million tries, with more failures and dodging mistakes than I expected. Eventually I found myself hyper-focused on these alert little hesitations before a dancer did something, like a half-skipped beat, and the technical skills that were hidden by the elegance of the movements. In parallel I’d been wowed by that propulsive moment when the entire group ran across the stage in different directions, and, as if on a train, you couldn’t quite tell whether they were moving or the scenery was moving. That reminded of Kenneth Koch’s One Train May Hide Another, and then suddenly these two things I’d noticed connected—in the pas de deux, one dancer hid the other dancer’s technical prowess by balancing or lifting the other. It struck me that what was happening athletically between the couple and within each dancer’s body was partly hidden. I started pulling these ideas together, sort of jaggedly. Curiously, when I write a poem, I usually start with a rhythm and ideas follow, but here I started with the ideas, which ended up being about rhythm, and then I tried to stitch them together rather literally on the paper and used rhythm as a tool.
Balanchine described dancers as “poets of gesture.” How does that line resonate with you given this assignment?
I understand the gesture part, because what’s created in the dance the audience sees or in the poem the audience reads is the same. Less so the concept of the poet, because the choreographer creates and the dancer interprets—but the dancer also creates something new and specific to his or her body and talents. A friend noted that the dancer is sort of like a paintbrush but also is not a paintbrush. Writing this poem, I felt like I had to first be the dancer and use my body and skills to produce, and then I became the choreographer who is organizing.