Poems of Gesture: The Shaded Line
April 21, 2020,
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 Lauren Lovette's The Shaded Line, from poet Brenda Shaughnessy.
After The Shaded Line by Lauren Lovette
Who would believe she was not the pink
cloud, rainy and perfect
in the hot light circling
the dark center
of everyone’s eyes?
Not me, if I hadn’t seen.
To see what we believe: performance.
To be what we need: belief.
(I believe I needed to see her
to know what I needed to see.)
And there she was:
black shoes, white shirt,
no skirt, no friends.
No flood of tulle to pull
her down to drown with the other birds
who can’t fly till thrown into air.
She throws, and the music rose,
to lift her lifting.
It’s not a gift. It cost everything.
In case you thought it was easy.
A woman’s body is born to be,
born for her to be in.
It should be a given. It’s not
born to wear, to wear out,
worn out, warned, contorted.
A dress is not address, where you live.
A dress is addressed to you, yes,
assigned to you, but not a sign you’re you.
So why should the dancer’s body
tell only one side of one story?
Why not change my mind like a dress—
like the wind changes trees.
A woman is not a tree
but she can lift the wind
with her limbs.
A dancer wise and rising
with the breath that is music
riding the air—what does she wear?
Why must it matter? Does it fly her?
Does it let her move
like animals in their skins?
Where has she been?
Lifting women and leaving shoes
as she crosses the strange wide water
between flower and force
flow of blood and air,
smudge and rise and curve and bow
and flex and push and hide and widen
I’ve always wondered what a dancer might do
if her feet were as free as hands
waving goodbye, waving come in.
Brenda Shaughnessy has authored five books of poetry including her most recent, The Octopus Museum. She teaches creative writing at Rutgers University and served as a 2013 Guggenheim Foundation Fellow. Her poetry has appeared in Best American Poetry, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Paris Review, and elsewhere. Read our exclusive Q&A with Brenda 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?
Ballet always struck me as such an extreme artform in so many ways–extreme formality and tradition, extreme athleticism and rigor, combining to create the ultimate expression of grace and artistry. Sometime in the 80's in Los Angeles, I was a young teenager in the age of the brand-new MTV, and I saw the film White Nights, which led me to beg my mother to take me to see Mikhail Baryshnikov in Romeo and Juliet at the Shrine Theater. In this way Classical music, theater and dance found its way into my life.
Beyond later structuring the ballet you saw into a poem — into language — what was your immediate visceral reaction to it?
I was stunned to see a ballet that so overtly and fearlessly critiqued gender roles/norms in ballet/life. I felt an absolute rush of recognition and identification–and astonishment that Georgina Pazcoquin's beautiful dancing could so eloquently and powerfully articulate Lauren Lovette's gender critique in The Shaded Line. I had never seen a passionate ideology choreographed nor danced with such nuance and pathos. I was electrified! Part of me inwardly shouting "yes, yes!" and part of me wondering, "but *how* are they communicating this so clearly?"
What was your process for this particular assignment? Was there anything different or surprising about that process?
It was difficult to get my thoughts organized to write a poem line-by-line. If my art form were, say, a mandala or a sculpture it would have been easier–something less linear and more physical than a poem. The dance piece made my thoughts explode, and not in word form–more like fractals or fronds or fireworks. So, piecing together words felt painful, even redundant. Lauren Lovette already articulated it all so perfectly through Pazcoquin and the cast. I didn't want to write a poem like it was a review. It was an uncomfortable process–but it taught me.
Balanchine described dancers as “poets of gesture.” How does that line resonate with you given this assignment?
I've long puzzled over this phrase. I think it means that poets write truth (emotional or lived or narrative truth) in a form that tries to make words "be" beauty. And that dancers similarly communicate using beauty, embodying beauty, by making the body speak truthfully what needs to be said, and to "be" truth. The gesture is a form native to both poetry and dance—it's a physical action that communicates; it is being and speaking at once. Dancers use the body (and the body uses music) to deliver their truth/beauty spectra, and poets use words (and music carries, as a body carries, those words) to deliver ours.