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 George Balanchine's Stravinsky Violin Concerto, from poet Emily Skillings.
If the group is modern, where are they going?
Cutting across the field, up that coquettish hill,
towards what, a city, a stone school built by workers
where things go to be disassembled? Lines jut out
from what we label. Little troupe of joyous exactos,
sexual in the checkered light of afternoon,
beaming into the words we grasp at
but ultimately forget. An activated zone
where things go to be disassembled. Lines jut out
from the urn, the string of glass beads, the stopwatch,
an encyclopedia of ranked pills. I found the night to be hot,
uncomfortably so, and so did what we all do, folded back
a corner of the sheet so my feet could be “free as Frenchmen,”
a stupid phrase I’ve never understood. The flower water had clouded,
a pond of milk on the corner table into which the moon died
incrementally. I was there, where I last looked. Now I’m here.
I’m not alone. What merges us to the journey, the movie—a liquid costume
presents itself and we stand while it encapsulates us “slowly but Shirley,”
a stupid phrase I’ve never understood. The flowing water was cultlike,
demanded obedience. I attempted to rejoin the moving plot
that had continued on in my absence.
The group was on a hike, a tour of the history of montage,
braiding themselves through the woods, each phrase a casting off
(a gesture as much about seeking as it is about letting go)
between the trees, on which were projected thousands of scenes
made up of smaller scenes. It felt organic, casual, yet impossibly constructed.
Did the trees secrete these images? I saw no equipment. “Stop it,”
said the soloist. “You’re overthinking.” She placed her hand between my breasts
(a gesture as much about seeking as it is about letting go)
and I realized I had been one among women for some time.
“This will change soon,” she said. A clearing dilated before us,
a platter of painted grasses. I had learned of such spaces
in books I’d neglected to read. They were essential to selfhood
and being with others—something to do with true emptiness and sight,
and how both were necessary in order to fully emerge, as the opening chord
pierces through silence. But was this space made by us, for us,
or did it just happen? “Look” said a cousin, pointing to the center
at a quarry hidden by tall flowers. Reflected in the water was a saying we all knew,
something about being with others, emptiness, and sight. I looked up
from the italicized language to my surrounds. My friends
were a semicircle of statues, frozen there in the clearing,
kneeling at slightly different levels. Marble, exeunt. Let go of my wet eyes.
the countless spines
of trees flare up
against a dark backdrop
the man and woman bow
to the sacred altar
of the other’s bow
the movement is more of an admission
they are living in the same time
you are my contemporary
and in attitudes
we have been similarly trained
towards evasion and chance
“I don’t care,” I say vigorously
“Nor do I!” you say
with an intensity of feeling
akin to crowning oneself
in the briefest garden
a tantrum of flowers at our feet
and it’s easy to explain
you want to take my hand
but it has become
property of the museum
though I work against it
a thought moves in:
so much is presumed, filled in
by gossip among the senses
I fear I will always be tired
and dumb, that I will never be released
from the repetitions of men
my mother told me to change
my earrings every day. “Change
your earrings every day,” she told me
it seemed to me this was a sort of project
or assignment re: variation and choice
the ornament “pierces”
where there is already a lack, so the act
is more of a historical reference
to a past violence
than a violence in itself
a commemorative ceremony
performed daily to the sound
of smashed enclosures opening
to greet the air
where once I was wounded
now there is nothing but entry
the leg penetrates the circle the arms make
one day you asked me to haunt
the back of my own knee, to picture
the muscles of my legs and groin
as plastic drinking straws
through which lightness could be drawn
up into a crown
to set the voyage of my gaze
just beyond my middle finger
instead of towards the wall
its novel of peeling paint
one day you asked me to “go on”
to continue, to “do it again,” to push
deep into the vertiginous exactitudes
always just out of reach
when I found I could not
I gathered quietly my things
and left without ceremony
I became a different kind of person
part ghost, part sponge
a lump of pure refusal
who extinguished the hot white frill
that wicked life into life?
often the wrists are grasped
so the pair may counterbalance
often the courtly and ancient light
is ground into ground
The truth is that it’s all terrible, and equally so, it’s just the matter of choosing
which terrible to settle down with. This is the task from which we glance,
and to be frank, I would rather be in agony than even slightly bored. No. Reverse
that. The cartoon rat sits high on the lamp post, drinking a Miller High Life,
whistling “Jolene” into the alley below. Weaving in and out of maroon-black anguish
and interstices of lightheartedness, the couple stabs the air with certain intensity.
“I’m begging of you please don’t take my man.” Do they move in a cipher?
A kind of asemic pantomime of interdependence? Precariousness? If I admit I need you
in order that I may stand, may move, may hold my limb so exquisitely extending
like an echo emptying slowly its molecules into the middle distance, am I
the squeaking weakling? On our walk to the quarry at the edge of the world,
we saw trees choked out by vines. “Knotweed,” you said. An “invasive species,”
you said. It poured out of the forest like many bitter fountains. I’ve seen the calm,
limp drape of a limb harden into insistence. He rotates her delicately on her axis.
She is at a slight angle. The first image that comes to mind is of a dead animal
being roasted on a spit. More accurate might be the act of turning an egg or rock
so that it is evenly warmed by the sun. To gently tilt and turn your lover towards the source
of their suffering or their sustenance. Before you I am both meat and material,
a perfumed lozenge rolled around in the mouth to beat back the void sickness
until I disappear completely. They are clipping along at a trot as if the sound of the forest
isn’t looming behind them, as if the stage isn’t littered with dangerous holes. Rocks tumble
into the quarry’s center pit. We say “at arm's length” to mean “held at a distance,”
but the length of an arm isn’t really that far. Anything can be a distance. Even flesh-to-flesh
can seem a canyon’s thickening waist. I suppose the dimensions of an embrace
become a measuring device. Her arm attempts an ultimate boundary it fails again and again
to enforce. I fight against the likely true assumption that we inhale like a breakfast:
that I am an impression and you are an idea. I would like to dress up as the idea for once,
its stately slacks and feathered hat, for I too was “born midsummer, already dying,” a fact
I won’t relinquish into this evening that presents itself like a fan before us, not without a fight.
She moves herself within his gate. I’m not sure I would like to be a feeling platform either, nor take
up residence within the intimate contraption. When I say I need you to admit your helplessness
in order to stand across from you, you palm the knots in my cherrywood knees. When you bend yourself back
into unconsciousness you take me down with you. I open myself to you, to the liquid field
that approaches. I close myself again. Their movement is like a sad door.
The great hall has stood for hundreds or thousands of years. If we agree
with what we have been taught by art, that all space is contained inside us,
that we are not Mary Poppins but, in fact, her magical bag,
then is there nowhere for us to go? It is for this reason
that we must enter as a group through the large, arched doorway,
that we must spear the breeze in faceted formation. Inside,
the intoxication of moving in unison combines with the sweet,
pointillist gestures of greeting someone you know as you approach them
from across the room…
When I first met my friends,
I was delighted to be embraced by poets and artists.
We were all in love with each other and for the first time in my life
I felt I really belonged somewhere. We ate a lot of cheese and olives,
crackers imbedded with fruit and hazelnuts, and downed ice-cold
gulps of white wine from tiny, elegant cups. We watched videos
and sang to each other, petting each other’s hair while sitting on
handcrafted stools and textiles painted with ancient pictograms.
I was the youngest, a Pollyanna by nature and the newest to the group,
and took up my place as a silly novelty (the role in which I have always felt
most comfortable). Everyone was a genius in their own way
and inspired the genius of the others. I took no lovers, as none were needed.
It was beginning to feel like something very exciting was about to happen.
Pink horses gathering against the orange horizon. The choir inhaling in unison.
You know how the story goes. Someone crushed a chrysanthemum into milk.
A succession of minor betrayals. Z saw a horned beast in K’s coffee crystals.
The social braid we had created unraveled. I was forced to meet
my friends individually, which was not nearly as fun or intoxicating.
Crestfallen, I wandered around the windswept city like a child of divorce,
taking pictures with my phone and buying food. My reversible arms
still waved—my flippant limbs yearned for their corps. And there,
tucked into the tender folds of the avenues and their shops, I found
I was truly alone…
A dance instructor once asked me to picture a circle,
a hoop the size of a large wrist, that was half imbedded in my body
and existed half outside, the locus being my navel, like a planetary ring
or the gymbal of a gyroscope. Standing, I was to imagine using the circle
to draw in energy towards my “center” (from the air? my surroundings?)
and then release that same energy out into the world as I invited more inside.
When I moved I could increase and decrease the size of the circle as needed.
It could become as large as the room itself or as small as the pit of an apricot.
I liked the image but found the act to be pointless, as I was already breathing,
a quite similar yet functional necessity. A devotee of the “strange idea”
as a chance, fleeting encounter as opposed to a practice that is worked through
and integrated over time, I hesitated to assimilate the kinespherical gadget.
I now feel I made a huge mistake, but the attending sensation,
like a dilating engine, a pump exchanging the interior with the exterior,
cannot be retrieved. But isn’t this…living? As always, possessing something
necessarily solves the problem of being without it, or so said Gilda
in the advertisement for the mysterious pink box on which the black triangle
was painted. “Thanks, Vicky. I never knew it was possible to be this sure of myself.”
“Does it have a name?” “I don’t know! It’s just… I’ve never felt so impenetrable
or so simultaneous in my whole life.” A soft blow jostles
the flesh at play. Back in the hall
the dancers are marking a movement much like the clearing away or harvesting
of cobwebs. Garlands are strung up between the pillars. Piles of glistening food
topped with small green sketches and the petals of edible flowers are served
on platters resembling the reflective surfaces of mythic gazing-pools.
Mellifluous crossings streak the floor, as deer and bison etch their desires onto fields.
To be casual and yet precise is the near-unattainable goal into which we dig
our collective heels. All moments incline their heads towards us now
with the expectation of a bloom. Sounds. Appetites. Tattered folders
bursting with snapshots. A system of tonal or polar centers. Postures
of complete readiness. But the content is nowhere to be found, or when found, is found
to be “harsh in its newness.” We like it this way, a comblike network of fences
embroidered into silk. And what of this motif bubbling underneath us?
The vaguely municipal odor of dust, wood polish, and decisions to be made
encircles the first menacing note of Spring. Fiddleheads unfurl through the dirt.
And these tiles underfoot, they are beginning to show their cracks proudly,
like badges. If the sign could only make itself known, we could pack up,
return home on the path through the hills. Until then, I’m afraid, even as the coolness
of evening tempts us towards expiration, we must keep ourselves moving. There is nothing
in this expression that should frighten you. One must admit that all this
is not exactly clear. You pay perhaps too much attention to the notes in my mouth.
The trees and daughters sound brightly tonight in the offices of difficult music.
Emily Skillings is the author of Fort Not, which was was a finalist for the 2018 Believer Poetry Award. She received her MFA from Columbia University and is a Lecturer in English at Yale University, where she teaches creative writing. Since 2009, Skillings has been an active member of Belladonna* Collaborative, a feminist literary collective, event series, and nonprofit publisher in Brooklyn that promotes the work of experimental women writers. 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?
I was trained in Maine in the Balanchine style by former New York City Ballet dancer Elizabeth Drucker, director of The Ballet School, who taught me so much not only about ballet technique but also about my own inner fortitude as an artist. Before I went on to major in dance at The New School I studied at Boston Ballet, American Ballet Theater, and Alonzo King's LINES Ballet School summer intensives as well as at Bates Dance Festival. For my college dance auditions, I learned the Calliope (the muse of poetry!) variation from Balanchine's Apollo from a tape. An ankle injury before college refocused my training towards modern dance, but I always felt grounded by my strong foundation in ballet technique. When I began my graduate studies in 2014, I made a conscious decision to stop dancing in order to more fully immerse myself in my writing, but I still feel incredibly proud of the dedication to dance that structured a huge part of my life up until that point.
Beyond later structuring the ballet you saw into a poem — into language — what was your immediate visceral reaction to it?
As a child I had Stravinsky Violin Concerto as well as Jewels on VHS and I would watch them obsessively, so returning to this particular ballet for this project felt like reuniting with an old friend. There were certain moments (even particular movements) that I remembered having loved as a child: the mounting tension, backbends, and counterbalances of the first duet; the exciting and almost foreboding build in music at the end of the 4th movement (which upon revisiting I realized subtly echoed Stravinsky's Rite of Spring). Seeing the ballet again I experienced, not a muscle memory per se, but a memory that was attached to watching the movement of others and yearning to enact it myself.
What was your process for this particular assignment? Was there anything different or surprising about that process?
I knew from the onset that I wanted to write a long poem, and that I wanted not only to use the four-part structure of the ballet to scaffold the poem, but that there might be some connection between the number of dancers on stage and the length of the stanzas. In his Charles Eliot Norton lectures on music composition, published later as Poetics of Music, Stravinsky heralds the creative powers of constraint, observing how absolute formal freedom can often be a kind of creative curse for a composer, and this inspired me to set formal limits to the poem: "And is it not within those strictures that he finds the full flowering of his freedom as a creator? Strength, says Leonardo da Vinci, is born of constraint and dies in freedom."
I was surprised to find that once the structure was there, the content simply arrived to fill it. I decided to keep Balanchine's original 1941 title for the ballet, Balustrade, because it's perhaps suggestive of this kind of architectural focus, while also being a little mysterious. Balanchine cleverly set two incredibly evocative duets between two "social" dances. I knew that I didn't want the poem to be "about" the ballet, but to be thinking about ideas of togetherness and collectivity, both in individual relationships and in groups.
Balanchine described dancers as “poets of gesture.” How does that line resonate with you given this assignment?
I've often found dance and poetry to be two of the most esoteric of art forms, the forms which many people say they don't "understand" or are "difficult" to comprehend. I think this is because they both use vocabulary (language and gesture/steps) to create a kind of associative field of images and relationships. I think it's funny that I've been attracted to studying these forms over, say, theater or fiction. The narrative is in there, but it is up to the viewer or reader to construct it. As I watched the ballet, I was flooded with images. Some of them made their way into this poem.