by a rawlings
Mark My Words: Text and Movement
“Dance is an art in space and time. The object of the dancer is to obliterate that.” – Merce Cunningham
“Inscribe the breath of the whole woman.” – Hélene Cixous (The Laugh of the Medusa)
To mark, in literature, means to write down or note. In dance, to mark means to roughly approximate learned choreography without full effort. In the following sections, I loosely mark questions surrounding the synergy between text and movement, the potential relationship between poetry and choreography.
Reader As Dancer
How does a reader engage physiologically with a text when she reads? How does reading enact a choreography on the body? How does a person assimilate text into the body?
A reader may flit her eyes over a page, trace a sentence with her finger, mouth the words she reads, crack a book’s spine open with pressure from her hands. She may use her index finger to click or scroll through online text. She may nod her head, laugh, gesture in response to text she reads. Her breathing may increase if alert, if concerned, if aroused. Conversely, the monotonous pattern of reading across a page, tunneling down and down to the end of a page, may lull her to sleep.
A reader is a dancer as she interacts with a text, navigating the material structure of the book and the visual structure of words printed on a page. As a dancer, the reader’s subtle movement through text breathes life into the still, fixed presence of the printed glyphs. She engages with the spatial existence of a text, invites it to occupy her body, to animate her own cells. Time passes.
Examples of the movement-language connection include sign language, gesture, ears listening, eyes watching, eyes moving with text, finger tracing sentence, flipping page of a book, clicking links on a screen, typing on a keyboard or typewriter, mouthing the words while reading, moving to the rhythm of stressed syllables in speech. When I read left to right, I occasionally catch words above and below the line, words coming ahead and words I’ve just finished. I wonder: what are other ways a reader moves with a text?
When I read, do I hear the words dictated in my mind? Here, does my brain awaken mirror cells that reflect speech acts, flickering to attention diaphragmatic breathing that simulates the breath needed to pronounce, as if the text was actually pronounced? How does the body mark, sketch, or lightly mimic/enact the spoken elements of text read on a page? How does the body mark the semantic content of a text; if a character smiles, would a reader’s lip muscles twitch?
How does my body dialogue with written text, choreographing my responses in head nods, pages turned by hands? How does my reading-body signal to itself when it needs to shift to a more comfortable position? When I speak, recite, read, how do I gesture or use my body to assist transmission of information? How does an audience member interpret (subconsciously or consciously) a poem through the body that transmits it and what the body is doing, wearing, etc.?
As a listener, how and when do I shift my body’s position? And why? When do I lean forward or away? When do I cross my arms or legs? When do I adjust my seated position on a chair? How do these behaviors react or relate to textual content?
At First Glance
When I first look at the page, to where is my eye drawn? I have been trained as an English reader to commence reading in the upper left corner of a page. However, when I first encounter a page, my eyes rapidly take in information about the page. This is largely a subconscious reading act. My initial scan might take in the overall shape of the text on a page, its placement within space.
My initial scan might note typographic emphases (bolded or enlarged text) or anomalies (orphaned words or glyphs). To bring awareness to my own reading habits, I will sometimes run myself through the following exercise.
1) Look at a page for less than three seconds, and then hide it.
2) Write down the first things I noticed about the page. Was it a title? Was it the overall shape of the text on the page? Was there a word or phrase that immediately caught my attention?
3) What does the text’s graphic form suggest might be in its content? Are there typographical choices that set apart section of the text from others? Have italics/bold/underline been employed to make a word/phrase stand out? Are any words orphaned by space, surrounded by space, left on lines of their own? Is the page only blank save for clusters of characters?
4) Considering these first things I noticed, what might I surmise about the text’s content? What preconceptions about the text inform my entrance into reading the text?
The Rhythm Correlative
What, in music, encourages a body to move? Is it an interpreted rhythm? Is it pitch variance? Do these elements not exist in speech acts, with syllabic accents, intonation, inflection? How do my vocal chords enact a dance in how they move as they pronounce? How do I engage my diaphragm and breathing apparatus in order to facilitate speaking? Is this not movement, and is it not structured physical improvisation? Is a poem written, edited, rehearsed, repeated not an act of verbal choreography, the body learning how to engage physically to produce a series of movements that result in sound?
I have a practice at poetry readings of engaging with the audible text by keeping rhythm with stressed syllables, kinetically mimicking the text’s rhythm by nodding my head or tapping a finger or swirling a hand or bouncing a knee. In the way that the rhythm and flow of music inspires a dancer to move, I would like to write a poetry that similarly encourages movement in the performer, in the reader, in the listener. What would a poem be like that awakes its reader to the extent where he or she is compelled to move because of the music inherent within the text?
Writer As Choreographer
How can a page act as choreographic notation? How can a page act as a stage for words? How does a writer choreograph the overall field of a page? Is this choreography a
chronological act? How could a page’s overall topology provide an aerial notation for choreography? How could a page be considered a two-dimensional representation of a traditional proscenium-arch stage, of a black box, etc.?
How does a writer choreograph the movement of letters within the flow and syntax of a sentence? How could a choreographer translate these glyphic movements from the page to the stage? Think about the meter (scansion) of a line, and how this rhythm could translate into the rhythm of movement. How can a choreographer look at the flow of a sentence for its linguistic visual or sonic material rather than (or in addition to) its semantic content?
Interpreter As Choreographer
What is my path through the text? What do I first notice on a page? It may be a portion of text that appears typographically anomalous (a bolded title, a one-sentence paragraph) or I may notice the overall impression of a text (its shape or mass on a page, its relationship to white space). How does what I notice first influence or impact how I read a text? How conscious am I of my path through a text and how my path informs my interpretation of a text? How could a choreographer enact the reading and interpretation process in physical, 3D space?
When I read left to right, I tend to catch words above and below in the next line, words coming ahead and words I’ve just finished. How can this experience of reading be captured or replicated in choreographic translation of a text in performance?
Where is the eye first drawn on a page? This may be an excellent place from which to start movement. Or perhaps the shape of the letters may prove impulse for how to commence the dance.
How could a poem be used as choreographic notation? What is lifted from the page in a choreographic gesture?
• Chronologically, choreograph the physical/visual properties of each letter in succession.
• Choreograph the larger emotional or semantic impression of a text.
• Choreograph chronologically based on the spoken rhythm of the text.
• Choreograph based on the visual shape of the text on the page.
• Choreograph based on how a reader’s eyes travel through the page.