By Barry Johnson
Back in the days of beatniks, maybe coffeehouse collisions involving a poet, a dancer and a bongo player occurred. I'm thinking of Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer's famous cavorting dancer and imagining an intense poet growling incomprehensibly behind her as she improvises in space.
But the poetry/dance/music combo is a rare one, which is what attracted me to the performance of A Ghost in the Room with Us by Incorporamento, the collaboration of poet David Biespiel, dancer/choreographer Gavin Larsen and pianist/composer Joshua Pearl, in the 2011 Fertile Ground Festival. The previous work of the participants was a draw, too: Biespiel is a fine poet who writes an illuminating poetry column in The Oregonian; Larsen just retired as a principal dancer for Oregon Ballet Theatre: and Pearl has worked with Levon Helm (The Band), Peter Schickele (PDQ Bach) and Kate Pierson (B52s), among others. I figured they had a chance of making this peculiar arrangement work. (I didn't see last year's collaboration, which is excerpted in the short video below.)
Incorporamento's "A Ghost In The Room With Us" Teaser from Salamander & Co on Vimeo.
They didn't disappoint: I've never seen anything quite like A Ghost in the Room with Us, and after seeing it, I wanted to see more of what these three artists can create together -- deep, complex and satisfying.
The main problem in a dance/music/poetry combination is the poetry. A good poem usually uses language in a very particular way, a way that requires all of our attention if we have any chance of figuring it out, especially when it's read to us. I say "us," but really I just mean "me." I have a devil of a time keeping a whole poem in mind as the individual lines come streaming out at me. So a poem that works with dance and music, which both distract from the poetry, has to be more like a song lyric -- simpler, maybe repetitive, with clear intent, imagery, meaning.
The material that Biespiel brought to the collaboration was spot on. I hesitate to quote them, because my shorthand and memory aren't that good and I have no idea where the line breaks fall, but the poems proved to be adaptable to the other forms -- and they added a level of intimacy, personal and interior, that dance and music have a hard time reaching by themselves.
For Larsen, specifically, Biespiel's bird imagery (a bird flies around the room) proved to be important. The solo dances she performed, choreographed with Josie Moseley, involved both circulating and winging around the Conduit performing space. Larsen is grounded in ballet, of course, which you could tell from the careful placement of her feet in ballet positions, the fan of fingers, the effortless pirouettes, the perfect tiny rhythmic flourishes of her legs. Here, though, those were accompanied by the expressiveness of early Modern Dance, collapses to the floor that looked Graham-esque, for example, or traveling phrases reminiscent of Jose Limon. Moseley draws on these resources for her work, and they fit well with traditional ballet.
One interesting effect. Larsen is a splendid dancer, and her body is an instrument that can project to the last row of a 3,000-seat theater. I've seen her do it with OBT. In the Conduit studio, in certain moments, I thought I was sitting in the front row of a movie theater, staring up at a giant screen. I could only focus on one element at a time -- the muscles in her calves, say, a single arm gesture -- because the whole was too much to encompass. It was an odd though not uncomfortable feeling, and it wasn't persistent -- just something I wouldn't have expected.
So, with the traditional poetry of Biespiel and the classical dance of Larsen, Pearl chose to add music that was also traditional, mostly -- melodic and pleasantly harmonic. A prolonged blues in the middle was especially good at linking poetry and dance, and I also heard elements that sounded hymn-like and the staccato of more contemporary art music. Not that everything he did was about linking -- Pearl has an intensity of his own that came out in his solo passages -- but music, of these three forms, is the most atmospheric. The "wrong" music would have doomed the collaboration, and Pearl's choice of music that was beautiful and accessible without losing its intrinsic interest was adept.
After A Ghost in the Room with Us ended, Biespiel, Pearl and Larsen answered audience questions, and we learned that they had worked on the piece for about a year, gradually devising a process for working together that integrated all of their work. Biespiel talked about writing poems that he thought would work for the "band" and Pearl said that the composition involved some "chance" procedures (a common modernist technique) to change up the emphasis on control of their various classical traditions. Pearl said that the line between composition and improvisation was always fluid, which proved a very useful description for me.
Larsen said that the process had made her "delve deeper" and "be braver," both physically and stylistically. Onstage, the three seemed in touch with each other, and the work shows that they have learned a lot about adapting to each others' discipline.
In its third year, the Fertile Ground Festival has already had some important consequences. One of them is to provide a performance "target" date for collaborations such as Incorporamento, the sort of ambitious and risky work that needs an umbrella to flourish. The show repeats at 6 pm, Sunday, January 30 at Conduit.
Here's the video of last year's performance. Thanks to Ken in the comments below for the link!
Incorporamento Jan 31, 2010 performance from Salamander & Co on Vimeo.