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Poems of Gesture: Voices


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 Alexei Ratmansky's Voices, from poet Marie Howe.


Daniel said, oh that last one that pierced me, and put his hand
on his own chest.    Those single dancers, he said, 

breaking out into those pure essential moves.
Molly said, you mean turning leap  turning leap turning leap?

Victoria said, I liked those four guys sweeping through.
Liz said they were wonderful but they did mess up what the women

were doing.      Molly said, what were the women doing? 
Liz said, each of them seemed to be working on something.

Molly said, I didn’t see that. Daniel said, I loved the elemental 
the pure gesture --oh my god, those dancers.   

Liz said, Yes, Brio!  A crowd pleaser, everyone claps.  Adam said, 
Why shouldn’t we clap?  It’s astonishing!.  

Victoria said I don’t know it seemed the four men swept up the women 
in a lovely way, a rest or a rescue.

Liz said I’m not saying it was aggressive but it was disruptive.  
Adam said, the piano  was disruptive, but I liked it. 

Molly said, T he music blocked out women’s voices-that worried me.
Adam said I didn’t notice that; anyway I couldn’t understand the voices.

Liz said, one was speaking in Japanese, another in French.
Molly said, really?  I didn’t hear that.

Liz said, that’s ok, you see what you see; you hear what you hear..
Victoria said it’s a relief not to have to make sense of thing, isn’t it?

Molly said I loved sitting in the dark delighted by what I could not ever do.
Daniel said, me too.  Adam said me too.

Molly said, what is the word for that sound toe shoes make ?
Victoria said, When they step a little on point?  That’s called bouree

Molly said, That’s the word for it?  But what is the word for the sound
of it?   What is the word for that lovely sound?

Marie Howe was the New York State Poet Laureate between 2012 and 2014. In 2017, she released her fourth book of poetry, Magdalene: Poems. Her poems have appeared in The New YorkerThe AtlanticHarvard ReviewThe Paris Review, and Poetry, among others. Explore her creative vision behind this poem in her response to our inquiries on the process of writing this poem, below.

I was not someone who attended the ballet — 

When I was a girl I was brought to lessons, and as I was a shy girl and awkward 

in my body the lessons frightened me—the teacher frightened me—and having to

leap across the floor alone with everyone watching.  

I'd  been to some ballet of course throughout the years but couldn't understand the pull some of my friends felt,

friends who went often every season. 

When I was asked to write the poem I asked a friend who attends regularly to show me

dances by the choreographers I was about to see.    She spoke at length as I watched

and gave me some ways to look—to see.

But I was not prepared for the JOY I felt the night I attended.     Joy from beginning to end.

Joy so much that I laughed out loud several times.    How could the audience sit so still?

Such beauty, such wit!  I was flooded with Joy and could not find any words at all for what

I had seen.    My friend, Victoria, a dancer, said, go small—write about a foot, an arm.   But

I couldn't do that.    I struggled for days and then asked to go again.    And again JOY.  dumb joy

uneducated joy.   But this time I saw more.  and still what stayed with me were the conversations

we had on that first ride home—riding the subway with friends we'd bumped into at the ballet.

Everyone had different things to say, different aspects they loved.   And I, as the beginner, had

questions.     The poem insisted on recording those voices.   ( One of the dances was called Voices)

Human gesture often occurs in what we say and how we say it ( as a leg lifted,  a body leaping) and

the mix of voices, in response to the evening, seemed most to enact the experience of watching the dances—

together and separately—to be the ballet after the ballet if you will—choreographed and ordered days later

into utterance, lineation,  sound and silence. 

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